Alternatives to controlled burning on Marsden Moor

Molinia growing on Marsden Moor with Pule Hill in the background

Find out what methods we’re using to protect Marsden Moor and why controlled burning can damage out precious peatlands.

Q&A on burning

Why don’t you use controlled burning on Marsden Moor?

We don’t burn on Marsden Moor, as this can severely damage the peat that covers our uplands. Healthy peatlands are an important tool for trapping carbon, even more so than trees. When peatlands are burned, those fires can dry out the moorland, increasing the erosion of the peat soils. This can lead to fast run off, as water cannot be easily absorbed into the landscape. When peat is exposed, it also becomes a carbon emitter, rather than a carbon store. Instead of using controlled burning, we focus on re-wetting the moorland to reduce the risk of fire spreading and to restore the blanket bog.

Burning can also harm the biodiversity on our moors, as some plants cannot cope with being burnt on a regular basis. Whilst it may look like the moors have recovered quickly after being burnt, it is because dominant grass species are the first to grow back. These grasses outcompete heather, cotton grass and sphagnum moss, leading to further drying of the moors. Fire can also kill insects and animals such as small mammals and reptiles.

Other upland sites burn, why not here?

The moors around Marsden and across the South Pennines are especially dry and degraded due to years of acid rain damage during the industrial revolution. This means the peat on these moors is very vulnerable, with much of it exposed. Burning these areas would cause even further damage, and release carbon into the atmosphere.

Firefighters tackle the blaze on Marsden Moor over Easter 2019
Firefighters tackle the blaze on Marsden Moor over Easter 2019
Firefighters tackle the blaze on Marsden Moor over Easter 2019

Wouldn't carrying out controlled burning in some areas stop the spread of fire?

We use machinery to cut vegetation breaks which reduce the spread of fire. Using this specialist machinery gives us more control over the areas we cut and allows us to reduce the impact on wildlife. We plant sphagnum moss to help hold water in the areas that have been cut, which helps to further reduce fire risk. These vegetation breaks are cut in strategic points on the moors (eg. near footpaths and along road edges.) All moorland fires are caused by people, so our focus is on education and having a ranger presence on the ground during fire season. We work closely with West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service, Kirklees Council and our neighbouring landowners to raise awareness of the dangers of moorland fires, and the ban on BBQs and open fires on Marsden Moor. Find out more about the ban here.

Mowing Molinia on Marsden Moor
Mowing Molinia on Marsden Moor
Mowing Molinia on Marsden Moor

What else are you doing to stop fires?

Our focus is on re-wetting the moorland, and we are using a number of interventions across Marsden Moor. We plant sphagnum moss, which can hold ten times its own weight in water and our rangers and volunteers have built hundreds of leaky dams to slow the flow of water off the moors. These interventions help turn the moors back into a sponge, allowing water to soak into the ground slowly and reducing the likelihood and severity of moorland fires.  We have also been trialling a method using peat bunds. These are small walls of compacted peat, which allow water to pool on the moors. Below is an example of a moorland that has been damaged fire, but where peat bunds were built, the wetter ground means the moorland remains unscathed.

Peat bunds help to rewet the moors
Peat bunds create little pools on the top of the moors - the area around these pools remains green but other areas have been burnt.
Peat bunds help to rewet the moors

Does controlled burning encourage regrowth?

When areas are burnt, the first species to grow back is often Molinia (purple moor grass). Although this gives the impression the moors have ‘recovered’, much of the biodiversity that was there before has been lost. Molinia outcompetes other species like cotton grass and mosses and forms a monoculture. Molinia accelerates the drying out of peat, so unlike mosses and other moisture loving species, it doesn’t help us re-wet the moorlands. This means the moors dry out, increasing the likelihood of further fires.

Sheep graze on parts of Marsden Moor
A sheep with horns on the hills above Marsden, covered in snow.
Sheep graze on parts of Marsden Moor

Why don’t you graze the whole moor to reduce the amount of material?

Grazing has been excluded in parts of the moor to give the restoration interventions time to work and allow the bare peat to recover and revegetate. We work in partnership with the commoners and in parts of the moor grazing has been increased. In the longer term, all parts of the moor will be grazed by sheep and cattle. Grazing moorlands is not only an important part of the commoner’s agricultural business but an important management tool for nature conservation. The Marsden Moor commoners are vital for the future of Marsden Moor.

Where can I find out more?

The University of Leeds has recently carried out research into the effects of rotational burning. You can find out more here.