Photos of 2011 Upton Heath fire by Noel Bergin and Dorset Wildlife Trust
Memories of the vast 2011 Upton Heath fire have been rekindled this July as three separate heathland wild fires have caused destruction and devastation to some of Dorset’s most beautiful and important flora and fauna. The fires, all believed to have been started deliberately, have been so ferocious due to the recent scorching weather conditions, coupled with a fanning breeze.
The internationally important lowland heaths at Studland were the first to be targeted with the blaze starting near to the Knoll House Hotel earlier this month. The site supports large populations of Dartford warblers, nightjars and all six British reptile species. Roughly one hectare of heath, gorse and trees were destroyed creating a smoke plume visible from Bournemouth beach. 60 firefighters battled for 90 minutes to control the flames and prevent further loss of animal and plant life within this Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
Next came the larger Canford Heath blaze, on 16th July, which saw 3 patches of heathland turned to ash covering an area of around seven hectares. This mature heath may take between 15-20 years to reach its previous biodiversity and beauty, taking a great toll on the abundance of creatures and plants that were, until recently, flourishing as birds and reptiles were in the peak of their breeding seasons. The fires are also likely to have a detrimental impact on the seed banks in the ground as the smoldering peat restricts the ability of the heath to quickly bounce back.
The most recent loss of Dorset heathland, and just 24 hours after the Canford Heath fire, was at Ham Common where a hectare was set ablaze with smoke visible from several miles away, including the recently burnt Canford Heath. Due to the time of year, almost all animals were above ground at the time of the fire. Animal losses are not just a direct result of the fire, as any survivors will have little protection or cover making them very vulnerable to predation from gulls and corvids.
Paul Attwell of the Urban Heaths Partnership said, "Our partnership works hard to protect and enhance internationally important heathland sites we are so lucky to have within Dorset. These sites are home to all six native species of reptile, Dartford Warblers and visiting Nightjars, as well as important heathland flora and other fauna. Any fire at this time of year is likely to be even more detrimental to this rare habitat and does result in the death of some of these rare species. Recovery of the heathland can take up to 20 years causing detriment to the future of these species. We ask for anyone visiting a heathland site to be extra vigilant during the warm summer weather and report anything suspicious, either by calling 101 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111."
Steve Davis of Dorset Wildlife Trust said, “We can all play our part to protect our heathlands by keeping an eye open for signs of smoke or fire (Dial 999 in this case) or suspicious behaviour (Dial 101), not just in heathlands but all areas of the landscape. In these conditions a small fire will quickly become a larger, harder to control blaze. It is better to err on the side of caution and report an incident early than delay and see the lives of people and wildlife put at risk.”
If you want to help preserve the beauty and biodiversity of our heathlands please sign up to HeathWatch here.
If you see a heath fire please report it to the emergency services and evacuate the area, do not try to control the fire yourself.