Am Bratach No. 308
June 2017

No money to burn in Assynt

The wildfire which ripped through Assynt during last month’s dry spell has opened up fresh questions over approaches to muirburn as a management tool in this part of Sutherland. There is a view that the lack of regular and managed muirburn in many areas is creating a situation where fires can spread uncontrollably for miles due to the volume of rank vegetation and absence of natural firebreaks.

We put these questions to Gordon Robertson, director of the Assynt Foundation, which owns the bulk of the land through which the fire passed. The alarm was raised on May 3, with estate workers and fire crews monitoring the blaze before it eventually burnt itself out a few days later. The exact cause is still unknown. Mr Robertson described how the fire passed close to Glencanisp Lodge, running through a native woodland plantation which, remarkably, was very little damaged. “It went all the way down to opposite the village school and burnt down to the water there,” he said, although at no point was there any serious threat to life or property.

“Basically we had to just watch”, Mr Robertson said. “We’ve got fire flaps and are a member of the West Sutherland Deer Management Group.” In an emergency situation, help from neighbouring estates which are part of the group can be mobilised to assist in fighting a fire, although in this case it was not required.

Mr Robertson argues that the Assynt Foundation could not justify the expenditure required to do muirburning on a professional scale. “Some of the wealthier estates who do muirburning have Argos with booms on the back with water”, he said. “When you look at posh moors that are managed for grouse, they spend nearly £40,000 a year. We have 44,000 acres. We don’t have grouse; we have a wide area managed effectively as a deer forest. We do not have the staff, equipment or money to muirburn.”

When you look at the Scottish Government guidance on muirburn, it is easy to understand why estates with no financial incentive are increasingly reluctant to endorse burning on their land. The Muirburn Code, which sets out the official guidance on planning and managing burning, is currently under review. In its current form, the code stipulates that burning must take place between October 1 and April 15. For a license to burn outside the season, applications must be made to Scottish Natural Heritage. The code stipulates that before carrying out muirburn a person must notify the landowner and occupiers of land within 1km of the proposed muirburn site. This notification must be in writing, not later than seven days before burning. There is a list of seventeen offences which could result in prosecution, including leaving a fire unattended, burning at night, and “creating smoke that is a nuisance to inhabitants of the neighbourhood”.

A list of recommended “fire-free” areas is couched in general terms, which read like a comprehensive summary of Highland terrain: “woodland”, “blanket bogs and raised bogs on deep peat”, “peat hags and other areas with exposed peat”, places “where the soil is eroding”, “summits, ridges and other areas exposed to the wind”, “steep hillsides and gullies”, “areas where bracken is present” and “tall vegetation at the edge of watercourses”. One is left wondering what could be left outside such a fire-free zone.

Given such restrictions, and without the motivation for improving grazings, how can the Assynt Foundation create more effective firebreaks on their land? Oddly, given the muirburn code’s restrictions on burning close to woodland, Mr Robertson believes that the answer is trees. He bases his case on the observation that “the fire came to an end when it hit the trees because there were mossy bits under the trees which formed a kind of fire break.” He concedes that this is not the principal reason for planting — the existence of a new woodland grant being the motivating factor — but is hopeful that it might be a useful side effect. “We’re considering planting almost from the Ledmore junction all the way along the side of the road effectively to Lochinver”, he said, an area amounting to some 2,000 hectares.

Tamara Lawton, a Scottish Natural Heritage Officer based at Ullapool, was one of the first to alert Mr Robertson to the existence of the fire by telephone. “We are obviously concerned to hear about the wildfire earlier this month in Glencanisp,” she said. “At this time of year — and especially in dry conditions — fire can have a devastating effect on plants, trees and wildlife and recreational use. Fighting wildfire is the responsibility of the land owner/manager and the fire and rescue service. However we can, and will, offer our support to the Assynt Foundation to advise on monitoring of the recovery from the effects of the wildfire on habitats. We know from monitoring we have carried out elsewhere — such as Inverpolly just to the south — that recovery is possible, although it can be slow for sensitive habitats and species.”

Gordon Robertson says that “wildfires are back on the agenda of the West Sutherland Deer Management group at our next meeting”, which will be attended by a representative of SNH. In the meantime, the appearance of Suilven “like a Christmas pudding with the brandy around it” is not an image soon to be forgotten. However, with the environmental lobby not for burning, or for turning, the old springtime tradition of heading for the hill in a favourable wind with a box of matches looks in danger of dying out. As with many debates on how and what to manage in the landscape, is it a matter of time before the human consequences of this and similar policies make themselves felt?

CLICK to buy a postal subscription online

Go back to Home Page