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Wildlife returns to Marsden Moor a year on from devastating fire, but threats persist

Rare ground-nesting birds and mountain hares whose habitats were destroyed during a devastating fire last year are returning to Marsden Moor in West Yorkshire.

Recent sightings of short-eared owls, curlews and skylarks as well as mountain hares over the winter, have given hope to rangers who feared the blaze could have wiped out entire populations.

On 21 April 2019, 700 hectares (1,730 acres) of precious peatland habitat were scorched and destroyed and years of restoration work undone. The fire, started by a disposable barbeque, took fire crews four days to extinguish and resulted in £500,000 of damage.

The peat soils, which are a vital defence in the fight against climate change, will take hundreds of years to recover.

But, over the winter, National Trust rangers and volunteers worked tirelessly to repair the moors for wildlife and to prevent future fires spreading, helped by £100,000 raised through a public fundraising appeal.

Work has included planting tens of thousands of individual sphagnum moss plugs and building leaky dams. These measures help to ‘rewet’ the moor by holding water while allowing carbon to be absorbed by the peat soils.

Rangers also cut vegetation breaks near carparks and alongside roads, to stop fire from spreading.

However, with the recent spell of dry weather and with resources stretched due to the coronavirus, the conservation charity is fearful its efforts may once again be lost to fire, and is calling on visitors and landowners to act responsibly during this time of national crisis.

In the last month alone three separate fires have broken out on or near the South Pennines site, including one started on neighbouring land which stretched for a mile and required 20 fire engines to extinguish.

Tom Harman, Lead Ranger at Marsden Moor, said: “It’s really positive to see wildlife returning to Marsden Moor after everything that happened last year. Many hands made it happen and they have worked so hard.

“But while the landscape might appear to have recovered, it’s just one kind of grass that has grown back – no heather, no moss, no flowers.

“After several smaller fires already this spring, we know the risk of another big fire hasn’t gone away. We lost 700 hectares of important habitat last year, and I don’t think our birds and animals could withstand another loss on that scale.

“It’s vital that at this time of national crisis we take pressure off the fire service who are trying to focus on supporting the NHS and vulnerable people.

“We’re doing all we can to protect the moor so that nature is still there for people to enjoy when all of this is over – but we need everyone’s help.

“We’re asking people to stay at home, but if they do have to come here for an essential journey, to be extra vigilant not to accidentally start a fire. Even a cigarette dropped out of a car window can have a catastrophic impact.”

2019 was the worst year on record for UK wildfires, with the unseasonably warm February and Easter contributing to blazes across the country.

Since last year’s blaze, the National Trust has helped local councils enforce a barbeque ban on the open moors and is continuing to raise public awareness with partners Yorkshire Water, Moors for the Future and West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service.

Lisa Harrowsmith, Yorkshire Water’s Land and Property Lead Surveyor said: “As two of the largest landholders in Yorkshire, Yorkshire Water and the National Trust have been working together to apply a joint approach to land management. This has meant acting together at times of crisis such as these fires but also working together on initiatives which will have a long-lasting effect on the landscape and communities of Yorkshire.”

Header image: National Trust Images.

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