Fire!! Sweeling, arson and moorland blazes

It seems months ago that we had endless sunshine, blue skies and warm nights. Lawns were turning brown, streams were drying up and we were leaving dishes of water out for the birds. Today has been lowering and overcast, positively gloomy with black threatening clouds at times – I risked putting my washing out, then had to dash to rescue it from a downpour. This evening the rain has lashed down in torrents.

Thinking back to those glorious summer days, the sun was wonderful for some, for farmers, for holiday makers and holiday businesses, but unfortunately some folk decided to make mischief and in the moors above Manchester, Saddleworth Moor and Winter Hill – and in other places too, fires were started which had dreadful consequences for the wildlife, and the moors themselves. Fortunately no-one died in these fires which continued for over three weeks, fought by heroic fire-fighters contending with the blazing heat from the sun and the blazing burning heather and peat.

I suppose we paid more attention to the stories and followed them more closely because we used to live very near Saddleworth Moor, and we knew the areas where people were evacuated from – the first time such an evacuation has taken place in the UK. However, Lancashire and Yorkshire were not the only places where tinder-dry moors caught fire – either by accident, carelessness or intent. The Glenshane Pass in the Sperrins in Northern Ireland also had blazes – this time the fire crews couldn’t reach the fire and had to be helicoptered in to try and tackle it. In Wales, in Srtaffordshire and in many other places, the record temperatures dried the countryside and fires started.

When we lived near Saddleworth Moor, at certain times of year we would see smoke up on the tops. The smoke came from controlled fires started by farmers and landowners to burn off dead undergrowth which would not only encourage heather and other plants to grow back again, but would prevent a build up of dry material which could then become a wild-fire risk.  This controlled burning, carefully supervised and managed is called sweeling (sometimes swaling) However a license is needed to do it and there are only certain times it can be done; the aim is to burn off dead plants, not only heather but rough grass, gorse, bracken and bilberry plants – otherwise known as whortleberries or whimberries, and no doubt by many other local names. It is very strictly controlled and the people doing it must be careful to:

  • start burning between sunrise and sunset
  • have enough people and equipment to control the burn
  • take all reasonable precautions to prevent injuring people and damage to land and property
  • not cause injury, interruption or danger to road users
  • not create smoke likely to damage health or cause a nuisance
  • not disturb or destroy wild birds and their nests, or other protected animals, plants and habitats
  • not damage important monuments
  • not pollute watercourses and groundwater, for example, through soil erosion caused by burning

Tonight the rain is still falling outside… no chance of arson in the countryside tonight, thank goodness!

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