Fala Moor is speckled just now with the gorgeous white lambswool-like tufts of bog cotton. I’ve been gathering in stuff from up there along with “Wind Resistance” director, Wils Wilson. The drying pulley in my kitchen is hung with sedges and grasses, and I have tiny fragments of lime green, raspbery red and copper-hued moss laid out on the piano. Sphagnum cuspidatum. Shpagnum capillofolium. And so-called glittering wood moss. The close-up detail of the colour is quite beautiful.
one day your burned me til my skin turned black
and my mouth like a desert couldn’t sob or sigh
in the dry days that followed I heard the moorcock cry
go back go back go back
Bogs are by nature wetlands. Indeed, Fala Moor is defined as a Wetland of International Importance. Under EU legislation (while it still applies …), it’s an SPA, a Special Protected Area. Under UK legislation it’s a SSSI, a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Yes, bogs are wet. When they cease to be wet, they’re no longer bogs.
A glance at Fala Flow on Google Earth reveals a mottled patchwork surface and a visible smoke plume in the north eastern corner of the moor. This is evidence of muirburn, an autumn/winter gamekeeping practice that involves burning strips of heather moorland on a cyclical 10 to 20 year basis. Its chief contemporary purpose is to cultivate Red Grouse numbers on commercial shooting estates. Red Grouse seek cover in mature heather but prefer to feed on new shoots that burst forth after burning.
Muirburn is governed in Scotland by the Scottish Government’s Muirburn Code.
It has a long history, as much else on the moor does. And it’s complicated.
Nowadays, it’s a controversial management strategy which fiercely divides ecological opinion about what it is to “look after” designated areas of land and which interests are served by the kinds of stewardship we support.
As a practice, muirburn does indeed protect Red Grouse numbers and there’s some evidence that it appears to reduce, for example, deer tick populations. The grouse shooting industry (and it is an industry, like any other), whatever ethical stance you take on the activity itself (and you can catch me for a pint sometime about mine), is a supplier of hundreds of rural jobs. It’s a powerful economic and political lobby, which has identified itself with the cause of sustainable environmental stewardship. The Heather Trust, for example, is essentially an alliance of game estates. Its stated intent is to “promote integrated and sustainable moorland management for agricultural, environmental, sporting and conservation uses”.
This is not straightforward.
The Scottish Wildlife Trust believes there should be a “presumption against burning any blanket peatlands or raised mires”. And it raises concerns regarding grouse moor mamagement that relate to the integrity of deep peat ecology and hydrology and the effect on biodiversity, in particular upon ground nesting birds and prey birds. It urges more scientific research.
Fala Moor is a blanket bog of raised peat.
The current RSPB director Martin Harper has also written recently about the importance of “proper regulation of an industry whose unfettered ambitions to produce ever higher red grouse numbers for the gun are causing growing concern over the direct and indirect impacts on wildlife, including hen harriers and other raptors, the ability of our moorlands to cope with increasing rainfall and to play a part in reducing the risk of catastrophic floods downstream, and the impact on deep peat soils that lock up carbon and prevent its release into the atmosphere and into our drinking water.”
It’s complex, this “looking after” business. And it reveals a great deal about how we, individually and collectively, view our environment, and the life forms with which we share it.
What is for us? What do we want, even demand, from this land and its life?
At Fala, an intentional muir burn in 2000 blew out of control. It’s not clear what long term impact that fire has had on the bog’s wetland viability but its current formal status, according to Scottish Natural Heritage, who monitor the site, has been “unfavourable” ever since.
What is to protect? What is protected? By whom? And why? What really matters to us?