Machinery and Muirburning

When maintaining heather at altitude, the machinery you can get up there can often be a determining factor in selecting your methods, explains Davy Thomas.

“Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango?” Freddie Mercury’s immortal voice boomed through the speakers in the tractor cab, as I swiped the edge of a fire.

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It was now early afternoon, and we had been burning hard since the morning dew had been expelled by the April sun. “Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very frightening… me!” I sang appallingly at the top of my voice, blissfully unaware as to what was about to happen. The boys outside were grafting away at a steady pace making sure the sides and back burn was not crossing the edges I had pre-cut in the morning with the three-chained swipe. It was absolute searing heat, burning it down to the mud while heather feet in front of the flames fizzed, then crackled, before bursting into flames. I carried on up the edge in my own content little world.

“Galileo, (Galileo)… Galileo, (Galileo), Galileo Figaro… Magnifico!” and then … WOOOMMFF!

In an instant the whole cab filled with a dense, choking white smoke that rendered it impossible to see from within. Eyes streaming and holding my breath, all I could do was drive to the right of the glow until I was well enough away. I leapt out of the cab at a speed equal only to that of a confused looking man leaving a Thai brothel.

I had been taking risks, yes, but not for one moment had I expected the air-conditioning unit, which was running full-pelt, to suck in a spark and ignite the top of the tractor at such speed. Fortunately the argocat fitted with a mobile fogging unit was close at hand and we managed to soak it enough, while pulling off various panels, to extinguish the flames. And thus I managed to avoid the inevitable career-limiting chat with my then employer.

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For a gamekeeper, or an ecologist of sound mind (same thing), the carpet of fresh heather shoots regenerating on a two- or three-year-old fire, is gripping stuff. However, there are occasional opinions out there suggesting the benefits of purely swiping and not burning, thus leaving snakelike marks all over a hillside and achieving only the carbon footprint of a yeti. These opinions are rarely backed up with hard evidence of good results, except for one area I can think of where it just so happens that good keepers are working hard to get grouse on the boundaries. Many conservationists are not too keen on burning into riverbanks, as it is viewed as destruction of overhanging vegetation which feeds the aquatic ecosystem with a steady supply of insects, but I would argue that it is a much more ‘green’ firebreak that a swiped one, and in the long term the vegetation will be much more favourable. And let’s be honest, most gamekeeping duties are all about long term benefits.

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Dual wheeled tractors with swiping systems, Argo fogging units, knapsack sprayers, heather rakes, even leaf-blowers, are in use and all have their place in the right environments for fire control; there really is some great kit out there. But for me, and some of the places I need to break up are either too wet underneath or simply too steep to operate such machinery. My personal preference at the moment is a lightweight, long shafted gas burner usually used for incinerating patio weeds. Extra gas can be easily carried in your piece bag. As a firebeater, the good old rubber flap on the end of a light, but strong shaft. Quarries are usually good places to get rubber to make them as their conveyer belts often break. Heather rakes are great, but not much use among the rocks. Depending upon conditions, for grouse fires we usually light three, then begin extinguishing the first, then second, then third. Then repeating the whole process all over again, and with more than one keeper at it, we can achieve a decent amount each while staying in contact by radio. This method enables us to be entirely mobile and independent all day, unless of course you require your colleague’s assistance when one encounters the bowel-collapsing moment a fire gets away.

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With our rocky high tops, deep wide burns, lochs and bogs, a lost fire generally won’t go too far, but my greatest concern is losing too much good grouse ground as much of the place is over 1000ft and as such, the heather return rate is much slower than average. Initially I had large fires here, for deer and grouse, preferring to look upon it as taking a long-term view. But it took so long to get into many areas that it made good sense. However, with access now vastly improved into the areas that naturally have the most suitable habitat, our effectiveness has improved greatly in every aspect and hence we are able to have many smaller fires.

Let’s not forget that, as per the Muirburning Code, we are required by law to inform the emergency services, supplying information such as emergency access, contact telephone number (if in signal) and at least a starting grid reference, prior to lighting and then to inform them when you are finished. Surprisingly, that also includes the police. I learned this in my first spring here when I triggered a mountain rescue callout when some individual who had clearly escaped Darwin’s theory had telephoned the police reporting somebody on a hillside lighting fires to create some sort of distress signal. But clearly, it had taken some amount of effort to get those half dozen fires going, more in fact, one would think, than it would take to walk off the hill to the road and wave down a passing car should I require medical attention.

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I have worked on estates with different mindsets, from those that panic each time the keeper lights a match, to those who believe the ‘bigger the better’ and, if all else fails, ‘it’ll go out when it hits the sea.’

But whatever your method or motive, when that time of year comes around, what else can I say but, in the words of poor old Mr Mercury; ‘It’s a kind of magic.’

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