Gamekeepers across Scotland have been stepping up their efforts ahead of the grouse season to ensure the country’s heather-clad moorlands provide favourable habitat for ground-nesting wildlife and safeguards against wildfires.
Wildfires can devastate acres of moorland in a matter of hours; moorland which provides much needed habitat to a host of ground nesting bird species such as the grouse, lapwing, golden plover and the globally threatened Curlew, now acknowledged as the UK’s number one conservation priority.
When carried out carefully by professionals, seasonal burning or muirburn provides breaks in continuous moorland cover and reduces fuel load giving opportunities to control wildfires and thereby reducing the amount of damage caused.
The main muirburn season is between 1st October and 15th April and the Scottish Government’s Muirburn Code (currently under review) sets out best practice guidelines for land managers.
Gamekeepers have been busy carrying out seasonal burning and cutting of heather to remove over-dominant vegetation and enable the heather to regenerate healthily which in turn helps prevent wildfires from starting.
Bruce Farquharson is an area manager in the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, he also sits on the Muirburn Code Review steering group.
Commenting on this season’s success Bruce said: “The fire service has access to a fire danger rating system which alerts us to the risk of wildfires based on various factors such as temperature, wind speed and predicted rainfall. So far this year, the incidence of wildfire has been low, but conditions can change very quickly.
“This is, in no small part, due to the good management practises being carried out by grouse moor owners and gamekeepers across Scotland. Seasonal burning and cutting when conducted in adherence of the Muirburn Code is one of the most effective means of significantly reducing the risk of damage from wildfires on moorland.
“Gamekeepers have shown a great understanding and knowledge of the land they manage on a daily basis and the risks and benefits of conducting muirburn. The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service often works in partnership with gamekeepers if a wildfire does break out because keepers have the local knowledge and experience to assist firefighters and such situations can be very resource intensive.
“Good relations and communications between the fire service and gamekeepers at a local level are absolutely key to the Muirburn Code’s success and any ongoing improvements.”
There is currently an army of gamekeepers from Scotland’s regional moorland groups who work together to manage moorland in a way that will limit the spread of wildfire, which can be especially damaging in the warmer, dryer summer months.
A head gamekeeper from the Lammermuirs Moorland Group, said: “Heather cutting with a tractor and swipe is increasingly used for preparing firebreaks around an area to be burnt, reducing the risk of fire spreading and improving the efficiency of the muirburn operation. Heather cutting can also be an alternative in wet or windy conditions where burning is not possible or near to sensitive areas.”
“Many estates have invested tens of thousands into equipment to carry out muirburn in accordance with the Code and this private investment demonstrates how committed moorland managers are to the long-term management of our uplands.”
Balavil Estate, a member of the Speyside Moorland Group, is one of many estates which has also been innovative in its muirburn methods, using leaf blowers as effective tools for managing and controlling fires during the burning season.
Lloyd Humphreys, head gamekeeper on Balavil Estate explained: “Using industrial strength blowers has proven to be an extremely practical method of controlling the direction and duration of burning.
“Like all methods and tools the environment and conditions need to be suitable. Therefore a lot of care is taken when using leaf blowers so as not to blow embers into areas outside the designated burning area. The strength of the blower also needs to be considered as a small model designed for back gardens isn’t likely to be powerful enough. However, when used appropriately this is a very handy piece of equipment which has greatly improved muirburn results for many gamekeepers.”