Britain’s moorlands rarely attract much public attention. Even the well-travelled landscape photographer will express a preference for other regions and viewpoints before training his or her lens on an expanse of purple flowering heather under a hot August sun. Compared to the verdant beech and oak of England’s woods, the rugged sea cliffs of the Atlantic coast, and the high fells and mountains – of northern England, Wales and the Scottish Highlands, moors are not as immediately spectacular when framed by the camera.
However, on a hot summer evening in late June after a protracted dry spell, fire broke out on the edge of Saddleworth Moor in the Peak District National Park. Described as the largest wildfire in the UK in living memory, this and the other moors of northern England have since become the focus of national concern.
At the time of writing, the fire had burned more than 2,600 hectares (6,400 acres) of moorland, forcing the evacuation of residents and animals from more than 50 per cent of properties. With the army helping dozens of firefighters tackling the blaze, efforts at containing the wildfire were exacerbated when a separate outbreak in nearby Winter Hill, Lancashire, merged with the Saddleworth blaze to create an even larger fire front. Even though moors are a largely treeless landscape, the vast blanket of thick gorse, heather and dry cotton grass that covers much of this terrain provided plenty of fuel for an unkempt flame, particularly after one of the hottest and driest Junes of recent years.
Unknown to many is the fact that a burning moorland is harder to contain than the raking high flames of a forest blaze. As a peat moor, the Saddleworth fire burned primarily underground, unseen, before setting different parts of the moor alight. With the fire spreading through the submerged peat and reaching extremely high temperatures, simply dousing the surface with large quantities of water was not the guaranteed answer for extinguishing the blaze, as many people might have believed. Even 65,000 gallons of water dropped by helicopter on one night alone could not quell the fire’s advance across land described as ‘dry as a tinder box’. Adding to the’ difficulties was the excessive smoke generated by the blaze and fanned by warm summer winds.
Although devastating to those affected communities, the fires have served to focus wider attention to the importance of moorlands to combatting climate change. The peat found in many moors is considered a vital natural asset, serving as a carbon sink for storing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. So, a fire as large as the one which swept across Saddleworth Moor resulted in the release of vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This was verified by Professor Chris Evans from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) who claimed that if the peat burned down to 10cm deep across the affected area of 6,400 acres in its first week, around half a million tonnes of carbon dioxide would have been released.
Of course, any wildfire can have a serious impact on resident wildlife, and the size of the Saddleworth and Winter Hill blazes alarmed local wildlife trusts and conservationists, conscious that these moors support some species of flora and fauna found nowhere else in the UK. For instance, Saddleworth Moor is home to the most southeasterly occurrence of blanket bog in Europe. Cotton grass, heather, crowberry and bilberry are widespread, but the moor is also an important site for the rarer sphagnum mosses and cloudberry more commonly found in colder climates. The delicate balance of some plants to the species they support is exemplified by the rare bilberry bumblebee, which feeds on bilberry, trefoils, clover and heather found in upland areas like Saddleworth above 300m altitude. These bees are in decline and nest on or below the ground, often using old animal burrows, so the fire had potentially devastating consequences for these pollinators.
At the height of the blaze, the director of conservation for the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, Tim Mitcham, said: ‘Only the most mobile of animals escape and of course we are in peak breeding period for many.’ He was referring to ground-nesting birds such as the golden plover, short-eared owl, lapwing, ring ouzel and curlew that frequent Saddleworth and other Peak District moorlands to raise their chicks under the thick cover of heather and cotton grass. His concern was reflected in the actions of Wildlife Trust volunteers who joined wardens of the RSPB, National Trust as well as the national park to fight the blaze alongside the army and local fire services.
Tellingly, local gamekeepers from nine shooting estates in the Peak District also joined the fight – with the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ (12 August) marking the start of the lucrative grouse shooting season last week, their primary concern was for the region’s best known bird, the ubiquitous red grouse.
