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Rural backlash at 'poor' national media reporting of wildfire causes

Rural organisations and individuals have hit back over ‘misleading’ reports relating to the cause of the Saddleworth and Winter Hill wildfires. Jim Gerrard reports.

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Rural backlash at 'poor' media reporting of wildfire causes

Environmental campaigner and Guardian columnist George Monbiot commented that grouse shooting was to blame for the size and intensity of the fires which have raged in the North West of England for more than a week.


Writing in the Guardian, Mr Monbiot said: “It appears highly likely that the extent of the fires causing such trauma and damage is yet another outcome of this extraordinarily destructive ‘sport’.


“Were the moors not drained and cleared for grouse shooting, the ground would be wetter and the heather monoculture replaced by a far richer set of habitats, dominated by woodland.”


His comments have been condemned by the Games and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) and Countryside Alliance.



Andrew Gilruth, director of communications for the GWCT, said: “George Monbiot’s suggestion that we should cover our moors in trees, because they do not burn, is daft. The biggest wildfires in Scotland have involved regenerated forests.


“No doubt those dedicated to protecting our moorland wildlife and the ten million visitors attracted the beauty of the Peak District would agree.”


The wildfire on Saddleworth Moor began on Sunday June 24 and continues to burn as Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue say that the fire could take weeks to put out. At the same time, a separate wildfire on Winter Hill nearby continues to grow and intensify.



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Liam Stokes, Countryside Alliance’s Head of Shooting, said: “People who love that part of the world have come together to risk their lives to battle the blaze, but unfortunately, far from the frontline, columnists and campaigners have sought to use the fire to advance their own agendas.”


In contrast to Mr Monbiot’s comments, Mr Stokes said gamekeepers were one of many groups helping fire fighters to control and extinguish the blaze, saying ‘their knowledge and expertise is invaluable’.


“Upland management is incredibly complicated. Pointing the finger of blame at one group of people, the very people with the knowledge and experience to navigate that complexity, is just wrong on every conceivable level,” he added.


The National Sheep Association (NSA) said the rewilding of upland areas – something Mr Monbiot has repeatedly campaigned for - was actually contributing to the spread of wildfires.


Returning more upland regions to livestock grazing could not only prevent the risk of wildfires but also be beneficial to the environment, the NSA said.



NSA chief executive Phil Stocker said: “Wildfires are becoming more common across the UK, in part due to a loss of grazing animals and an increase in high volumes of dry vegetation.


“The grazed nature of most of our uplands has, in the past, protected us from out of control fires, meaning that when fires occur as they inevitably will, they are short lived and relatively easy to get under control.


“The NSA is not aiming to win political gain from a clearly distressing and damaging event and our thoughts go to all affected in the area, however we do feel the need to point out that moves to re-wild many of our upland areas would put far more and far larger areas at risks.”



Backlash to other media coverage of the Winter Hill wildfire has reached social media as one moorland farmer complained of the false claims by ‘experts’ of why the Winter Hill wildfire has occurred and was spreading so quickly.


Megan Needham, sheep farmer at Higher Knoll Farm on Winter Hill, near Bolton, backed up the NSA’s advice.


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.


“This is to establish the growth of heather on the moor and encourage ground nesting birds along with many other environmental benefits on our English moorlands.


“Although this is a good Idea in theory, unfortunately it has also left us with an increased expanse of dead grass on our uplands.


“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.



“Luckily our stock, unlike the farmers on Saddleworth, didn’t get caught up in the fire as they were down on the farm for shearing when the fire started. They were due to go back up on the fell this week.


“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.


“Our alternative is to start supplementary feeding but either way both are costs we could do without, especially after the hard winter where the price of forage was up due to shortages. We would however like to thank all the fire fighters and everyone who has pulled together to help tackle these fires.”

As the moorland fires continue to burn, there has been backlash across social media calling for The Lights Fest, due to take place on Saturday July 28th at Buxton, to be cancelled. The festival involves releasing thousands of sky lanterns close to the moors of the Peak District.


Farmers Guardian have campaigned for a ban on sky lanterns through the initiative #SayNoToSkyLanterns



Ruth George, Labour MP for High Peak, has created an online petition to cancel the event in light of the wildfires. Nearly 10,000 people have already signed the petition.



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