Heathlands are dominated by dwarf shrubs, with heather (Calluna vulgaris) being one of the defining species. Upon germination heather goes through a series of distinct growth phases (pioneer, building and mature) that can last in excess of 30 years before it degenerates. The controlled burning of heathland (also called swailing, or muirburn in Scotland) essentially resets the heathland clock back to zero, and is a useful tool in conservation as it can help create a mosaic of habitats of different ages to support a wide range of wildlife. Swailing helps ensure that the needs of all species are catered for. It can also help to remove some of the nutrients held in the leaf litter layer, ensuring that heathland does not become too fertile which would encourage the development of woodland. Once an area is burnt, regeneration is either from remaining rootstocks, or from a seedbank.
Heather burning is legally restricted between the 1st November and the 31st March. This avoids the period of active plant growth, the breeding seasons of reptiles and birds, and limits any adverse impacts on wildlife. Typically burning is usually undertaken in the spring after frosts have drawn water from the soil. The weather is closely monitored before and during a burn. Too wet and the vegetation can be hard to ignite; too dry and the risk of a fire getting out of control increases. Ideally there is a light breeze of predictable speed and direction.
Controlled burns are only undertaken by experienced conservation managers; unmanaged fires can have catastrophic consequences for wildlife. Typically an area of mature heathland of about 0.2 hectares in area is targeted, with firebreaks created prior to burning to ensure the fire doesn’t spread outside of the designated area. Firebeaters and foggers (water sprayers) are also always on hand to assist in fire management. Burning on the Pebblebed heaths is usually done against the wind (backburning) to produce a hot, slow-moving fire. Controlled burning is only done occasionally on a site every few decades. If the frequency of burning is too great it can promote the growth of grasses at the expense of heather which reduces the wildlife value of the habitat.
Fires are not allowed on the Pebblebed heaths and are illegal under the CROW Act unless undertaken by staff of the Conservation Trust. Please help us conserve the heaths by not having recreational fires or barbeques.
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