How moors ravaged by the ‘worst fire in living memory’ are becoming Britain’s newest forest

23 March 2020

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UK (ENGLAND) – In 2018, an enormous fire tore through the moorland above Bolton leaving nothing living in its wake.

In the middle of a scorching hot summer, the Winter Hill blaze continued to burn for 41 days across an area larger than 2,500 football pitches.

It destroyed everything in its path and even spread underground into the peat bog metres beneath the surface of the moors.

When it was finally brought under control, it had wiped out every living thing down to a microscopic level.

Plant life was decimated and the only animals left were those quick enough to flee from the oncoming flames.

Experts estimate it could take a decade for the habitats in the area to fully recuperate from the devastating impact of the fire.

But, in the year-and-a-half since the flames scorched the land, the shoots of recovery can already be seen.

And, thanks to the mammoth effort of thousands of volunteers, it could now be the site of a completely new habitat not seen on those hills for 10,000 years.

The forest

The land around Winter Hill is mostly managed by the Woodland Trust.

In fact, the near 1,700-acre Smithills Estate – stretching from the Winter Hill TV mast to the historic Smithills Hall – is the biggest site that the charity owns.

Throughout 2019, the trust organised mass plantings which saw thousands of volunteers descend on the area and begin to sow seeds of new trees.

Wildlife expert Russell Hedley was working for the Woodland Trust when the Winter Hill fire happened. He now runs a business educating people about their local flora and fauna.

He explained that the trees are being planted as part of a special project run by the trust as part of the government’s Northern Forest initiative.

When it is completed the Northern Forest will include 50 million trees in sections of woodland stretching from Liverpool to Hull. It is hoped that 130,000 of these saplings will be put down on the Smithills Estate between 2019 and 2024.

These new patches of woodland could entice different species of animals to come and live in the area.

“What we’re hoping is that by increasing the tree cover on the Smithills Estate from 10pc to 20pc that will mean there is enough habitat for new species to be encouraged in and start breeding,” Mr Hedley explained.

“It also means you connect up the existing woodland which on the estate is partly isolated so it’s currently hard for some birds to get to that woodland.

“If you plant saplings between the different woods it means the movement of animals across the estates is much improved.”

This method could open avenues for new birds, insects and other fauna to find its way to Winter Hill.

It is thought that parts of the area could have been woodland as far back as 10,000 years ago before humans began to clear sections to use for farms.

Now, the slopes of Winter Hill could be covered by trees again although the saplings will take decades to mature.

Mr Hedley added: “We will probably be looking at between 15 and 20 years to see them reach canopy height, which means that the canopy will start to close between them.

“Then maybe another 20 years to mature into what looks to most people as woods rather than scrub but because Smithills is such an open area the rate of growth may be slower.”

Fears over the future

Mr Hedley believes that the Winter Hill fire and other extreme weather conditions such as recent flooding could be symptoms of global climate change.

“The biggest thing with climate change is that rather than the temperature just going up, what it seems to be meaning is that the extreme weather events are becoming more common,” he said.

“So one year we’ll have the worst fire in living memory and that winter we’ll have serious bad flooding.”

He added: “Fires are common but the fact that the 2018 fire was so big is testament to how dry that winter, spring and summer had been. It was a tinderbox waiting to go off.”

As well as planting trees, the Woodland Trust is doing its part to help tackle climate change by trialling anti-flooding measures.

These tactics have been tested on the moorland at the Smithills Estate in areas that were not destroyed by the fire and are already showing positive results.

Projects which embrace the environment, including natural dams and trenches, have been shown to effectively slow the flow off the hills and reduce the frequency of floods.

But, another fire on the scale of the 2018 blaze could put pay to the good work currently going on at the estate.

Unfortunately, despite repeated warnings the Woodland Trust is still getting reports of people setting fires and using barbecues on the moorland.

“Since the fire we’ve put signs out to just ask people to think twice about setting fires, especially with disposable barbecues,” Mr Hedley said.

“We need people to be responsible when they are out there on the moorland. But, sadly it is something we still do get happening every year.”

To get involved in the work of the Woodland Trust in Bolton or to make a donation to the charity, visit: .

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