Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Wildfire in Galloway

There was a large wildfire incident in Galloway on 15th & 16th April.  The size has been reported as being 3mls x 2mls.  The details are emerging slowly and I am hoping for a report from the Dumfries & Galloway Fire & Rescue Service, later today.  First indications are that this was a management fire on a farm that got out of control.  

This incident, which is far from being alone, serves to highlight the wildfire danger at the moment.  It may not be as hot and sunny as two weeks ago but the vegetation is still very dry and once ignited will burn vigorously.

We have reached that time of year when the vegetation is at its driest, before the sap rises, and when the risk of wildfire incidents is at its height.  In all parts of the UK, apart from in Scotland above 450m (1,500ft) the heather burning, swaling or muirburn season has finished.  However, we need to maintain vigilance to avoid wildfire incidents that can be extensive and very damaging at this time of year.

After a wildfire incident, as occurred in Galloway, questions are rightly asked about how a repeat event can be avoided.  There is often a call for tighter regulation or a ban on burning.  These are very negative and ineffective ideas.  I am convinced that the non-regulatory approach is the best.  Regulations are almost impossible to enforce in a moorland situation and I believe that we will achieve more through better guidance.  Good guidance through well produced and targeted codes of practice is much more likely to achieve the required results.  I am hoping to lead the review of the Muirburn Code in Scotland and I have been asked to assist Defra with a review of the Heather & Grass Burning Code in England that is 5-years old this year.  Relevance of these codes, and those in other parts of the UK to landowners and managers is something we can improve on and I am sure this will reduce the number of runaway management fires.

In Dumfries & Galloway, I helped to start a Fire Group in 2007, but this withered and died due to a lack of support for it from the agencies and a lack of funding.  After this fire in Galloway, and the earlier one on Criffel (see the previous entry in this Blog), perhaps the D&G Fire Group will appear to offer better value for money.  A fire group does not need lots of expensive equipment; it is there to provide support, coordination and guidance for landowners, land managers, the agencies and the fire & rescue service.  This does not require vast funds but it does require effort and commitment.  The Scottish Wildfire Forum is available to coordinate the work of the fire groups, but this also needs to properly resourced. 

I will provide extra detail about this fire, if it is relevant.  Meanwhile I am in Devon preparing to chair a meeting of the England & Wales Wildfire Forum tomorrow.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Bracken Control - 2012 and beyond

The Bracken Control Group was established to act as a focus for all bracken issues.  Although the final trigger for its establishment was the ban on the main chemical control agent, asulam, the need for a group to bring together all management and research issues had been recognised for some time.  

website has been established.  A newsletter is being produced and previous versions can be found on the News Page of the website - there is a sign up option at the foot of each Newsletter. 

In response to the ban on asulam, the group will be spearheading the application process for the emergency authorisations so that existing aerial spraying programmes can continue and new ones start.

In 2012, bracken control by helicopter is available and the aerial spraying contactors are looking for work.  However, anyone wanting their services should contact their normal company as soon as possible.  The authorisation process has changed, this year, and this is likely to introduce delays to the application process.  On top of this, the new regulations will not be approved until the end of May, at the earliest. 

The message is simple: 
  • Asulam has been banned but stocks can be used up during 2012 
  • Anyone wanting to use a helicopter to spray bracken in 2012, must contact the aerial spray company now; and
  • Emergency authorisations offer a route to allow aerial spraying programmes to continue from 2013 onwards.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Natural England scraps the Upland Vision

Photo: Farmers Weekly
See the article in Farmer's Weekly. The form of the policy that will follow the Upland Vision remains to be seen, but I have offered my support for the upland delivery review programme.  I will welcome the promised push for the agency to work more closely and effectively with farmers and upland communities.

We need regulation, research and experience to be valued equally and to work to common goals.

My test for success is to stand overlooking an area of uplands and to ask have we got this right?  If not (as is most often the case) the next questions are: what do we want to do about it and what is stopping us?

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Heather eligibility

Emotions have been running high about the heather eligibility debate.  In the article in this week's Scottish Farmer, Alyn Smith, MEP argues for a pragmatic, non-emotive response to the proposals.  This must be a more sensible approach - work with the system not against it.

The rather more alarmist article in the Press & Journal on 17 March  has been used in the Outer Hebrides as justification for some large fires.  This is an attempt to remove the problem of long, ineligible heather by using fire.  This is not something that will help the argument.  Only a snapshot of the P&J article is available online but it gives a flavour for the full article.

I reported on the system introduced in Northern Ireland in my earlier Blog article, and perhaps I strayed into the more emotive camp.  However, it is an issue of fundamental importance for the management of Scotland's hills and moors and it is essential that we can maintain management of these areas by all the available means.  There are only three methods - mouth, match or machine - and we do not need to lose one.