In June 2018 there was extensive media coverage of two large moorland fires in the hills above Manchester, showing images of the fires, the ecological devastation they caused, and the brave and exhausted firefighters tackling the blaze.
Between them, the fires at Stalybridge and Winter Hill covered a huge area – the equivalent of 2,300 football pitches. Over half of the affected area is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Both sites are also popular recreational spots for local communities, and much of the area is catchment land for drinking water supplies.
The response during the fires was impressive with emergency services, local authorities, landowners and tenants all working together to limit the damage as best they could. Our own land management, emergency response and grounds maintenance teams, along with three helicopters we hired, added to the firefighting effort being coordinated by Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service.
The fires caused significant damage to surface vegetation and to the infrastructure used to protect and manage the area, including fences and access routes. The aftermath was distressing for the organisations whose efforts to restore these valuable landscapes had been left in ashes.
Nature itself can be quite resilient, as the green shoots present a few weeks after the fires showed, but the longer-term recovery and resilience of these areas will take time to secure and achieve.
The visible surface damage is only part of the story. Many of the benefits we all derive from these special habitats will take longer to re-establish. Deep burns across areas of peat caused serious releases of sequestered carbon. The amount of CO2 released is estimated at over 26,000 tonnes, with an estimated value of more than £1.5 million. To restore this peatland to a point where it is again actively locking up carbon will take time, effort and investment.
A wide range of stakeholders have an interest in the recovery of the moorland. Government funding has been made available to help the restoration and efforts to make the moorland more resilient.
The immediate response to the wildfires and the subsequent recovery have required unprecedented levels of partnership working and will continue to need well-coordinated and consistent management and communications for the foreseeable future.
We hope that restoration of 'blanket bog' can be achieved so that once again it can provide the wide range of benefits to all stakeholders. Just as important is making sure any activities improve the resilience of this wonderful habitat.