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Gamekeepers are embracing the new Muirburn Code – and sharing their expertise with fire crews who battle wildfires across Scotland’s countryside.
The official end of this year’s muirburn season (1 October – 15 April) has now been reached – a controlled burning technique which has been used for centuries on moorland to regenerate Scotland’s famous purple heather on our hills whilst protecting against wildfires.
This season, estate owners and gamekeepers have been working to a revised Muirburn Code, launched by the Scottish Government in September 2017, and have been working in partnership with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) to ensure that controlled burning is conducted safely and responsibly.
Controlled seasonal burning and cutting is one of the most effective means of reducing the risk of damage from wildfires by providing breaks in continuous moorland cover and reducing the fuel load.
Iain Hepburn, head gamekeeper at Dunmaglass Estate, part of the Loch Ness Rural Communities, and also a part-time firefighter with the SFRS, has been engaging with firefighters to share best practice when it comes to tackling wildfires on moorland.
Iain said: “We fully support the new muirburn code and recognise the importance of controlled burning on moorland to help in the fight against the risk of wildfire. One of the most effective methods of tackling wildfire is a technique known as ‘back burning’ whereby you control a fire by lighting another in a strategically placed position which then burns towards the wildfire and in turn puts out both fires. This requires a lot of skill and knowledge and the practices we use on the estate can then be shared to the benefit of fire crews and communities in rural areas across the Highlands.”
Alex McKinley, a Wildfire Tactical Adviser for the SFRS based at the North Service Delivery Area headquarters in Inverness, visited Dunmaglass Estate to see the techniques in practice.
Alex said: “The SFRS recognises the cost of tackling wildfires, whilst using key resources that could be diverted from emergencies such as Road Traffic Collision and house fires. The SFRS also recognises that the damage caused by wildfires to the natural habitat can be catastrophic.
“We appreciate that safely managed controlled burning, following the muirburn code, helps create fire breaks which prevent wildfires from spreading. Managing vegetation growth is key to tackling wildfires. Uncontrolled fires are usually caused by failed land management techniques so the SFRS is working in close partnership with land owners and managers to ensure the practice of muirburn is carried out safely and responsibly.”
“We have a number of wildfire tactical advisers ready to be deployed to assist incident commanders to manage wildfires safely and efficiently by predicting fire spread, direction and speed, whilst utilising natural fire breaks and topography to control and extinguish the fire.”
With muirburn curtailed in some parts of the country earlier this year due to heavy snow – including the Beast from the East – there are likely to be extensions to the season on some estates which will be necessary for the vital role controlled burning plays in supporting biodiversity. By regenerating moorland plants and heather, it creates a patchwork of varying ages of heather which provides a renewed food source and suitable habitat to mammals such as deer and mountain hares and ground nesting bird species including grouse, lapwing, golden plover and the globally threatened curlew.
The revised code has also placed more emphasis on soil and water management such as keeping fire-free buffer zones adjacent to water courses and water bodies. Specific guidance on burning for grazing has also been outlined and more emphasis placed on the potential of cutting, in addition to, or as a replacement to burning. Burning should only take place on peatland more than 50cm in depth as part of a restoration plan, with Scotland’s peatlands one of the county’s most important natural assets in capturing carbon, improving water quality and supporting biodiversity.
Iain continues: “There are however some elements of the new code that, in my opinion, need to be reviewed in terms of the practical aspect including the provisions surrounding burning on deep peat and the clearance zone of burning near a water source as this would not allow back burning to take place in that area. However, for the majority of it, gamekeepers have been finding the new code to be working fine, acting as a basis for best practice burning and cutting of vegetation.”
Ronnie Kippen, head gamekeeper on Garrows Estates in Perthshire, part of the Tayside and Central Scotland Moorland Group, has been a pivotal figure on the muirburn review steering group.
Commenting on the revised Muirburn Code, Ronnie said: “We’ve found the new code is working well in most aspects. Our equipment on this estate is second to none and because we have the expertise and the management techniques it means the fires don’t burn out of control. Grouse moors don’t have a problem with wild fires – it’s a long-established technique.
“I’ve been carrying out muirburn since the 1970s and the environmental benefits are clear. The sphagnum moss benefits from rotational heather burning and so do mountain hares and waders. On our estate we have curlew, golden plover, snipe and peewit faring well. Managed grouse moors are by far the best habitat for these birds because of the young heather, which is where they make their nests.
“We would, however, like to see a reappraisal of the Code’s guidance around burning on deep peat – a properly controlled ‘cool burn’ undertaken by trained keepers can rejuvenate plants without damaging the peat, as has been shown as Glenwherry in Antrim. This would be vastly preferable to a wildfire taking hold with a high fuel-load which would cause real difficulties.”