Apparently this time of year is widely known as the burning season. This year, in particular, after ten days of continuous sunshine and desiccating southeasterly winds our natural vegetation is now tinder dry.
Last Wednesday morning I set off into north Wales on the last of this winter’s postcard delivery trips. I didn’t have a very full timetable of calls so by lunchtime I was in Porthmadog. I decided to have a leisurely sandwich and birdwatch by the artificial tidal lagoon on the edge of the town. As the water was high few birds were to be seen there but there was a nice selection of waders on Traeth Mawr nearby. Turning back towards the van I noticed a pall of smoke drifting over from the north. I phoned a good friend who lives in Nantlle, about ten miles in that direction as the crow flies. He was very concerned about a fire in the hills nearby that he believed had been set by a farmer the previous evening. It had been burning out of control ever since. I wondered if the smoke I had seen was the product of that fire.
After a final call in Beddgelert I continued northwards. A huge mass of smoke was rising vertically in the still air from the summit of Mynydd Mawr, and then drifting northwards. The mountain looked like an active volcano. But it didn’t really fit the description of the fire I had heard about. Turning westwards at Rhyd Ddu towards Nantlle, the fire was to my right whereas the fire he had described would have been on my left. Entering the village I could see a few wisps of smoke rising from the crags and moorland south of Llyn Nantlle while the main fire was now raging behind me. There were two separate fires.
My friend – an ecologist by training and with many years of professional experience – was outraged to see the second fire. He had just returned from Argentina where he had had a bout of Covid, and probably wasn’t in the best frame of mind to see both sides of his beloved Nantlle valley being consumed in a conflagration! We walked a short distance to get a better view of it. It was his opinion that both fires had been set by the respective landowners/farmers. Upland vegetation is burnt like this to kill the older, more woody stems of heather, producing more younger shoots, and more grass; in other words better grazing for sheep. But over long periods of time repeated burning and grazing prevents heather from regenerating and results in upland vegetation being restricted to coarse grasses that can resist fire but have little wildlife value. It is one of the reasons why there is now so little heather moorland in Wales.
I was anxious to get more photographs of the fire so headed off in the van towards the village of Y Fron, at a higher altitude than Nantlle. Cresting the brow of a hill the fire in all its destructive reality was visible – see the main photograph above. Four fire engines were present and I had a quick chat with one of the firemen. It was while they were attempting to tackle the original fire to the south of Nantlle that they noticed this second fire take hold. “Whatever can you do about it?” I asked. He spread both arms in front of him, fingers on both hands conspicuously crossed. He said it could have been started by bored teenagers or careless walkers, but I think we both knew who the culprit was. He said that farmers are allowed to perform controlled burns but that they “sometimes got out of hand”. I spent a few more minutes taking photographs before leaving the area.
I spent the night in the van on the open shoreline of Foryd Bay ; it is one of my favourite places in Wales. But around breakfast time another pall of smoke began rising into the sky to the south. I had enough time to investigate the source of the smoke and fairly quickly located it near the hamlet of Pant Glas. I parked up and walked towards the fire; a figure was visible, moving around near the base of the flames. Through my binoculars I could see him carrying some kind of fire-lighting implement that every so often he would dip into a plastic container of brown liquid. This was a job for my long telephoto lens! I ran back to the van to fetch it, cursing that I hadn’t brought it with me in the first place. On my return I could see he was slowly, methodically and calmly lighting fires in the dry vegetation, without a care in the world. He was completely oblivious to my presence and I took a whole series of photographs. I don’t know how far this fire spread but the BBC Wales News website referred to a wildfire “at Pant Glas” on that day.
Normally farmers can ignore the guidelines for “controlled” burning because they know no-one will ever see them. The most unprincipled can light destructive fires in the expectation that they WILL rapidly get out of control and be all but impossible to extinguish. But the expenses involved in the Fire Service attending these wildfires, including the cost of helicopter hire, are, unfairly, borne by the public purse. I have sent a batch of photos like the one above to North Wales police, and I believe that the identity of the man lighting this fire would be identifiable from them. How seriously the authorities will take them is another matter, because all too often unscrupulous farmers are given the benefit of the doubt.
Update : A petition asking the Welsh Government to ban so-called “controlled” burning has been started; please click on the link below to sign it.
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