CLA Midands blog: Wildfire risk this summer

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CLA Midlands Rural Surveyor John Greenshields looks at the threat wildfires pose to our uplands

Having grown up north of the border, the periodic Muirburn is a familiar sight, an event that causes me no distress as I know that it's being professionally managed.

What I have not been confronted with- and I hope that I never am - is an uncontrolled upland fire which has been inadvertently created. Whether the source is a cigarette which hasn’t been properly extinguished (as was the case in one large Peak District wildfire in 2021), embers from a campfire or a disposable BBQ the results are, unfortunately, the same. A devastating fire the can destroy huge areas of carbon-rich peat and excellent wildlife habitat.

The value of our Uplands and why they must be protected

Despite peatland only representing about 3% of the globe’s land it stores approximately a third of all soil carbon.

2021 study by Duke University

One of the more valuable habitats within our uplands is peatland. According to a 2021 study by Duke University in America, despite peatland only representing about 3% of the globe’s land it stores approximately a third of all soil carbon. Protecting these areas from intense uncontrolled wildfires is an essential tool to keep Carbon locked up. As a study by the University of Cambridge noted that in most soils about 70% of the soil Carbon is vulnerable to fire, and particularly uncontrolled wildfires which are allowed to reach intense heat.

In addition to this benefit, avoiding intense uncontrolled wildfires that can decimate large areas will protect our nations wildlife. As our uplands are home to a huge range of biodiversity and species which you would struggle to find anywhere else. With the UK playing host to approximately 75% of the world’s heather moor it is vital we take steps to protect it. Steps that both the general public and land managers should undertake.

While this is not an exhaustive list of benefits that can only be found in the uplands it will remind members about how special the uplands are and indicate to the wider public about why we must all take responsibility to protect the countryside. This is without neglecting benefits such as public access and views, which is why many value places like the Peak District so highly. But these will disappear if these areas become ravaged by wildfire.

Some of the benefits I have highlighted may be considered innate to members, but these items are becoming more politically important as their value to society is beginning to be understood. As such, the Government is driving for payments to be made to land managers to reflect the maintenance of these assets which have an indirect benefit to all society.

This value will be reflected in future ELMS payments and potentially Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) payments as well as payments for Carbon Units. These different payments should reflect the cost of maintenance of the land over the years of the agreement. The payments for BNG and Carbon Units will be open to negotiation but it will be within a competitive market.

For more information about each of these avenues please visit the CLA website, or contact your regional adviser.

Steps you should consider

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Protecting moorland from intense uncontrolled wildfires is an essential tool to keep carbon locked up

As with all land management our jobs is to juggle competing land interests, in order to produce the best possible outcome. In our uplands we need to consider how remote an area is, its composition and public access routes when contemplating what are the appropriate management steps.

There are several steps that you should consider in order to reduce the risk of there being an incident and to reduce the severity of any wildfire.

  • We strongly recommend that you contact your local Fire Service. Invite them out so they can familiarise themselves with the area and provide laminated plans with access points and appropriate annotations, such as place names that you use but aren’t present on OS maps, to help in an emergency.
  • Contact your neighbours; it will be in everyone’s benefit to have each other’s contact details, roughly know the land in case your neighbour is away on holiday during a fire and get to know each other’s skills along with their equipment. This includes items such as industrial leaf blowers to move material and vacuum tanks that can spray water to help create fire breaks.
  • Put up signs that ask for people to not use disposable BBQs/light fires, lanterns and to ensure that cigarettes are properly extinguished.
  • There are some specialist insurance policies out there that can be utilised to help you in an emergency. This can include the use of an helicopter.
  • There is growing evidence that having livestock on uplands can help, as livestock will help improve the soil organic matter content and can help improve plant biodiversity, whilst preventing the establishment of certain woody species. Unfortunately livestock have a bad name due to overgrazing rather than looking to use livestock like moving herds to mimic natural migration as would have been the case for time immemorial. Despite the obvious management issues in the uplands there are now some options that could be looked at. GPS no-fence collars and mobile electric fencing, which may only be a viable option in small areas, could be tools to help increase the uplands resilience to wildfires. However these management practices have not yet been extensively tested, or at least not to my knowledge, over a long duration in the uplands to provide any interesting case studies.

Of course, protecting our uplands from wildfires will have secondary benefits in that the ground will be in a better position to absorb excess water, without having the soil eroded during periods of heavy precipitation to protect areas from flooding downstream.

I am happy to talk through the implications raised in this blog with CLA members in the Midlands, and welcome your feedback.

CLA Midlands Rural Surveyor John Greenshields

Key contact:

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John Greenshields Rural Surveyor, CLA Midlands