Please, I beg you – don’t burn down my forest.

Spring is finally coming. And I’m absolutely terrified of what it seems certain to bring.

Fire.

In March we had a spell of warm weather that lasted just over ten days. But that was time enough for our landscape to suffer a terrible spate of destructive wildfires.

The Isle of Lewis burned. Ben Lomond burned. Gruinard Island burned. Cumbria burned. The Isle of Skye burned. Glen Etive burned. The Ochils burned.

That’s not all. You’ve only to type ‘Highlands wildfire’ into google and look at the news results to realise that you’re scratching at the surface. Every years thousands of acres of the Scottish countryside are going up in smoke and flame; severely damaging habitats and burning wildlife alive.

I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Last year a fire broke out here in the Cairngorms National Park among the Caledonian Pine Forests of Glenmore. I saw it as we were descending from Cairngorm – the pillars of smoke black and horrifying as trees were engulfed in flame. I’ve walked through the aftermath of that and other fires – the forest dead and stinking where it should be green and fragrant.

The thought that terrifies me is that a big one is coming. More of us than ever before are now spending time in the landscape for recreation and pleasure – and the upswing in numbers visiting the Highlands since the start of the pandemic has been massive. Combine this with climate change, which is making the conditions of unseasonably dry, settled weather all the more likely, and we have the conditions for a perfect nightmare on our hands.

So, I don’t know if it will make a damn bit of difference, but I decided to write this post in hope that it will help educate and inform. Because if there’s anything at all I can do to help preserve our forests from the threat they now face, then I have to give it a shot.

Scotland’s Forests

Around 18% of the Scottish landscape is covered by woodland today. That’s more than there used to be, but still way below the European average. We’re still a country that is nature depleted. Furthermore, only a tiny fraction of our forests – about 4% – is actually ‘real’ natural forest. The rest is mostly commercial plantation.

Plantations are good for a few things, but they’re not forests. They are a good way of getting nice straight crops of wood for the timber industry. They help governments look good by claiming they’re planting lots of trees. But they don’t act as carbon sinks, like real forests do. They don’t create resiliency in the biosphere, like real forests do. They don’t help maintain long-term security against flooding, like real forests do.

Old growth forest in the Cairngorms. A rich tapestry of life, full of complex relationships between species. Far more than just trees.

In the context of the global climate emergency, we urgently need to protect Scotland’s old growth forests. More than this – we need to do everything we can to help them regenerate and spread. We need them to lock up carbon, to provide a resilient home for nature, to clean and slow our rivers, oxygenate our air, and a hundred things more that we never see, but still need.

There are increasingly ambitious projects now in play to make that happen, such as the Cairngorms Connect and Affric Highlands projects. But at the same time, the forests we have are coming under increasingly relentless pressure from recreational users.

The pandemic unleashed a tidal wave of humanity into Scotland’s forests, desperate to find clean, green space and enjoy themselves amid difficult times. I don’t blame them. Heck I’m one of them. And I also believe that getting people to spend more time in nature is of critical importance, for more reasons than I have time for here.

But it’s that small fraction of natural woodland that has to endure the great majority of pressure from human use. No surprises there, because if you want to head out for some outdoor recreation would you rather do it in a dense, spiky plantation or a beautiful Caledonian forest? I know which one I prefer.

Unfortunately though, not all of us understand the responsibilities we must bear while enjoying these precious places, or appreciate the constraints that it must place upon the experiences we seek.

Right of Responsible Access

In the pursuit of my photography I have spent thousands of days exploring the Caledonian forest. And I’ve spent many nights there in my tent, sleeping beneath the stars and seeking a deeper connection with nature. It’s an incredible experience and privilege that I would not begrudge to anyone.

But to do so, we must walk the lines between our own desires, our rights, and our responsibilities.

Scotland enjoys some of the most liberating access laws in the world, which give us a right of responsible access to most of the Scottish countryside. Responsible access, though, and it seems that we increasingly do not know what that means.

We’re not entitled to simply go and do whatever we want. We enjoy tremendous freedom, yes, but it’s not limitless. There are times when we have to put the needs of the landscape above our own desires.

