Blue skies tainted with ashy, grey smoke, billowing up from a menacing orange glow which is racing along the ground and spreading across the horizon as far as the eye can see. This has become an all too familiar sight on Marsden Moor, West Yorkshire, which has already suffered six devastating fires this year, with the most extreme destroying 1,000 hectares of land.
Once a lush green blanket over the rolling hills, parts of the moor now resemble a charred, black desert. The habitats that support the plethora of specialist species now destroyed leaving a bare, uninhabited landscape.
The National Trust, which manages the land, says staff have been left devastated by the fires and is appealing for the public to help them start work on restoring the moor.
Marsden Moor spans 5,000 acres and has been given status as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Special Protection Area and Special Area of Conservation thanks to the ground-nesting birds which breed there and the important blanket bog.
The moor is home to a range of specialist species of birds, mammals, reptiles, insects and plants. The open landscape of the moor, with no trees or tall shrubs, combined with the wet, boggy ground creates the perfect habitat for ground nesting, wading birds.
Some of the birds found on the moor are endangered in the UK due to the loss of other moorland habitats.
Twite is a small, brown finch which feeds on seeds and uses the moor as a breeding ground in the warmer months. Although the twite is still common across continental Europe it is becoming a rare site in the UK due to the reduction in seed producing grasslands which the twite relies on for food.
In the April issue of Dalesman, we discussed curlews, another bird which lives on these moors and is undergoing a sharp decline. Curlews are Britain’s largest wading bird and are instantly recognisable due to the long, curved bill and unique call.
Snipe, dunlin and golden plover also breed on the moors, nesting in the blanket bog and heathland and feeding on insects. Merlins and short eared owls soar over the moors steadily watching the ground for prey.
You may catch a glimpse of one of these moorland birds feeding in the water or passing over head but the moors mammals, reptiles and insects are more elusive. Stoats and weasels slyly scurry through the undergrowth on the hunt for unsuspecting voles and rabbits. Foxes sleep in their dens until night falls before emerging to explore in the darkness.
Mountain hares use their fur to help camouflage them against the terrain. In the winter months they have a snowy white coat to help them blend into the snow covered hills but when the snow melts in the spring the coat changes to brown to help hide them in the heather.
The eagle eyed might spot a common lizard basking on a rock in the summer sun or a colourful emperor moth perching on a leaf.
The moors are teeming with life even if you don’t see it at first.
Many of these animals rely of the unique nature of the moors with wet ground and low vegetation and can not survive and breed in other habitats. The species that live here are intrinsically linked, relying on each other for food and protection and creating a balance which allows such a diverse range of species to survive.
The National Trust says that nesting birds and mountain hares will incur the biggest loss due to the fires occurring in the upland regions where these animals live. Although other species living on the lower regions of the moor may not have been directly effected they may suffer the consequences of having less prey to feed on or more competition for resources.
The damage to the land is also a concern. Peat bogs are important for flood prevention and climate protection. The peat in the blanket bog stores water, slowing the run-off and helping to reduce flooding downstream.
Peat bogs are also the largest natural store of carbon globally and could help reduce the amount of green house gases in the atmosphere. If the peat dries out it releases these gases into the environment, contributing to climate change.
Wild fires not only contribute to the drying of peat due to the heat they produce, causing the water to evaporate, but also by destroying essential plants which help keep the peat wet.
Sphagum moss is a key plant on the moors because it stores large amounts of water and can replenish the peat when it begins to dry out. The National Trust had recently planted large areas of sphagum moss in the areas where the fire struck and are keen to replant in order to keep the peat wet. It is hoped this will also prevent fires in the future as established moss populations can prevent the fire spreading as quickly.
Kirklees Council has put a Public Space Protection Order in place until October to try and combat the leading causes of wildfires. The order bans the use of fire causing items on National Trust, Yorkshire Water and Kirklees Council land and offenders will be given a £150 fine if found using flammable equipment.
Karl Battersby, strategic director for economy and infrastructure at the council, said: “I urge anyone visiting one of our fantastic parks and open spaces to please be respectful; don’t light
fires and barbecues, or use Chinese lanterns or fireworks and leave the spaces as you found them by putting rubbish in a bin or taking it home with you.
The fires have illustrated just how quickly fire spreads when vegetation is dry and the consequences are devastating to the landscape, flora and fauna. Not only that but when a rampant fire takes hold it can quickly pose a real threat to human life should there be people or properties in the vicinity.”
The council hopes the ban will prevent more fires during the hot and dry summer months. The order has received support from the National Trust, Yorkshire Water, and West Yorkshire’s police and fire services.
With many of the species on the moors already in decline wildfires pose a serious threat to the existence of some species. Finding new ways of protecting the moors such as the councils fire ban and planting of sphagum moss is essential for maintaining the rich and biodiverse landscape. The National Trust now aims to restore the landscape and is working with Moors for the Future and Yorkshire Water to manage the land and protect the wildlife.