Despite Mitcham also declaring that the fire-ravaged habitat would recover over time, 2018 will almost certainly be remembered as a year when the fragile ecosystem of Saddleworth Moor suffered a significant setback. As well as the flora and fauna lost, local tourism services will certainly be hit by the resulting absence of visitors. Summer is the peak time for legions of walkers, many adorned with binoculars and cameras, to visit Britain’s moors and uplands, when the long days, dry conditions, and colourful heather-clad terrain offer the best sights of the year. Sadly, for Saddleworth and much of the surrounding area that is unlikely to be the case this year.
However, moorland is not in short supply in Britain and there are plenty of other notable examples to explore, from Bodmin and Dartmoor in the southwest of England through to the Yorkshire Moors, up to the historic vistas of Rannoch and Culloden in the Scottish Highlands. For the photographer, summer offers the greatest subject potential, following the arrival of many migratory birds in spring and the emergence of insects such as the emperor moth. Midsummer marks the most colourful phase as the flowering heather bursts into shades of purple and pink, sometimes as far as the eye can see. One of the more interesting plant species to be found in boggier moors is the insect-eating sundew. Other moorland species to be encountered include lizards, slow worms and the adder – Britain’s only venomous snake. Mice, voles and other small mammals are abundant and attract birds of prey such as peregrine, buzzards and owls.
Of course, the red grouse is a favourite bird for those of us who prefer shooting with a camera and long lens. These are shy, ground-dwelling creatures with a striking bright red brow and attractive tawny and ochre plumage. Grouse aren’t easy to see – they remain well hidden within the heather, only taking flight if startled, so you must be prepared to crouch down or lie low, keep still and wait. A groundsheet may prove to be a useful addition to your kit for a day on the moor, especially as so many other species are ground-dwelling and plants rarely more than waist high.
Some photographers have succeeded in photographing grouse from their cars – a more comfortable and convenient vantage point – having driven along a minor road traversing the moor, and then spotting a grouse perched on an exposed rock or nearby fence post. These are subjects for long lens photography, and a beanbag is very handy for providing support between the lens and ground, or when rested on a car windowsill. Tripods may offer the best overall support, but in this terrain they are conspicuous and bulky. A monopod is a better choice as it still provides sufficient support and easier manoeuvrability in the undergrowth.
Shaped by man
Although the Saddleworth wildfire proved highly destructive, England’s moors are no strangers to fire as many private grouse shooting estates manage the land by conducting regular controlled burnings of the heather. Like deer, grouse are raised for their commercial value, so controlling the growth of the heather is vital to the bird’s survival. Grouse like eating the fresh shoots of young heather plants, but need older, bigger plants to shelter their nests from the wind. Therefore, to create an environment of heather of different heights and ages within their boundaries, landowners carry out controlled burnings of plants that are 12-years-old or more, leaving small bare patches for new heather plants to grow. Grouse nest in the taller heather with merlin, short-eared owl and hen harrier, although there has been much controversy in recent years over the sharp decline in hen harriers in England, allegedly persecuted by zealous gamekeepers protecting as many grouse as possible for the shooting season.
Moorland may seem wild to many who walk the windswept heights, but its appearance was shaped by the actions of Bronze Age farmers 3,000 years ago, who cleared much of the ancient forest cover to create space for livestock. Today, sheep are a conspicuous presence and their constant grazing ensures that undergrowth remains well trimmed wherever they roam. In addition, the regular controlled burnings of heather for grouse shooting also helps ensure this landscape retains its distinctive form, with only the highest peaks, rock faces, scree slopes and wetter bogs truly fitting the definition of wilderness.
The lesson of the Saddleworth fire is that even a landscape as profoundly managed and shaped by man as Britain’s moors, is no less vulnerable to the underlying risks associated with the impact of our intrusion. Hopefully, if nature is allowed the time to repair and recover, photographs of the destruction will eventually be replaced by new images of an area restored by renewed growth, life and colour.
This was published in the August 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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