Campfires – What the Law Says

I would absolutely love to go out tonight with a group of friends and build a campfire in the woods together. There’s an image in my head of a twinkling campfire under starry skies beside a still, moonlit loch, which is a very compelling. It’s an experience I would not begrudge to anyone, because it’s a powerful, wonderful thing to do.

I grew up watching Ray Mears do bushcraft on TV and make fire out of nothing but sticks, and I absolutely agree with his assessment that fire means more than just heat and light – it means community, it means company and it’s a massive morale booster.

But we have to move away from the assumption that just because you’re going camping that a fire must be made. I understand that it’s a hugely enjoyable part of the experience, but again, we have to learn to walk the line between what we want, what the law permits, and what the land can endure.

So here’s the deal, as simply put as it can be. If you’re camping in a woodland in Scotland, then don’t make a fire. End of story.

This isn’t just my opinion. Our access laws are clear on this.

People frequently appear to be willing to ignore this piece of the law for the sake of their own pleasure. Or perhaps the idea of a campfire is just so ingrained in our culture and our image of ‘camping’ that it’s something they never even consider doing without.

You could argue at a stretch that the guidance above isn’t that clear – it sounds like there is a grey area there, right? If you do wish to have a fire then keep it small, leave no trace and everything is fine?

No. Because it’s not just our access laws that forbid fires in the Caledonian Forest. Many areas, such as Rothiemurchus, are given additional legal protection by the fact that they are also awarded one or more ‘Natural Heritage Designations’.

For example, Rothiemurchus forest is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) due the rarity of it’s old growth forest. It is also designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA) – an EU designation not affected by Brexit – which identifies areas of importance due to their value in a global context. And, as if that’s not enough, it’s also designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) to safeguard it’s precious habitats which form a home for many rare and endangered species.

What do all those designations mean? Well in real terms, to you and me, it means that it’s a criminal offence to recklessly or deliberately cause damage to the protected landscape, and the plants and animals in it. That includes the trees, the ground, and the wildlife – all of which are damaged in the process of making a campfire.

This isn’t to say we can’t ever have campfires – we can. But we need to think more carefully about where. Because here’s the thing. Damage is unavoidable, even if you have the skills to leave no trace. There’s no such thing as a zero-impact fire. And, if something does go wrong, then the consequences can be catastrophic for nature.

Isn’t Fire Natural?

At this point you might be thinking to yourself – hang on, isn’t fire a natural part of nature anyway? Doesn’t the forest need occasional fires to thrive?

Well, yes, but it’s a question of context. Some forests are more adapted to fire than others. Some forests do indeed need fire to thrive. There is even a boreal species of pine tree whose cones have evolved to release seeds only when burned.

In large natural forest systems, small, frequent fires fire are both endemic and essential. It clears away old growth and makes light and land available for new growth. In North America part of the problem they are now having with huge catastrophic fires every year has in fact been caused in part by lack of fire. A decades long policy of preventing all fires has caused a massive build up of fuel in the land. Climate change is not helping, with prolonged drought followed by sudden storms (lightning) making ideal fire conditions more likely, and bigger fires the result.

But Scotland is not North America. Our forests are tiny by comparison, and given our wet climate, they are not well adapted to fire. In the huge Caledonian Forest of the past small fires were no doubt fairly common. But it was big enough to absorb these without facing an existential threat. Nowadays, it isn’t big enough to do so.

Once again, in a time of climate crisis we simply can’t afford to lose any. We can’t afford the loss of habitat that would send some species over the brink. North American fires sometimes cover areas greater than all the forest in Scotland combined.

Big fires have happened in the past of course, and the forest has recovered. But it’s a setback – a terrible setback which can take centuries to fully recover from. Our forests here aren’t resilient enough to fire to shrug off repeated burning.

Rothiemurchus Forest Fire from Achnahatnich, June 1960. Image reproduced with permission; credit Pauline Collie.

How Fire Spreads

Fire can spread in the Caledonian Forest in a number of ways. Sparks can carry on the wind. Flame can set light to nearby vegetation. But there’s a more terrifying way it happens too, because it goes unnoticed until its too late.

Due to our wet climate, most of the soil underlying the forest is made of peat. Peat is essentially composed of dead, rotting plants compressed together. The soil is too wet for it to become oxygenated and break down. But it can dry out during warm weather, and let us remind ourselves that dead plants – even rotting, compressed dead plants – will burn. That’s right. The soil itself is flammable.

