Forest fires: Britain bursts into flames

Forest fires: Britain bursts into flames

07 May 2011

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United Kingdom — Well, I suppose, if you wait long enough, a barbecue spring – if not yet a summer – will eventually turn up, like the number 11 bus. And it has arrived with a vengeance. Two years after the Met Office made its ill-fated prediction, and as these normally damp islands swelter in temperatures that have at times outstripped the Sahara, cookouts have been one of the causes of the wildfires that have set much of the country ablaze.

Tinder-dry after months of low rainfall, our heaths, moors and forests from Sussex to the Scottish Highlands, from Norfolk to Northern Ireland, have burst into flames in a rash of outbreaks more typical of arid Australia or Greece.

Firefighters have battled 60 blazes in the Highlands alone – including one half a mile wide at Balmoral – while the National Trust for Scotland reports £100,000 of damage to its land in Wester Ross. Schools were closed and homes evacuated as flames tore through Berkshire’s Swinley Forest, home to the rare Dartford Warbler, while local naturalists say a swath of Poole’s priceless Canford Heath will take up to a quarter of a century to recover. Barbecues have been identified as one of the causes, along with discarded cigarettes and outright arson.

The hope is that thunderstorms – brought about by warm, moist air from Spain – will douse the flames over the weekend. And the Met Office is predicting further unsettled weather after a month dominated by a huge high pressure area parked west of Britain; like a boulder in a stream, it has diverted our usual procession of westerly-borne depressions north and south.

After the hottest April since records began, this will come as something of a relief. On Easter Day, Wisley in Surrey – at 27.8C – was hotter than the Morrocan village of Merzouga in the Sahara. Less than a quarter of the average rain fell in England and Wales last month (under 10 per cent in the home counties), following the driest March in half a century: over the past six months, it is almost a third down on the long-term average.

Only one of the 47 rivers surveyed by the Environment Agency (the Lud in Lincolnshire) is flowing as usual, with 35 rated “notably” or “exceptionally” low. Yet the water companies sniffily dismiss predictions of water shortages this summer as “misleading”, saying that there is no indication that they will need to impose restrictions on supply.

Low though the companies’ credibility might be, they have some grounds for their confidence. Despite the state of the rivers, groundwater levels are holding up well – largely thanks to a wet 2009-2010 winter – and reservoirs are so far generally only a little lower than usual. But other organisations are beginning to sound notes of caution: the official Centre for Ecology and Hydrology warns there could be “a significant deterioration in the resources outlook” and the Agency is making plans “should we move into a drought situation”.

For now, however, the blazes remain the priority. Not that fires are always bad for nature; they can clear choking scrub, cause seeds long dormant in the ground to germinate, and create habitats for different wildlife species. In Australia, the tiny New Holland mouse was rediscovered in the 1960s, having been considered extinct for more than a century, after fires created space for seed-bearing plants that provided it with food.

Fires in Britain at this time of year, though, can be especially damaging, destroying the eggs and young of nesting birds and incinerating reptiles that have just emerged from hibernation. Often fuelled by dry, decidous grasses from the previous summer, they can burn particularly fiercely, searing the soil and destroying its fertility.

Deliberate burning during damper weather, controlled and confined to particular areas, has, however, long been used to manage grouse moors, stopping scrub and single heather species taking over and providing a variety of habitats to provide different kinds of food for the birds. Though some conservationists do not like to admit it, this benefits wildlife while also improving the sport.

Britain’s top wildlife monitor Peter Bridgewater, chairman of the UK Joint Nature Conservation Committee, thinks that this practice should be more widespread, especially as climate change brings hotter and drier summers. It is done in the New Forest, and wildlife trusts managing rare lowland heaths are thinking of following suit.

By getting there before the barbecues and arsonists and controlling the burning, fire could be used to renew, rather than destroy.

A bright idea to help the poor and cut carbon emissions

What are the world’s most lethal pieces of equipment? Not guns or bombs, but the inefficient stoves used by some three billion of its poorest people. Pollution from the soot – or black carbon – they emit kills at least 1.6 million people a year. It is the second biggest cause of global warming after carbon dioxide.

For years, anti-poverty campaigners and aid agencies have urged poor women to use cleaner stoves. Often they are rejected because they don’t fit in with how the women cook, or because the men who control the purse strings have refused to pay for them.

Now a small US-based company, BioLite, has had a bright idea. It has designed a $20 stove which – besides cutting black carbon emissions by more than 90 per cent – generates a little electricity. This can be used to charge the mobile phones that are spreading rapidly among the menfolk, or to power a light that would let children study after dark – sufficient incentives, it is hoped, to seal the purchase.

This week the concept won the St Andrews Prize – run by the Scottish university and ConocoPhillips – and the $75,000 award money will be used to make 1,000 of the stoves and test them on the ground. It would, of course, have been better to have involved potential users in the design, but let’s hope that, nevertheless, they have managed to get the recipe right at last.

Probably the best sperm delivery system in the world

I suppose it gives a whole new meaning to the fertility cycle. The latest addition to the velocipede-thronged streets of Copenhagen is a 9ft-long bike shaped like a sperm.

Equipped with a special cooling compartment in its “head”, it is used by the leading Nordisk Cryobank sperm bank to carry the stuff to local fertility clinics “in a carbon dioxide friendly way”.

The Sperm Bullitt is just the latest variation on a growing number of “cargo-bikes” in a city where, thanks to cycle lanes and good public transport, less than half the population uses a car. Dubbed “Copenhagen SUVs”, they are widely pressed into service to cart about shopping and children – a quarter of all families with two young children have one – while others deliver newspapers, crêpes and even furniture and cocktails.

The new addition – adorned with a slogan urging men to donate sperm – has its ironic side, since studies have suggested that those who cycle frequently are more likely both to become impotent and to have lower sperm counts (it’s to do with pressure from the saddle). But Peter Bower, the bank’s CEO, is not bothered: he pedals away, making the deliveries himself, noting, not surprisingly, that he is often stopped by passers-by.

Grist, a Seattle-based green web magazine, hails the bike as “the best sperm delivery system ever”, but one of its readers begs to differ, explaining: “Myself, I’m partial to the old-fashioned arrangement.”

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