Undergrazing on Llantysilio Mountain contributed to the devastating 2018 wildfire which destroyed 250 hectares of precious habitat, a Denbighshire County Council committee has concluded.
In a new report, the Communities Scrutiny Committee said grazing of sheep was ‘essential’ for the management of heathland, and a reduction in the number of graziers using the mountain meant there was reduced manpower for habitat management to prevent wildfires.
The committee opened an inquiry into the blaze after concerns were raised by councillors and residents about how it started and was handled.
As part of the probe, councillors took evidence from a range of bodies, including the Horseshoe Pass Graziers Association, which said the fall in demand for Welsh Mountain lambs made maintaining flocks economically unviable.
The group also claimed graziers with rights on the mountain were afraid to enter into land management agreements with Natural Resources Wales (NRW) because they feared the repercussions if they accidentally breached the rules or were unable to comply due to adverse weather conditions.
Farmers’ Union of Wales (FUW) vice president Ian Rickman told Farmers Guardian the council’s conclusions would be ‘little surprise’ to the farming community.
“The FUW has always been clear the key role of extensively grazed livestock cannot be ignored,” he said.
“Failing to manage the land properly and letting it go wild is of no benefit to the community, businesses, and of course the environment itself, and could mean fires such as these could be more frequent in future.”
Andrew Gilruth, director of communications at the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), welcomed the council’s report and its commitment to engaging with farmers.
“Since it is likely there will be other fires in future, it is eminently sensible to return to managing the land in a way which reduces the environmental and economic damage,” he said.
“This will include controlled burning, mowing and sheep grazing, but the Welsh Government will still need to decide how to incentivise graziers, landowners and agencies to work together.”
Landowners in the area who gave evidence to the committee claimed the firefighters responding to the incident had refused assistance from local farmers who offered toppers to cut firebreaks.
Although the cutting of firebreaks could have mitigated losses, the group suspected this offer of help was turned down on the grounds it might damage the land’s Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) status.
In 2018, Lydia Westhead-Painter, from Winter Hill near Bolton, claimed ignoring SSSI rules saved her family’s farm from a huge wildfire.
Despite being threatened with a £30,000 fine from Natural England, her father flail mowed rushes in one of his fields, creating a fresh grass firebreak which Ms Westhead-Painter credited with stopping the blaze from destroying the farm.