Peat is still used even today in some parts of Western Scotland as fuel for the fire. It does not burn with a bright flame like wood does, but it smoulders steadily, spreading outwards from the point it was lit.

You can clearly see here how the fire was built on a combustible mix of peat and dry pine needles. The stones did nothing to stop the fire burning into the soil and following the roots to the nearby tree. Fortunately in this case we saw the smoke coming from the ground and were able to extinguish it before it caused a wider fire.

A campfire built on peat soil can quite literally set fire to the ground, with the fire smouldering down and out from the campfire in a spreading ring. Where it finds better fuel, such as a tree root, it will follow it until it comes back to the surface and cause a full-blown wildfire. I’ve seen fully mature Scots Pines burnt that way on several occasions. The people who lit the fire were long gone, presumably without ever having realised it was burning away beneath them. The futile ring of stones they built was ironically still in place, having done nothing whatsoever to stop the spread.

Deadwood

Even assuming that a campfire is well controlled and does not spread – should we be having it? No, we shouldn’t, because we’re depriving the forest of an absolutely vital resource. Dead wood.

Dead wood plays a surprisingly critical role in maintaining the health of the forest. It provides habitat for all kinds of animals – not just insects. Plants, fungi, lichen, bugs, fish, frogs, birds and mammals – all depend on this resource to some degree. Plants germinate in its shelter. The soil and water are fertilised by its nutrients. It recycles carbon back into the soil.

All this, until we decide to burn it for the sake of our own pleasure. Nature’s long, slow processes interrupted at a stroke because of our fleeting appetite for adventure.

Not only that, but I’ve often seen how at popular sites the dead, burnable wood becomes totally depleted. Inevitably, it means people start ignorantly cutting wood from living trees for their campfire.

That not only means terrible damage to living plants and trees, but it’s also futile, because even an idiot will soon learn that green wood won’t burn. So it’s sadly all too common for me to find the remains of a campfire which has burnt a foot into the peat and is filled with the singed but wasted remains of wood freshly cut from nearby trees. Some consolation is that at least the forest will make use of the dead wood now.

Final Thoughts

I think we all need to be worried about the risk that fire poses to our wild places in the immediate future. Climate change is making our weather less predictable, but it’s a certainty that we will have many more long, hot dry spells of weather, while simultaneously thousands of us will want to get outdoors and enjoy it. If we don’t start taking our responsibilities more seriously then we’re going to do untold damage to the places we love. More of us need to become protectors.

I’ll end this post with a poem, shared with me last year. A friend of My Mum, Susan Grant, helped to extinguish the remains of a huge forest fire in Rothiemurchus in 1960. An experience I hope I’ll never need to share.

THE SILENCE OF THE BIRDS

A sniff of wood smoke and I'm there again.
All of sixty years does not diminish
the horror of that time...
the Caledonian Forest ravaged
by the careless toss of a cigarette.
We were not there while Fire Brigade
and Army fought a great battle,
made war on the flames
of devastating spears of fire
that rampaged through these ancient trees.
The worst was over when our help
was sought to dampen down smoking
ashes on the reeking, forest floor.
Fashioned from discarded
pine-needle drop, huge, heaped anthills
still puffed smoke.
Kick apart those hours of ant toil,
spray from the nozzle and hose
fed by the gallon water canisters
strapped to our backs.
A few survivors crippled 
from their broken haven,
with nowhere to go.
Refill, repeat; refill, repeat;
drench the few defiant flames
rekindled when they got a second wind.
    Charred birds;
          charred rabbits;
                charred unrecognisables
littered our still hot pathway
as we moved among coal black,
charcoaled stumps which once were trees.
The weary day ended.  Only then
did we feel the draining of it.
But just as all the gear was packed away,
we stopped.  A forester appeared.
Cradled, alive in his arms, a singed fawn.
Smiles creased over tired, sooty faces.
Later that week, quitting
Glenmore Lodge to tackle Cairngorm,
tho rested, washed,  and breathing in
the pure clear air of the summit,
our nostrils still held echoes of wood smoke.

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