Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Howth Peninsula, Dublin Bay

Howth Peninsula, Dublin Bay
In December, I was invited to visit the Howth Peninsula, which is on the northern side of Dublin Bay. Travel plans were disrupted by the cancellation of the key train to Manchester Airport for the satisfyingly brief encounter with RyanAir. The trusty car had to take the strain and I just made it, but using all available modes of transport, against the clock, is all part of the HT role.

On arrival, my host from Fingal County Council whisked me to a hotel and left me to meet representatives of the Irish Upland Forum. I have had some fleeting contact with this Forum before, but it was great to meet two representatives in person and exchange views about the uplands. I was intrigued to learn about the work they are doing to encourage cells of activity around the whole island of Ireland.

The following morning, I got on with the main job of inspecting the Howth Peninsula. The challenge was to review the state of the vegetation and come up with some ideas for how it might be better managed. Traditionally, the peninsula appears to have been managed mainly by grazing activity but this is no longer taking place at a level that has a significant impact. There is no planned burning, but there is potential for plenty of unplanned burning, and much of the area is inaccessible anything but the most rugged cutting machinery. Add into the mix that there are large numbers of expensive houses along the coast, a golf course, a rhododendron sanctuary, a quarry, many tracks and footpaths, critical infrastructure (in the form of radio masts and the instrument landing system for Dublin Airport, which is close by) and you can get a feel for why management of this area is a challenging undertaking.   
The Golf Course provides a diverse habitat 
There was an interesting range of people on the visit but there was a consensus that the re-introduction of grazing should form part of the future management plans, including the use of goats. Some burning could take place and those areas, where some machinery access is possible, should be cut. Health and safety is a major concern for cutting operations and it was suggested that the potential to use robotic cutting machinery, which can be very robust, could be explored.

This was a very interesting visit, as it required a bit of thinking outside the box. There is no standard solution to this sort of challenge, and I suspect that the best way forward will be to employ a range of approaches where they can be applied. The key point is that sitting back and doing nothing is not an option. This would lead inevitably to a big wildfire that will be difficult or impossible to control. I congratulate Fingal County Council for daring to address the challenge and I hope that their efforts to bring most, if not all, of the vegetation back under management are successful.

Part of the Management Challenge

Director Handover

With the New Year, I am gearing up for the handover to my successor, Anne Gray. We all go through this exercise at various points in our career, but we tend to forget that the process always seems straightforward at the outset but it then slowly dawns that there is a lot to organise and prepare. I am aiming to get as organised as possible to give Anne a good start.

Anne will join the Trust on Monday 12th February (now less than 4 weeks away!), and after a handover period, she will take over as Director on 5th March.

I will take up the role of consultant to support the Trust, and Anne as Director. To give her a chance to get established, initially, I will be maintaining my current role with Scotland’s Moorland Forum, both in running the Forum’s meetings and managing the commissioned work. I will also be continuing to represent the Trust’s input to the groups where I am chairman or have the lead. For example, I will continue as chairman of the England & Wales Wildfire Forum, and the Uplands Management Group, and as the coordinator of the Bracken Control Group.

The aim of the handover period is to ensure a smooth transition of the responsibility for running the Trust to Anne so that the Trust’s service to its members, supporters and clients is not interrupted. As Anne gets established, I hope that my support will allow the Trust to operate on as many fronts as at present, and hopefully even some new ones that Anne will introduce.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Wildfire Conference 2017: Wildfire Resilience in a UK Context

We may not have had the wildfire problems seen by other countries, recently, but we still need to keep the profile of the wildfire threat high. We are only a few weeks away from a wildfire season, at any time of the year.

The Wildfires 2017 conference took place in Bournemouth on 7th and 8th November 2017.  It was organised by Dorset and Wiltshire Fire & Rescue Service, Dorset County Council, and the Urban Heaths Partnership, with support from the National Fire Protection Association in the USA, the National Fire Chiefs Council and the Scottish Wildfire Forum.

Over 150 delegates attended, and this included a good international mix from as far away as New Zealand and Canada. This international flavour added greatly to the conference and allowed us to benefit from the greater wildfire experience that exists in other parts of the world.

A key message coming from the conference is that, while the UK does not have regular wildfire seasons at present, climate change predictions indicate that this is likely to change. Therefore, we cannot ignore the threat of wildfire to people, property and the natural heritage, and this justifies the inclusion of wildfire on the National Risk Register.

The wildfires conference programme started in 2003, and from 2015 the conferences have been run by the UK wildfire forums.  After a very successful conference, close to Glasgow in 2015, it was England's turn to take the lead and this resulted in the conference moving south to Bournemouth.  Why Bournemouth? The Dorset & Wiltshire FRS has developed a very good wildfire response out of necessity; the Dorset heaths are close to the centres of population and this results in wildfire being a common occurrence.  The FRS has to respond quickly due the risks associated with the proximity of a large population and much property.

A short booklet was produced from the workshops took place during the conference with a view to summarising the issues that were raised for discussion. This is available to download here.

In summary it was a great conference, well organised, interesting discussions, a very good range of speakers and delegates, and good food and accommodation.

The planning for Wildfires 2019 will be starting soon! It will be a hard act to follow.

This is Portugal in 2017: it could not happen here ..... or could it?

Wildfire Research Workshop

I attended a Wildfire Research Meeting in London yesterday that had been organised on behalf of the England & Wales Wildfire Forum (EWWF) by Rob Gazzard (Forestry Commission England) and Julia McMorrow from the University of Manchester.

The aim of the workshop was to define projects that would provide ‘quick wins’ for the development of a more appropriate approach to developing a Fire Danger Rating System in the UK as well as coordinating social, economic and environmental research.

A range of researchers of all ages and experience attended, but this was balanced in part by my presence, as Chairman of the EWWF, with support from Andy Thomas, Assistant Chief Fire Officer for South Wales Fire & Rescue Service and the Vice-Chairman of the EWWF, and Michael Bruce, Vice Chairman of the Scottish Wildfire Forum (SWF).

The EWWF had asked the members from the research community to draw up a research programme that the EWWF could endorse. I am keen to encourage a UK approach to wildfire research, and I hope that my membership of the SWF Executive Committee will help to achieve this. I am very aware that there is no pot of money available for wildfire research, but I hope that endorsement by the wildfire community, as end-users of the research, will support applications from research organisations for funding. Also, having a credible programme of research will make it possible to identify research priorities so that we can use the funding that is available to best effect.

As with the development of all programmes of work, it is very easy to get carried away with listing all the issues that could be addressed should time and money be unlimited. There is a danger of becoming paralysed by opportunity and achieving nothing as a result.

A draft research programme had been produced at the first meeting of the research group in July, last year. When the EWWF reviewed this, members were struck by the scale and complexity of the task being presented. There was a real difficulty in knowing where to start.

In discussion, there was agreement that the most important issue for the wildfire community is the development of a Fire Danger Rating System. Amongst other benefits, such a system will provide a quantified warning to the fire & rescue services of periods of high wildfire risk and to practitioners of conditions when they will be able to burn, or when they should not be burning. An effective system has the potential to assist the planning for both wildfire and prescribed burning.

The development of a FDRS was agreed to be a priority for the research community to address through the wildfire research programme. There are no guarantees of any additional funding being available, but a plan that sets out the options, and the associated costs, would allow pitches to be made for financial support.

This is a complicated area where there may be few quick wins, but I hope that focussing attention on a priority topic will allow the wildfire community to make progress with an issue that will have cross-sector benefits.