If you are driving through the Highlands of Scotland during the months of March and April, there’s a good chance you will see columns of smoke rising up on the horizon, behind at least one hill.
In most cases, this is likely down to the Scottish Muirburn season which sees great swathes of heathland burnt off each year, to help regenerate new growth. In Scotland, burning of moorland is permitted between 1st October and 15th April inclusive, at all altitudes.
Fire is still a commonly used agricultural tool, with farmers and crofters across the UK burning grass, heather and furze. For the last 200 years, gamekeepers have burnt long narrow strips of mature heather on a rotation, in Scotland, this is known as muirburn.
What is Muirburn?
Muirburn is the practice of using controlled fire on heather moorland with the purpose of bringing mature or old heather from its degenerated phase to a re-growing pioneering phase. The practice is normally applied in small strips, or patches of heather on a rotational basis so that it creates a mosaic in the age of the heather structure. This is believed to be beneficial for insect colonies, grouse, waders and small mammals, whilst providing improved grazing areas for mountain hares, deer and sheep. On the other hand, an associated negative effect is the release of carbon into the atmosphere, especially when the fire affects deep deposits of peat.
Moor burn is becoming an increasingly controversial subject, especially amongst environmentalists, some arguing that is destroying the landscape and ecosystem, whilst others argue that it increases biodiversity. Either way, fire helps to shape the landscape we have in the Highlands today, that is why I am interested in it.