What is the long-term effect of a heath fire?

What is the long-term effect of a heath fire?

13 July 2010

published by news.bbc.co.uk

United Kingdom — Surrey has been hit by several major heath fires recently which have turned lush open land into barren ash plains.

So, after the fire crews have rolled up their hoses and moved on, what is the future for these charred landscapes?

Thursley Common, the site of a massive heath fire in 2006, is showing signs of regeneration four years on.

And Jane Bowden, Countryside Manager for Waverly Borough Council says there is hope for the 135 acres (60 hectares) at Frensham following this week’s fire.

At Thursley nearly all the 400 acres (160 hectares) of heathland were destroyed when a devastating fire ripped through the nature reserve in July 2006.

And in May 2010, fire spread across over 1600 acres (650 hectares) of MOD owned heathland on the Chobham Ridges and West End Common between Camberley, Lightwater and Chobham.

This week, it was Frensham’s turn, with over 135 acres (60 hectares) of heathland being reduced to ash, as the dry weather and windy conditions pushed fire across the Common.

Today, Waverley’s countryside rangers are still damping down the site but in a few days will begin to take stock of what has been lost.

However, they may also be counting their blessings.

Shallow burn

Unlike Thursley Common and Chobham Ridges which are both situated on peaty soil, Frensham Common is mainly on sand.

This means fire cannot penetrate into the ground so deeply, resulting in a more ‘shallow burn’. So only the abundant low lying heather and some gorse was destroyed, with a few surrounding trees being scorched.

Compare this with the highly combustible peat soil and abandoned World War II grenades at Chobham Ridges, and the flammable peat and gorse combination of Thursley.

You could forgive Frensham’s rangers for almost breathing a tiny sigh of relief.

Nevertheless, the Common fire was still devastating, both for its resident fauna and flora.

Jane Bowden says it is too early to say how badly the wildlife has been affected.

Slower moving creatures such as the smooth snake and sand lizard would have found it difficult to move out of the path of the flames. As would many of the resident insects and butterflies.

Animals such as mice, rabbits and foxes can flee, or retreat underground into burrows where they are insulated against the heat, but as yet it is too early to tell how many managed to escape the blaze.

The adult bird population may also have been able escape, by flying away, but their nests and young could have been destroyed.

Rangers have reported hearing Nightjars since the Common fire, which indicates at least some of the resident birds remain.

But for the one pair of Dartford Warblers known to inhabit the site, this week’s events may have proved disastrous.

However heathland does regenerate over time.

As The Independent’s Michael McCarthy reports in his article Heathland: A burning issue ,Thursley Common ‘is rising from the ashes’.

Chobham Ridges too, is already showing signs of recovery with fronds of bracken unfurling again from the charred earth.

Three to five years

And so will the heathland at Frensham Common, given time.

“It will take three to five years, says Jane. “We will assess what is still living there, and possibly scrape back to sand to expose new heather seedlings or bring in seed from other parts of the Common.”

“Whether we go along those routes is impossible to tell at this stage.”

One problem facing the rangers is the management of new growth. Invasive grasses and bracken will take hold again faster than the new heather seedlings.

And all the new heathers will grow back at a similar height, establishing a ‘one habitat monoculture’.

While this may be an advantage for some species, the heath needs to regain biodiversity, with plants of various ages and heights, for all to successfully return.

BBQ warnings ignored

The cause of the Frensham Common fire is not yet known, but most heath fires are started deliberately or accidentally, rather than naturally.

Previous fires in the area have been attributed to arson.

Waverley Borough Council are also keen to point out that barbecues are banned from the Common.

However, Jane says many people ignore the rule and find quiet parts of the land to have one anyway.

And it is actions like these which can lead to the massive and devastating destruction of wildlife experienced across the county, due to heath fires, in recent months.

Councillor Roger Steel who is responsible for Leisure at Waverley says “Frensham Common attracts thousands of visitors every summer and it is important that they remain vigilant to the possibility of fire and they use the area responsibly to reduce the chances of fire breaking out in the future.”

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