Muirburn – the controlled, cool burning of heather on Scotland’s moorlands – is becoming ever more important in the fight against wildfires in Scotland, land managers said today.

As the permitted season for muirburn (October 1 to April 15) opens, grouse moors and estates are working with government, conservation groups and Scottish Fire & Rescue Service to continually enhance muirburn procedures and ensure the newest knowledge is at the heart of how land is managed.

The latest science, published in May by Duke University in North Carolina, USA, has concluded high-intensity fires, such as wildfires, can destroy peat bogs and cause them to emit huge amounts of their stored carbon into the atmosphere whilst low-severity fires – such as muirburn – spark the opposite outcome.

Tim Baynes, Moorland Director at Scottish Land & Estates, said: “Muirburn – or heather burning – is a traditional land management practice backed by the latest science and best practice. If muirburn is not carried out then we could gradually lose Scotland’s much-loved heather forever and that would be a tragedy for us and also the species which depend upon it. Grouse thrive in this habitat but so do other bird species – especially curlew, lapwing and golden plover which are low in numbers and are at real risk.

“Now, muirburn is also becoming an ever more important tool in combating wildfires. Scottish Fire & Rescue Service has supported controlled burning which involves lighting small strips of vegetation before they are quickly extinguished. This removes the top layer of old heather growth – reducing fuel load without damaging the land and mosses it sits upon.

“We have seen some huge wildfires across Scotland in recent years including the fire on peatland on part of the Flow Country which is estimated to have released carbon into the atmosphere equivalent to six days’ worth of Scotland’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Had muirburn by skilled practitioners been allowed in this area then there is a chance that wildfire could have been prevented or lessened in severity due to a much reduced fuel load for the fire to spread.

“The Muirburn Code, launched by the Scottish Government in 2017, provides good practice guidance for burning and cutting of vegetation. This code is important for gamekeepers and estates and it prohibits muirburn on deep peat, something which is often misunderstood by those not familiar with the code.

“We are constantly reviewing the latest science on this subject as we strive to contribute to Scotland’s net zero targets. The latest international science from Duke University suggests controlled burning could help reduce carbon loss from peatland and it is something that needs to be closely considered as we continually update our knowledge and practices.”

Iain Hepburn, head gamekeeper at Dunmaglass Estate, part of the Loch Ness Rural Communities, and also a part-time firefighter with the Scottish Fire & Rescue Service, has been engaging with firefighters to share best practice when it comes to tackling wildfires on moorland.

Iain said: “Muirburn largely takes place in the spring and is conducted in line with the Muirburn Code which we fully support. This controlled burning helps hugely in preventing the spread of wildfires and there is an army of gamekeepers on estates across Scotland who work together to stop wildfires which are a real problem in the summer months. Managing vegetation growth is key to tackling wildfires.”

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