BY JIM WEBSTER
On the twelfth of February a friend of mine posted a quite spectacular photo of a fire on Dartmoor:
This is an accident waiting to happen. Winter wildfires are not unusual. At the same time firefighters were tackling a fire near the Cogra Moss reservoir, in West Cumbria (hence the photo from one of our local papers.) In Scotland, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) was called to reports of wildfires on the islands of Benbecula, Harris and Lewis.
I heard on the radio a senior Scots fire officer discussing the Scots cases. This happened whilst much of the country was covered in quite deep snow. (Canadians, you would not have bothered clearing the drive). The fire officer commented that it was not uncommon for his men to drive through snow on their way to tackle these fires.
He pointed out that the basic problem is that whilst we think of our winters as being wet, in reality things can get very dry. That is something I can empathise with. Here in our bit of Cumbria, if we relied on spring sunshine to dry the ground out, we might be able to travel on much of our land by August. What saves us are those easterly winds we often get in February. They’re cold, they can cause problems with freezing and wind-chill. But often they’re not quite freezing and they are very drying. They’re not fun to live through but we need them.
I remember one year when they forgot to stop. We got to the start of May and grass on the east facing slopes was thin, blue and crispy. It crunched as you walked over it. Grass on lee slopes, facing west, had grown perfectly normally. You could see the difference between different areas in the same field. That was exceptional and gives you an idea of what it’s like when you have too much of a good thing.
Our moorland fires are due to the grass and foliage on them drying out in the easterly winds. Whilst a fortnight before, everything could have been sodden, now it’s tinder dry. So people who wouldn’t even think of discarding a cigarette end or similar in summer don’t see it as a problem in February.
And then there’s the problem of why we have too much grass and foliage. Back in the 1970s and 1980s the EU subsidy systems were based on the numbers of sheep you had. There was a headage payment. As there was virtually no profit in sheep, people were keeping numbers just for the subsidy. Indeed I heard of one outfit where they were buying cull ewes, putting them on rough ground and not tupping them. The last thing they wanted was these ewes lambing. Lambing sheep, looking after lambs – was just a cost. They were doing it purely for the headage payments the EU was paying. This led to overgrazing, which damaged the peat and reduced the heather further.
In the 1990s these schemes were stopped, and indeed a lot of environmental schemes were started with the aim of getting things back to what they had been. Now those in charge are beginning to admit that this hasn’t worked. At the upper levels, the admission has largely been inadvertent and accidental. It came when the government wanted to ‘roll over’ environmental schemes so farmers whose scheme ‘ran out’ before the new system was ready wouldn’t be left without support for their environmental work. Embarrassingly some contracts cannot be rolled over. This is because the scheme hasn’t worked, and standard government accounting procedures forbid rolling over of schemes that aren’t working. This is not unreasonable.
Now if a scheme doesn’t work because a farmer hasn’t kept their side of the bargain, the money is just clawed back. But these didn’t work because the designers of the scheme got it wrong. In many cases the farming industry told them they’d got it wrong at the time, but what do we know. After all, we’re not experts.
The trouble was that a lot of ‘experts’ designing these schemes assumed that if you had a landscape of peatland and heather which had been overgrazed by sheep, then all you needed to do to help that landscape recover was to remove the sheep.
Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. If you massively understock, then you get an entirely different landscape. On Dartmoor the environmental schemes have produced large areas of a grass known as Purple Moor Grass (Latin name is Molinia). Apparently there are thousands of hectares of this stuff, it forms large tussocks which are hard to walk through. Molinia has thrived because whilst cattle find it very palatable between May and July, sheep hate it and avoid areas dominated by it. After July, cattle won’t bother with it either.
In theory the fact that cattle will eat it should be the answer to the problem. Stock the moors heavily with cattle and they’ll start hammering the Molinia and if you work carefully (perhaps with fencing and similar) you could protect the peat and encourage the heather. It’s a pity that hill cattle aren’t economically viable. Even if they were, the difficulty is you have to feed them for twelve months, not just three. So really you’d need to have somebody buying all the big rough bullocks they could find, running them across Dartmoor, making sure to keep them on the Molinia infested areas, and then selling them on at the start of August. You might have to keep it up for a few years, but it would probably work as part of an integrated management system.
Except it would break down because nobody outside the area would buy the cattle when you wanted to sell them because of the risks of bovine TB, so the cattle would need to be finished locally. I suspect it would be cheaper if you had farmers set up the system, working with environmentalists and then just work out how much the farmers lose on it and cover their costs.
But unless you do something, you’ll have the risk of fire every winter, as this Molinia (and don’t forget the gorse as well) dries out and then burns.
The burning grass isn’t as bad as it can get. When it gets really bad is when the peat catches fire. Now winter fires, where the peat should be wet and is with any luck frozen, are hopefully less likely to cause the peat to burn than the summer fires. But once the peat starts burning, then you get major environmental impacts. In 2019 twenty-two square miles of blanket bog in the Flow Country, between Caithness and Sutherland in Scotland, burned. The WWF Scotland study claimed 700,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent was released into the atmosphere as a result. Apparently this was pretty much the same amount released across the rest of Scotland during the same period.
Just to add to your problems, once a peat hag starts burning it can quite literally keep smouldering away for years ready to flare up in the next summer. Planting trees under these circumstances prevents nothing, as the trees can burn as well.
Obviously, Dartmoor, Cumbria and the Western Isles are different areas, but the problems have largely been caused by understocking. It’s been discovered that merely taking sheep off a fell doesn’t return the fell to what it used to be. This isn’t surprising, what it used to be was the result of a management system, not the result of abandonment. Rather than abandoning the land you have to reintroduce the management system which created the environment you want.
Now it’s not as if this is something that has crept up on us without warning. During 2001 and the FMD outbreak, there were a lot of summer fires in Cumbria because there were no sheep to eat off the grass. With the fells being understocked the amount of forage left uneaten simply increases. On Dartmoor it does so because the Molinia spreads, in other areas there are other causes, but the root cause tends to be under-grazing.
So if with climate change we are going for hotter, drier, summers, then summer fires on the fells look like being a more regular occurrence, and they will start getting into the peat.
The answer is not just put a million more sheep on Dartmoor (or wherever) because that won’t fix it either. After all, sheep won’t eat the Molinia. Not only that but what works for Dartmoor won’t necessarily work for Cumbria. Indeed what works for the valleys in the west of the Lake District may not work for those in the east. So we need somebody to draw up environmental schemes with enough flexibility to do something entirely different in one part of the country to what can be done in others. So schemes that have prescriptive dates or tight conditions everybody has to meet are right out.
Now the fact that the Government can now come up with a bespoke scheme for the UK, rather than having to try and take a scheme which is designed to cover everything from Finland to the Greek Islands, must surely be an advantage.
I await with interest to see whether our civil service are up to the job.
Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quad-bikes and dogs) It’s available here.