Wildife devastated in moorland inferno

Tim Mitcham

The huge fire that is ravaging Saddleworth Moor will have dire consequences for wildlife and will mean major habitat work in future years.
Curlew in Flight

Darin Smith

It is not the only fire that we have had this year, there have been problems at Rivington and over the past decade Heysham Moss has been a target for arsonists.

Director of Conservation at the Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside Tim Mitcham said: “The heat generated by the fires is devastating to the fragile upland moorland. Only the most mobile of animals escape and of course we are in peak breeding period for many - from curlew to ant. These animals are on the moors because they like the conditions they find there and ultimately depend upon the plants, many species depend upon specialist moorland plants like cotton-grass and heather.

“It will have devastating consequences on birds like the curlew which are feeding chicks at the moment. Meadow pipit also nest in tussocks of grass, nests and chicks will not have survived a fire like this.

“Mammals like the field vole will have perished. They will try to dig deep into the ground to escape the fire but then they will be starved of oxygen. This means predators like short-eared owl, kestrel and merlin will have no food on the burned-out moorland.”

Burning Peat on the Moors

Some of these magnificent birds of prey, like the short-eared owl also nest on the ground so their chicks will have been killed by the fires.

Tim continued: “The fires leave a lasting legacy. The fires not only destroy the plants but can cook the seeds leaving only charred ash behind. The plants that tend to recover from the fires faster are often less valuable to the range of animals of before and long-term declines result. 

“The moors at Saddleworth are dominated by plants such as purple moor grass in vast areas where the fires have once swept through, a plant that produces lots of dry dead leaves and encourages the start and spread of further fires.

“Frogs and toads will have perished along with wood lice, dung beetle and springtail, all vital in the food chain. Soil organisms and invertebrates, including earthworms, centipedes and millipedes, which help to keep the moss healthy by bringing minerals to the surface will have died and will take years to repopulate.

“Flying creatures, like birds, may have escaped in many cases but the things that cannot fly will have died. It will take years for these areas to recover and for wildlife to return.

“Our moors have been drained over the years to encourage the growth of palatable grasses for sheep and cattle. The drainage leaves a layer of dried peat – the accumulated layer of historic pickled plants. As we all know dry peat burns well and can result in moorland fires smouldering for weeks and reigniting fires – it is very difficult for our firefighters to deal with. 

“We must look again at rewetting the moors and blocking up the drainage ditches, the impacts on wildlife, property and human health are enormous from this historic land management practice.

“Moorland fires release vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere encouraging greater climate change. The situation will get worse unless we act, our children and grandchildren will thank us for it.”

Campaigns Manager Alan Wright said: “These fires have devastating consequences on our moorland wildlife. The moors are a brilliant wilderness for wildlife to flourish and for millions of people to enjoy.

“If this fire was started by arsonists or just the selfish, clumsy actions of a couple of people then they will have caused damage that will affect our region for years to come.

“People know that the hot, dry summer will leave the moors vulnerable to fire, but they should think about the damage they are causing by their actions, whether deliberate or not.

“We are asking visitors to the moors, and other vulnerable areas, to take care and think of the wildlife. As for arsonists who might do this deliberately, think about your children and grandchildren and how you are depriving them if you deliberately destroy such an important wildlife habitat.”

The West Pennine Moors Site of Special Scientific Interest is a vitally important habitat for wildlife and for people. The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside will continue to offer a management plan to protect our moors and the wildlife that lives there.

But for this to succeed and to provide adequate resources we still need the support of our members, volunteers, businesses and local politicians.