Reflections: 22nd May 2020 - A Hot Topic

Controlled Burning of Heathlands in the New Forest | The New ...

Controlled burning of heathland in the New Forest (Photo: forestandwaterside.info)

The images of the horrendous wildfire just up the road in Wareham Forest this week got me thinking! Fire is something of a paradox on heathlands. Before I go on let me emphasise that I know that the fire was a natural ‘disaster’ in many ways so hear me out …


The heaths as we know them today and the unique array of animals and flora that thrive in this particular habitat came about through our ancient ancestors clearing the natural vegetation, especially birch trees, to try and make it suitable for their agricultural requirements. These early farmers did not have heavy plant and machinery to do this, they cleared by burning. They used fire effectively and created what we see today. Natural habitat succession means that left to nature heathland would quickly revert back to birch woodland, you can see this happening in places in Wareham Forest and on other local heaths. 


As a child living on the edge of the New Forest I remember seeing groups of men setting fire to the heath and then using birch brooms to dappen down the flames and they would let the fire spread over a relatively small area to clear birch, gorse and heather to reduce its dominance. This practice goes on to this day in the New Forest as a vital part of its ecological management.


There is, of course, a vast difference between an area of controlled burning in late autumn or early winter and an uncontrolled blaze ravaging across the heath in strong winds at the height of the bird and reptile breeding season and I repeat, I am not saying the fire was a ‘natural’ and beneficial event. I am saying that fire created the heath but it can also destroy it. The damage caused by the Wareham Forest fire last week caused immense damage to the animals that live there, it will take a long time to recover but recover it will, that is natural.

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