The very dry spring many of us have had has created tinderbox conditions in the uplands and this week a spark, probably from a barbecue or a firework, set light to Marsden Moor at the northern end of the Peak District. The scale of the devastating fire that followed, which covered two square miles, was the result of the dry weather, irresponsible behaviour, but also the decision of the National Trust to stop managed burning on the moor.
The Trust is extremely defensive about its policy of not allowing controlled burning which has been used for centuries to manage upland landscapes and, crucially, to reduce the fuel load on moors, making wildfires less likely and more manageable when they do occur.
The National Trust claims that it “uses machinery to cut vegetation breaks which reduce the spread of fire” and “plant sphagnum moss to help hold water in the areas that have been cut, which helps to further reduce fire risk”. Cutting, whilst it can be a useful management tool, does not reduce the fuel load on moors and whilst the Trust may believe alternative management reduces fire risk, the second serious wildfire on Marsden Moor in two years suggests otherwise.
Being able to use controlled burning, which removes fuel load without impact on peat, where it is appropriate and effective would give managers at Marsden Moor the flexibility to address the threat of wildfire flexibly and proactively alongside cutting, rewetting and other management approaches. It is hard to resist the conclusion that the Trust’s complete ban on burning is a political — rather than a practical position — which ties the hands of those who look after the moor.
Meanwhile, the challenge of managing access to the uplands provides the other part of the wildfire conundrum. For all the demands for open access and a right to roam, there is an uncomfortable truth which we probably do not talk about enough: a significant minority of those who use access rights do so irresponsibly and create a risk to wildlife and landscapes. The reticence in discussing this comes both from landowners and farmers, who are concerned about being labelled as reactionary and ‘anti-access’, and from access groups who obviously do not want to have to admit that increased access brings with it an increased impact on biodiversity and the environment. Neither group therefore wants to discuss the reality that the best thing for many sensitive habitats and their wildlife is that as few people go to them as possible.
On our crowded island, however, substantial restrictions on access to the countryside are not feasible, so we are left to manage access and mitigate its impact. Critical to that in the future, at least, must be education. Even if we despair at being able to change the behaviour of those who currently think it is acceptable to set light to moors, let unmanageable dogs chase livestock and decorate country lanes with energy drink cans, surely the generation of Greta Thunberg and eco-awareness will be different. If the Countryside Code is taught alongside carbon reduction, and environmental responsibility embraces the local environment, not just the global one, then perhaps there is room for optimism that in the future access to the countryside can be enjoyed responsibly by all.