Burn, baby, burn

Heather burning Great Hograh moor. Photo: Colin Grice
Heather burning Great Hograh moor. Photo: Colin Grice via Wikimedia commons

The burning of heather moorlands to create the right conditions for unnaturally high densities of Red Grouse may be harming the aquatic life in the rivers draining such uplands according to a new study.

The authors, from Leeds University, studied the aquatic animals in 10 rivers in the north of England – five from burned catchments (2 Peak District, 2 North Pennines and 1 Yorkshire Dales) and five from unburned catchments (3 North Pennines, 2 South Pennines).  The study areas were matched, as best as possible, for underlying geology, land use etc.

Burned catchments had different aquatic invertebrate communities than unburned catchments – they were less diverse and had fewer mayflies and more midges and stoneflies.  Their pH was lower and the impacts noticed in this study matched those found in similar studies elsewhere in the world.

The full scientific paper is published by Public Library of Science and is therefore available for all to read (click here).

This type of study is valuable but has its weaknesses compared with other types of study.  Maybe the five burned catchments varied in other respects from the five unburned  ones and so the differences found were not only (or even perhaps not at all) to do with burning.  The authors have tried to minimise this problem by selecting the study areas in a fairly narrow geographical area and making sure the moorlands were pretty similar in other respects (forestry, mining, sheep densities etc) – but you can never be sure.

A stronger line of evidence would be to take an unburned moor and start burning it and see if the same changes came about – but that’s quite an enterprise! And how long would it be reasonable to wait to see whether differences emerged – five years? 10 years? 20 years? longer?

The fact that this study produced similar results to studies elsewhere in Europe and in North America increases its interest, I would say.

It certainly, perhaps unsurprisingly, suggests that management for red grouse can influence the wildlife living in the watercourses draining upland catchments.  Another thing to think about.

Grouse moor showing patchwork of heather of different ages. Photo: Ailith Stewart
Grouse moor showing patchwork of heather of different ages. Photo: Ailith Stewart via Wikimedia commons




10 Replies to “Burn, baby, burn”

  1. The fish in the Gelt have declined dramatically. Recent attempts to encourage Salmon with 36,000 parr was a mistake. The organisers brought the fish, put them in and then turned the stones to look for life. Dead. Goosanders dropped from 3 pairs to nil. Not their fault. Recent flash floods have caused major damage to bankings and one concrete wall which has stood for over 100 years was completely destroyed. New roads were added to the local shoot only 2 years ago. The shooting industry should pay the cost of destroying the SSSI. And yes I did fill in the form.

  2. If heather isn’t burnt regularly is the moorland then more prone to out of control burning? I know some places suffer from this such as the Australian bush. From what I understand deciduous woodland simply will not burn but other plant communities burn naturally. Would be interested in people’s views.

    1. Giles – it would turn into a forest. Forests burn now and again – but when did you last see an Exmoor forest on fire?

      1. Hi Mark, your response seems to assume that large scale dense tree cover (if that is what you mean by forest) is the natural climax vegetation state in these areas – is that really true? It could be than dense woodland cover is just a stage and eventually it might end up with something more similar to what we have now.

        It’s worth remembering that most of the UK is only about 20,000 years old ecosystem wise, prior to that much of it was bare rock so arguably much of the land area has never achieved any kind of balanced end-state even if there is one. Then of course for the last 4,000 or so years it’s been increasingly affected by human activity some possible good some obviously bad. Early industrialisation promoted huge areas of rather artificial but also probably very ecologically rich woodland in the south of England.

        It could be in some areas what you would get is lots of gorse growing first which if completely unmanaged could lead to considerable wildlfires going deep into the peat and causing all sorts of pollution/loss of life and damage to human settlements &c.

        Whatever was on these uplands prior to the current situation might not return because the conditions that lead to it are not now the same. We have altered the predator-prey situation wrt deer which is a major factor, the soil/drainage &c is post forest not pre forest, there are all sorts of effects from human habitation and activities, farming, roads, wind farms &c and of course we have climate change – leading who knows where.

        I don’t personally think we will return to some primeval wilderness and we certainly won;t get there by just “not doing stuff” as some people seem to imagine. That’s not to say I just support the status quo – there is obviously a very real debate around human activities and our ecosystems. We have to find away to preserve and promote human interests in line rather than against those of the ecosystem. That to me is key.

        Round here I suspect that in thousands of years time people will discover a red bull tin and crisp packet in the rock strata. Although it might even become an important mining resource I can’t help but think that the increasing amount of rubbish strewn all over the countryside – not by outsiders but by some of the people that live there – symbolises the fact that a fair number of people do not give a flying @^%$ about any of the issues that people discuss argue over on here. So although your many comment contributors don’t always see eye to eye perhaps we should all bear in mind that most of them probably do give a stuff one way or another.

        1. Giles. We can be fairly sure that the climax vegetation of Britain would mostly be mature woodland (with some clearings due to grazing, wind blow and perhaps burning), plus areas of blanket and raised bog, hydroseres, montane/alpine vegetation and dune systems. This is because we can compare what we have in GB with pristine ecosystems in Europe such as the Bialowieza Forest.

    2. Giles – it would turn into a forest. Forests burn now and again – but when did you last see an Exmoor forest on fire?

  3. It’s not just “unnaturally high densities of Red Grouse” that benefit from heather burning. There’s plenty of science that proves the significant benefit for waders too. And Lord knows, they need all the help they can get.

    Another thing to think about, I suggest.

  4. An unnaturally high density of wildlife criminals too by all accounts hence the lack of Hen Harriers, breeding Peregrines and Short Eared Owls.

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