A farmer has hit back at ’dangerous’ stewardship rules which she believes contributed to the spread of wildfires across the UK. Jim Gerrard reports...
Lydia Westhead-Painter, who farms on Winter Hill near Bolton, ignored the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) regulations placed on her unit last year and continued cut grass for grazing on the moorland - a move she said saved her farm.
Ms Westhead-Painter, of Horrocks Moor Farm, said: “Due to the field being mowed in May, fresh grass had come through which created a barrier against the fire.”
Horrocks Moor Farm was put under SSSI regulations last year which prevented the farm from cutting grass for grazing at the required time.
Despite being threatened with fines, the farm went ahead with mowing and this has acted as a firebreak for the Winter Hill wildfire which was approaching the farm and surrounding buildings.
Ms Westhead-Painter said: “My family have been farming this land for over 24 years. We have been trying to improve the harsh grazing pasture, as it is predominantly rushes, but whilst also creating a habitat for wildlife.
“Last year we were told we were being put into a SSSI even though we own the land and there was nothing we could do about it.
“In May my father went against the policies of Natural England and flail mowed rushes in one of our fields at the top of the moor on our boundary line. The very next day someone from Natural England was on the phone reprimanding him, threatening my family with £30,000 fines.
“The field in which was flail mowed was right on the sheep netting fence boundary of the fire which is no defence against a fire.”
She argued that the fresh grass acted as a fire break as the flames approached the field.
“It is truly amazing the difference it has made and it is frightening to think the consequences that could have occurred if we had not gone against the policies of Natural England.
“All our land would have been completely burned, it could have spread to all our farm buildings and home as well as a local house and nearby farm.
“The fire has come very close to other farms where grass hasn’t been topped as they are not allowed to cut the long grass.
Describing the landscape after the fire took hold, she added: “Miles upon miles of burned moorland that looks like something out of a film about the end of the world, rather than the biggest SSSI in the country.”
The land was designated a SSSI by Natural England which manages the site.
A Natural England spokesman said: “Fire and rescue services are leading the response to the major moorland fires and police have detained a 22-year-old man from Bolton on suspicion of arson in connection with Winter Hill.
“Wildfires are driven by a range of factors but hot, dry weather in spring and summer, and arson or a carelessly discarded cigarette, are often key - regrettably no fire risk system can prevent wildfires breaking out.
“SSSIs are protected by law to conserve wildlife or geology and any farmer struggling with day-to-day operations should contact their NE adviser or our helpline on 0300 060 3900 for support and guidance. Efforts to restore peatland habitats will ultimately make these areas more resilient to wildfire.”
Megan Needham, sheep farmer at Higher Knoll Farm also on Winter Hill, said she has lost nearly all of her moorland grazing for the farms sheep due to the wildfire. She claimed Stewardship regulations could have contributed to the rapid spread of the fire.
She said: “For quite a number of years now, we have been complying with lots of regulations regarding Stewardships, which includes grazing less stock on the moor and no more controlled burning.
“Over the past few years with sufficient wet weather, these measures have not caused a problem. However, this year with such extreme heat and dryness, the scale of these fires of both Saddleworth and Winter Hill was pretty much inevitable if started.
“We have lost pretty much all of our moorland grazing to this fire and grass is running out at home. We are now going to have to look for alternative land to graze, but as many farmers know finding it is not that easy.”