The ground was bone dry and everything was flowering early. I was up at Poundbury (near Dorchester), checking on an area of wildflower meadow that I’d arranged to have sown. After the incessant downpours of the Autumn and Winter, the rain stopped. Then we had just 60mm of rain across two months. It was yet another clear blue day, when I noticed an odd-looking cloud on the eastern horizon.
Then I realized it wasn’t a cloud. It was smoke. A vast pall of smoke, billowing high into the air.
Returning home, I checked the news. The fire was out of control, spreading across hundreds of acres of Wareham Forest. Flames leapt up 20 metres and more, to the canopy of tall mature conifers. It took fire crews and Forestry Commission staff two weeks before the fire was finally extinguished, by which time it had raged across 220 hectares of land.
The ‘Forest’ isn’t really a forest. It is a 1500-hectare modern conifer plantation planted on one of the fragments of what was once a vast heath stretching across Dorset, from the Hampshire border to Dorchester, immortalised by Thomas Hardy as ‘Egdon Heath’. Over 80 per cent of the former lowland heathland area has been destroyed or damaged, particularly during the 20th century. One of the reasons heathland disappeared was because it was planted with conifers by the Forestry Commission. The Commission acquired the heaths that would become Wareham Forest in 1924 and commenced planting what they regarded as worthless wasteland with fast-growing conifers. The country had almost run out of wood (for pit props) during the First World War and, as land prices crashed during the agricultural depression, the State snapped up land very cheaply, with the aim of securing future national timber supplies.
Wareham Forest comprises land leased by local landowning estates to the Government. The problem was that heathland has extremely poor soils. This is why it is heathland, because only the hardiest wild plants, including heather, can grow there. The heath is also wet – in places it is bog, with several metres of peat. The Forestry Commission set about trying to convert this wild place with poor wet soils (but thriving wildlife) into a suitable place for conifers to grow. They ploughed the soil into ridges so the trees could be a few inches above the water table. They drained the bogs.
During the Second World War, when once again the nation needed to draw on its own timber supplies, “lumberjills” from the Women’s Land Army lived in huts in the Forest, or were billeted in nearby Wareham. The lumberjills continued felling trees, planting trees, clearing drainage ditches and managing the forest, but the soils were so infertile that the trees produced were low quality – and always vulnerable to fires.
After an exceptionally dry summer in 1947, Wareham Forest burnt in October. The fire even made it into “Life” magazine. That time it burned for four days, fuelled by the trees and ammunition dumps left over from soldiers training for D-Day. Fire was clearly a problem at Wareham Forest from its earliest days. In 1969 Francis Parsons, Chief Forester for Wareham Forest, was awarded the MBE for “his outstanding work in fire control”.
It was not fully appreciated in the 1920s that lowland heathland is a very important wildlife habitat – and that England has an international responsibility for its conservation. For 30 years now, however, the Forestry Commission has recognised that lowland heathland is valuable for wildlife, and has, commendably, started to remove some of the conifers to restore heathland, but large areas still remain. Cattle grazing has been reintroduced to a small area of the Forest to aid recovery from the damaging effects of planting conifers.
Fire is no stranger to lowland heathland. Fire contributed to the creation of the lowland heaths that once covered large parts of England – perhaps as long ago as the Mesolithic period, before the advent of farming. By the time farming became established in the Neolithic period, heaths were present, maintained by deliberate burning, and grazing by domestic livestock. This usage, alongside other resources provided by the heaths, ensured they were a valued part of the economy until the 19th century, when they started to be perceived as waste land. Many were commons, and subjected to enclosure and conversion into agricultural land. Fire continued to be used, to create lush new spring growth for livestock to graze.
Fire, when carried out sensitively, does no lasting damage to the heathland wildlife, and small regular fires (combined with grazing) prevent fuel from building up. Forestry management, by contrast, creates dense stands of flammable conifer trees. It also creates brash (what’s left over after the economic trunk of the tree has been harvested) that is left on the ground. Both live trees and brash create large sources of fuel for uncontrolled, devastating fires such as the one in May.
It’s almost certain that the 20 May fire was caused by a disposable barbecue: several were found by the Fire Service. Dorset Council is now considering a ban on the sale of what are effectively fire-bombs, when lit on tinder-dry heaths. The Government has changed the Countryside Code, such that it now states “Don’t have Barbecues”. The Forestry Commission have erected signs to the same effect.
Updating the Countryside Code and installing signs is an obvious reaction, but its success presupposes that those intent on having an enjoyable outdoor experience would take any notice of signs and ‘codes’. Covid-19 has created increased demand for access to the countryside. It seems likely this additional demand will continue through the summer and autumn while other leisure activities are still curtailed. Furthermore, acess continues to rise, as more houses are built in the area.
The Forestry Commission has launched a ‘crowdfunder’ appeal, asking for the public to raise funds for Wareham Forest, including for “restocking.” Restocking means replanting with conifers, on heathland.
