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Burnt moor - Marsden moor

Harrowing photos show why you shouldn’t have a BBQ or make a fire on moorland

Photos of recent wildfires on Marsden Moor are a stark reminder that we need to treat our precious moorland with care.

Marsden Moor is in the southern Pennines, and is owned by the National Trust. It is a site of specific scientific interest (SSSI), due to its blanket bog habitat, as well as its breeding population of a number of rapidly declining birds, such as the golden plover and the red-listed twite, merlin, and European curlew. The moor is also home to one of our most persecuted birds, the red grouse (up to 500,000 are shot for ‘fun’ across the UK every year).

On 20 April, two wildfires broke out independently and swept across the moor, causing devastation to the landscape. The National Trust said of the second fire:

“Much larger in size, it burned through the night, and at its height, the flame front was approximately 2km long.”

Devastatingly, birds were already nesting on the moor. Kate Divey-Matthews, Resilient Landscape Project Officer for the National Trust at Marsden Moor, said:

“Moorland fires like this cause huge devastation to this precious landscape. It’s a really crucial time for our ground nesting bird population, and we’ve found burnt nests and eggs during our site walkovers. Fires also cause damage to peat soils which are an important carbon store.

To make the landscape more resilient to fires, we focus on re-wetting the blanket bog by planting sphagnum moss. On a positive note, we’ve found some of the moss has survived these fires and hasn’t burnt. Some of these mosses were planted with volunteers… This shows the work we’re doing is making a difference.”

 

burnt moor - Marsden Moor

 

‘Arson’

On 27 April, West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service released a statement, saying that it was treating the fires as deliberate arson, and that a search was being carried out to try and find the culprits. Richard Hawley, the Fire Service’s wildlife officer, said:

“Wildfires are often caused by human behaviour and so we are calling on the people who visit the moors to be alert to the risk of wildfires when enjoying the countryside. Don’t have open fires in the countryside and don’t use smoking materials, barbecues or any other flames.

However, we know that these recent fires on Marsden Moor were started deliberately. Purposely starting a wildfire is a criminal offence. It can be devastating to the environment and wildlife, and could ultimately put people’s lives at risk. If you see someone deliberately starting a fire please report it immediately.”

Hawley continued:

“Responding to wildfires also puts added pressure on our crews and it is hard work for our firefighters, taking hours, and sometimes even days, to put wildfires out. We want people to enjoy the stunning countryside and moorland we have here in West Yorkshire, but they should do so responsibly and by following our safety advice.”

 

burnt moor - Marsden Moor

Ban on BBQs and fires

The National Trust also emphasised that having BBQs and lighting fires on Marsden Moor is banned, and that the rule is part of a Public Spaces Prevention Order. It said:

“Fires cause huge damage to the moorland landscape, including our precious peat soils, and this is a crucial time for our ground nesting bird population. That’s why BBQs and fires are banned on Marsden Moor year round…

If you see a fire or a lit BBQ on Marsden Moor, please dial 999.”

Moors are repeatedly burnt for grouse shooting

The National Trust pointed out that it doesn’t permit controlled burning on the land in its care, nor does it allow grouse shooting on Marsden Moor. Which is just as well, because moorland all over the country is being burnt in the name of grouse shooting. A 2022 Greenpeace investigation found that between 1 October 2021 and 15 April 2022, England’s precious peatland was set on fire 251 times. This is likely to be a small fraction of the burning that actually took place, as these were only the incidents that the team could identify. Shooting estates set fire to the moors because grouse like to eat the young shoots of new heather that sprout up after burning.

Landowners allow affluent shooting parties, which travel from all over the world, to pay as much as £14,000 a day to murder grouse. On top of this, those managing grouse moors are allowed to poison, snare, trap, and shoot animals and birds labelled vermin or pests. As Protect The Wild regularly points out, birds of prey are at particular risk of persecution, and are often killed or disappear in areas that are dominated by grouse shooting.

 

We all need to take care of our moors

It is said that peat moors store more carbon acre for acre than tropical rainforests. As such, they should be treated with care. But much of England’s moorland is in a terrible state due to pollution, wild fires, and having been drained by humans over generations, to be used as pasture. Moors For The Future states that:

“The moorland landscape of the South Pennines, the Dark Peak and West Pennines has been described as the most degraded upland landscape in Europe and possibly the world.”

It continues:

“Blanket bogs in this area have been badly damaged by 200 years of atmospheric pollution, as well as a host of other factors. This has led to a severe loss of vegetation on the moorland plateaux, resulting in vast areas of bare peat exposed to the elements.”

Efforts by organisations and individuals are attempting to regenerate a number of these degraded moors to their former state. And so it’s down to all of us to help protect our moors, too. The most obvious thing we can do is educate our fellow outdoor enthusiasts about the risks of having BBQs or fires. You can also participate in the Moors For The Future’s citizen science wildlife surveys and wildlife sightings.

 

The National Trust has published advice on how to help:

  • If you see a fire or someone using a barbecue on Marsden Moor, please dial 999.
  • Remember that fires, barbecues, fireworks and sky lanterns are banned on Marsden Moor all year round.
  • Please dispose of cigarettes responsibly.
  • Don’t forget to take all your litter home, as discarded bottles can cause fires.

 

Images of a charred Marsden Moor by Eliza Egret (2023)