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Highland wild fires: muirburn 'vindicated'


By Tom Ramage


Managed muirburn has not been a major contributor to wildfires in Scotland in the last decade, according to analysis of the fire service’s own data.

Burning moorland strips to regenerate heather and grass for grouse and sheep is an ancient activity undertaken by gamekeepers and crofters but critics cite it as a potential cause of wildfire.

Although muirburn is governed by strict seasons, controlled fires can sometimes spread, leading to deployment of fire crews.

But analysis of raw data from 2009 to 2019 has attributed less than 10 percent of Scotland’s large wildfires to controlled muirburn, with the actual figure certain to be lower still, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association pointed out this week.

Nearly 90 percent of large wildfires now stem from other causes which could be anything from campfires to discarded cigarettes and barbecues.

The data runs counter to a 2018 National Trust for Scotland paper, ‘The Relationship Between Prescribed Burning and Wildfires’ which ascribed 60 percent of wildfires to potential muirburn.

The SGA asked the fire service for an evaluation of that report’s main dataset, which was taken from the service’s Incident Reporting System.

What was discovered was that figures had been skewed by the way data had been accessed from the database and by the way fires themselves are recorded on IRS.

Using additional notes from actual fires, it was found that only 9.3 percent of large wildfires could reasonably be attributed to muirburn since 2009.

Actual figures would be less, though, as ‘potential muirburn’ also contained entries such as bonfires, campsite fires and other controlled fires not related to land management.

SGA vice-chairman Peter Fraser said: “We asked for the data to be analysed because we thought the 60 percent figure very surprising. We also wanted to understand how wildfires were classified under IRS.

“Obviously it has brought clarity. There is a marked difference between 9.3 percent of large wildfires potentially being caused by muirburn and 60 percent. There is a tendency, when people see big fires, to point instantly to muirburn. This data shows the extent of other factors.

“All land holdings have a role in managing fire in our landscape, whether conservation bodies, nature reserves, croft lands, recreation groups or estates.

“It is important the public get reliable information about muirburn, particularly as it has an increasingly important role in reducing fuel loads. High fuel loads can contribute to the types of extensive fires like Moray and the Flow Country this year, which were not caused by muirburn.”

In 2010/2011, 33 of 52 primary wildfires were classified on the IRS database as potentially caused by muirburn, using certain search parameters.

Further investigation, however, found that only two appeared to be caused by muirburn.

A fire service spokesman said: “I think where the discrepancies have come in is in the way the data has been recovered from the system. We have been able to further analyse the data and use the notes added by the officer completing the IRS to provide a fuller and more accurate picture of the causes of the wildfires we have attended.”

Earlier this year, Scottish Fire and Rescue Service stated that they are exploring the use of prescribed burning as a tool in the prevention and control of wildfires, through the creation of strategic fire breaks, and fuel management.

Dozens of gamekeepers assisted fire crews at the blazes in Moray and the Flow Country, with specialist equipment and manpower.

Picture: The Moray wildfire of 2019 started in an area where controlled muirburn had not been permitted for three years and had been severely restricted for 10 years, leading to high fuel load. It left miles of devastated land in its wake.



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