We are now in the midst of a climate and ecological emergency, with our climate shifting to a pattern where droughts are more frequent, increasing the risk of fire. Instead of planting more conifers to replace those destroyed by fire, it would be better to restore the heath through more grazing – even bringing back lost species, as has been done in Kent. As Dr Lesley Haskins of the Erica Trust, a charity dedicated to heathland conservation, points out:
“To be asking the public to fund this restocking of these pines, especially at this time, is nothing short of shocking.”
Covid-19 could provide the opportunity for us to rethink many aspects of our lives. It could also be the catalyst for a different way of thinking about land, especially public land. Restoring ‘Wareham Forest’ to Wareham Heath might be an example for others to follow.
This article was originally posted on West Country Bylines
Single use barbecues sadly are as you describe ‘fire-bombs’ in the hands of irresponsible and thoughtless public and which in my opinion need to be banned (yes, I appreciate there are some who enjoy them in their own gardens without incident).
Around the same time Wareham was burning, 700 hectares, half of Hatfield Moors SSSI in South Yorkshire was lost to a wildfire, tragically much might have been averted if Natural England had had a Fire Management Plan for the site, but they hadn’t and whilst nature will heal the damage over time in the interim an internationally important nightjar population suffered as did the declining adder already under stress from human disturbance (dogs and photographers), then there’s the issue of carbon emission as well as damage to the sequestering potential of the site. Tony Juniper did visit but little has happened since. The fire on Hatfield Moors SSSI lasted around 50 days, but here in the ‘grim north’ it was deemed not particularly newsworthy.
There is talk of a Critical Incident Review, but will its findings be made public and will there be accountability – if past incidents are anything to go by it’s unlikely. Will lessons be learned, will future risk be better managed and mitigated for, we can but live in hope – wonder what odds I’d get from a bookmaker ….
I certainly won’t be contributing to the planting up of heathland, just for the sake of tree target tick box exercise because of the reasons you list – we need to bring about the return of the ‘wild’ heaths and recognise them for the valuable habitat they are.
“To be asking the public to fund this restocking of these pines, especially at this time, is nothing short of shocking.” I wonder is there anything we can do to prevent this happening? Who can we write to? Or is there a petition to sign?
thanks Sue. You can write to Mike Seddon CEO of Forestry England – the email address is email@example.com
I have drafted an email to Mr Seddon but I would like to run it by you before I send it off to ensure that I have got my facts straight. How can I do that?
cut and paste it on here as a comment
This is the reply I received:
Thank you for your email to Mike Seddon who has the management responsibility for the nation’s forests and has asked that I respond to the points you raise below regarding the crowd funding for Wareham Forest.
As you know, the fire at Wareham was devastating to a fabulous heathland forest and the matrix of habitats and species that occupied that space. The crowd-funding is to serve multiple purposes associated with the restoration of the area damaged by fire, not solely related with some tree planting. There will be good landscape, carbon and social benefit reasons for some trees to go back onto the site, alongside re-establishment of heath, sand scrapes and other biodiversity aspects.
Whilst an immediate recovery plan is already in process, a longer term forest plan guides the development of the habitat types, and this takes account of both national and local policy drivers and community views.
You may have already seen our webpages dedicated to Wareham Forest, but if not the latest information can be found at https://www.forestryengland.uk/help-wareham-forest
Corporate Governance Manager (CEO’s Office)
National Office, Bristol
Thank you for this; very typical of the increasingly diabolical country and world we are living in presently.
The policies and processes at fault here would be so much better determined at a local level – for the reasons many have pointed out previously, from Schumacher to Kropotkin.
Local interests, insights and effort will always better those determined remotely.
I think some of the land involved is leased on the basis that FE can only grow trees on it. In the current circumstances however you would think this should be challenged. The England Tree Strategy encourages “the right tree in the right place” and goes on to highlight the need to “be sensitive to existing features and habitats,”. I suspect they are thinking mainly of peatland but as you point out the whole area at Wareham is perfect for restoration to a mix of dry heath, wet heath and bog. Government is still lacking in joined up thinking.
thanks Diana yes I’ve also read that. But FC has already removed some pines on Wareham heath permanently so in that case they are already breaking the terms of the lease.
Draft email to Mike Seddon:
To Mike Seddon CEO of Forestry England
Dear Mr Seddon
I am writing to you about the crowdfunding being run by Forestry England to raise money to restock Pines on Wareham Forest, which were destroyed by fire. As the original Pines were planted at a time when the value of the heathland habitat was not appreciated and the Pines would since appear to be have been the underlying cause of forest fires, it seems extraordinary that Forestry England is asking people to donate to a repetition of an inappropriate planting. The whole area at Wareham is surely perfect for restoration to a mix of dry heath, wet heath and bog. It would seem that Government is still lacking in joined up thinking. I believe that local interests, insights and effort will always better those determined remotely by central government.
Please question the wisdom of the approach being adopted at Waring Forest.
that’s great Sue – just one typo at the end – Wareham Forest.
Thanks, Miles – I’ll send it off. Sue
I think that this is a great example of an issue where the Forestry Commission already have an excellent policy document “When to convert woods and forests to open habitats in England” that was prepared after wide consultation and which they seem to conveniently ignore when it is most needed!
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