To burn or not to burn
Any action or legislation to help wildlife usually results in the division of the public; it may on the outset seem positive, but peer deeper and this optimistic aspect is lost. This particular dilemma was again shown in the mighty Countryfile aired last week which attempted to put a confident spin on controlled burning of heathland moors. I did watch it as they sought to promote its benefits for a range of wildlife, as well as managing the density and height of the heather habitat and enriching the soil. Overtime Calluna (heather) grows taller and contains more hard wood, resulting in fresh shoots being out of reach for the grouse and other wildlife. Therefore intense burning reduces the shrub to ground level. It can be said that in prehistory, humans did undertake burning, not for the grouse, but for charcoal from the underlying peat bogs. These days that isn’t the case and the only honest reason is to help these birds thrive for shooting.
On the outset controlled burning seems like a sensible step to maintain a healthy habitat, removing potential dead wood and encouraging new heather growth. However, what was striking about the television program is that they only focused on birds, raptors, and corvids and more subtly grouse. These I’m afraid are not the only species found in heathland. So ultimately there was an outcry from social media about the animals that were forgotten about. Hedgehogs, snakes and other ground dwelling and hibernating species are often burned alive as they are usually well hidden and remain undetected. It seems a tragic waste for so many creatures to reach their demise because of a hypothetical conservation effort. Therefore to state it is good overall for wildlife to me is rather misleading as it has detrimental impacts on various other species that live in or hibernate in the heathland habitat. One thing that really baffles me is the explanation that older, taller heather with more woody stems can eventually turn into a woodland of some sorts, so burning keeps heathland low level. This could potentially be the case, but it’s at least a natural event.
From these simple images, it is hard to justify this as conservation with so much death. All this for what? Grouse that, ultimately, end up being shot? It sounds like a rather great deal for such a small goal.
The benefits advocated by the authorities that undertake these ‘controlled’ burnings is also rather far-fetched, which is intended to benefit the heathland habitat due to improved nutrient and water levels. The EMBER report (Ember Report) for example states categorically that burning of heathland reduces the organic content of the burned soil, thus reducing chemicals needed for plant growth and development. They state that it reduces the ability for heathers to flourish, which then leads me to the most obvious reason, that it’s really only for grouse. The report also showed that a blackened area influenced the abundance of macro-invertebrates in the local river system, with some increasing dramatically and some decreasing, showing that it has far reaching impacts. Without further research it could be considered to affect river ecosystems, wildlife up the food chain including fish and the wildlife that feeds on them. If there is a major reduction in certain species it must undoubtedly cause reductions in larger species.
Within the British countryside conservation is important with ever increasing impacts on wildlife; it is an essential defence for them. Protecting birds of prey like red kites or foxes from persecution are important. Having different habitat such as heathland available to them is vital for various species of bird’s, mammals, lizards and others to survive and prosper. Therefore to claim it is good to burn patches for everything is simply plain wrong. The small mammals for the birds of prey will not survive such ordeals and therefore it has a negative effect on any of the hunting species. Field mice, hedgehogs aren’t Olympic sprinters and cannot outrun the head of fire especially in the uplands.
Driven Grouse Shooting
This type of problem albeit a solution to improve the habitat is again linked to whether driven grouse shooting is made illegal. From the outset of the initial persecution of raptors, foxes, stouts and various others is enough to make me despise the action of specific game keepers (Image below shows some of these horrendous acts). However, coupling with the already negative foundation, the burning of large areas is another nail in the coffin, which results in the death of thousands of defenceless hedgehogs, snakes and lizards. This endless list of negativeness for wildlife, for me is the final straw. Not only are the larger animals under threat, but now it seems the smaller ones are too.
When I volunteer in my local reserve we don’t go out and burn heather, we thin the birch and other trees around it and that’s it. There is such diverse life there that it’s impossible to make sure nothing is harmed, so how can we say we are doing it with a conservation tone? Protecting the habitat, creating more heathland mixed with woodland is important, not simply burning it to the ground for one simple bird.
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