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Scottish chief calls for better education on muirburn to address fire danger

by Katharine Hay, The Scotsman (Glasgow, Scotland) |

Muirburn is the managed burning of heather, gorse and grassland that happens annually between October and April.

Simon Thorp, former director of The Heather Trust and who currently runs his own upland management consultancy firm, said muirburn is an essential practice to prevent wildfires posing a risk to human life and wildlife – if done properly.

He issued a warning in the wake of devastating “out-of-control” fires that have swept across the Western Isles, which included at least nine fire service callouts on Skye Feb. 13.

He said most of them were caused by people attempting to carry out muirburn, but who “don’t know what they’re doing” – a problem, he said, that is far too familiar in Scotland.

The moorland expert said the root of the issue lies in the lack of education surrounding controlled burning.

“It’s going to take a human to die in a wildfire before action is taken,” said Thorp, who referenced several wildfires on Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh in recent years, highlighting it is not an isolated issue in Scotland’s highlands.

“We need to encourage more education about muirburn – it creates firebreaks and limits fuel load, which prevents wildfires from spreading, and it also encourages biodiversity.

"Some people think moorland groups and gamekeepers are burning peat, which is a terrible misunderstanding. Muirburn is needed to protect peat, to stop the wildfires spreading and burning at a serious heat.

“There’s a misconception that muirburn leads to wildfires. What instead leads to wildfires is people attempting to muirburn with limited knowledge, which can result in fires destroying valuable landscape. Other causes are, of course, issues with visitors to the countryside and deliberate fires.”

Thorp, who was commissioned by the Scottish Government to lead the Muirburn Code, said many crofters working on land that was recently seen ablaze did not have the manpower, tools or time required to carry out a successful controlled burn.

This, coupled with arid land after a spell of dry weather, could be lethal, he said.