The flames and smoke from one lowland wildfire in Norfolk in July 2022 could be seen from miles away. The fire damaged 120 acres of marshland which is managed by the Heacham Wildfowlers Club.
The group, which shoots ducks and geese had been working to restore the habitat. Marsh warden Darren Whitmore says the flames, smoke and heat were too much to control. He says: “We ran along the bank looking for the animals trying to rescue them. We got the muntjac deer and different birds out. Sadly, we lost some we couldn’t help.”
He says the heat was horrendous and the fire was so fast it was impossible to outrun it.
Wildfires are deadly for wildlife, and the effects are long-term. They damage underlying soil and even marshland.
With record-breaking heatwaves, fire services across the UK reported more than 750 wildfires by August 2022, more than three times the number for the whole of 2021.
Head of uplands for BASC Gareth Dockerty says wildfires are classed as anything bigger than a hectare. He says: “The Met Office has predicted the wildfires will only increase in the future. That is in line with what governments around the world have says regarding wildfire, which is linked to climate change and human activity.”
In contrast, controlled fires work for wildlife. They create firebreaks and allow regeneration of plant life.
Gamekeepers who manage the UK’s moors and uplands are the firefighters’ greatest allies. Martin King of Derbyshire Fire & Rescue Service says the relationship with land managers is important. He says: “It allows us to have somebody who’s familiar with the terrain, the access routes, and the type of vegetation. By working together, we can be more proactive in dealing with the fires.”
He says gamekeepers also help by using their vehicles and equipment in firebreaks. He says: “By having that proactive relationship, it allows us to deploy more efficiently and also gives us someone with a watching brief over the land. We have contact numbers and that allows direct contact, and a quick response should we need it.”
The Heacham fire broke out on the hottest day of year. Temperatures on the marsh were over 40ºC.
This marshland is not alone. In August, Norfolk fire crews battled a blaze 30 miles away at Salthouse nature reserve, managed by a wildlife trust.
As summers get hotter, the risks of wildfires is rising, unless landowners and land managers follow the example set by moorland gamekeepers. Gareth says the shooting community and gamekeepers have been leading the way on fire prevention. He says: “They’ve been shouting about wildfire for the past 20, 30 years. They’ve seen this on the horizon. They’ve known what was coming. And they’ve managed that moorlands to make sure that the wildfire risk on managed grouse moors is much less of a risk than it is in other areas. They’ve been doing some cracking work.”
Countryside Alliance director of shooting Adrian Blackmore says it is vital to manage the land to prevent wildfires. He says: “If you do not manage vegetation, you are asking for trouble, not just on your own land holdings but on neighbouring landholdings.”
Adrian is critical of the RSPB and other conservation industry groups, which are opposed to controlled burning. He says: “To actually call for a ban on all burning I find quite unbelievable. They are creating a significant risk and I would go so far as to say that their actions are irresponsible.”
Heacham Wildfowlers Club leases 250 acres from the 4,000-acre Ken Hill estate, which also runs Wild Ken Hill, a walked-up partridge shoot and nature reserve that’s the filming base for BBC’s Springwatch TV shows. Ken Hill hit the news in 2021 when it pulled out of a project to release white-tailed eagles. Owned by the Buscall family, it prides itself on access to the public.
Darren believes the fire may have started from a discarded cigarette or bottle. He says sun on discarded glass could be enough to ignite flames. “When the fire was burning, me and one of the firemen watched an ember go up in the air and hit a bit of grass,” he says. “It was just like someone that thrown petrol on the grass. It went whoosh, it was so dry.”
Martin King of Derbyshire Fire & Rescue Service says it is important people take personal responsibility. He says: “If you come to visit, don’t bring any materials which could ignite, whether it’s smoking materials or portable barbecues.”
The blackened earth and charred vegetation are a sombre reminder of the devastation a fire can cause, though there are already green shoots pushing through. It will take around five years for this land to fully recover from the fire.
Darren says it is a sad day. He hopes the public will learn from the mistakes that led to the fire. He appeals for people to take home their rubbish and not discard cigarettes. He says: “In my mind it’s going to take five years to get back to where we were. God forbid it should happen again as it will take longer and longer for wildlife to come back.”
Gareth says there is there is a real concern that there could be wildfires across huge parts of the country on a regular basis. He says: “We’re particularly concerned about wildfires on moorland habitats, because moorlands and the grouse moors are part of some of the biggest carbon stores in the country.”
He says the 2018 fire on Saddleworth Moor, managed by the RSPB, which burned for three weeks and emitted the same amount of carbon as the annual use of 100,000 family cars. He says: “You can see how much carbon can disappear in a wildfire, not to mention the damage it can have on biodiversity and how many years that takes to recover. Also, the damage that it can do to broader biodiversity. So, for ground-nesting birds, and reptiles and insects, it’s a hugely devastating thing.”
The fire has been a tough lesson that all land now needs the same kind of fire prevention work that gamekeepers do on the UK’s uplands. In the past, it would be unusual for wildfowling associations to actively to manage the conservation areas they look after. In the future, the Heacham Wildfowlers Club is determined to do whatever is necessary to prevent such devastation.
Darren says they’re hoping to put in fire breaks but admits it is a tough challenge as the area overgrown with grass and plants which is good for wildlife.
The wildfowling club has set up a JustGiving page to raise £3,000 to carry out fire prevention and repair work.