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Fires – a burning issue

With photos of campfire rings and damage left in the pinewoods circulating on social media, Adam Streeter-Smith, Access Officer for the Cairngorms National Park authority, takes on a hot topic, asking just what is responsible behaviour.

Picture the scene – a starry night sky, crickets are chirping and the horses hobbled nearby are munching on the grass, the coffee pot perched on the edge of the fire starts to boil and the aroma mixes with the wild sage. You casually kick a log with your cowboy boot and sparks waft into the night sky…. Now transpose the romanticised notion of campfire to Scotland. Most of the time it is raining, the wood is damp and you scream and shout in agony as the midges stuka dive bomb your soft bits. You crouch puffing and blowing, eyes stinging with smoke, only to finally give up and slink off to your tent. We all the love the image of campfire and when the weather is hot and dry what’s not to like?

 Trying to control smouldering peaty soil (Photo:©CNPA/Access)

With our progressive rights of responsible access, wild camping is popular in the National Park, but accidental fires and campfires getting out of control are a major risk to the long term conservation and habitat restoration objectives of the Park. One of the challenges we have as the Access Authority is how we inspire the public to take extra care when enjoying the outdoors in the Park so that they help to protect this internationally recognised landscape.

It would be like grannies and eggs to talk about why campfires and trees don’t mix, although you may be surprised if you look on YouTube, or even the walls of some outdoor shops, to see happy campers beaming whilst sitting around a roaring fire in the woods! “But I can be responsible and keep my fire small and put it out”, I hear your mutter, but it isn’t just the trees we need to protect, it is the peaty soils too.

 Fire damaged tree (photo:©CNPA/Access)

The Scottish Outdoor Access Code is clear, it says there should be no fires lit on peaty soils, but what and where are peaty soils?

A quick google shows that the James Hutton Institute roughly defines peaty soils (peaty podzols) as “acid, nutrient deficient soils supporting a number of important vegetation communities of conservation interest, for example heather moorland and native pinewoods. They also support productive forestry plantations, primarily of Scots Pine.” So far so obvious, but looking at a soil map highlights the fact that significant areas of the National Park are peaty soils. The problem is that fires in peaty soils can flare up long after the wild camper has moved on, the careful ring of stones they responsibly created to contain the fire doesn’t stop it burning downwards. Even small fires can be hard to put out, needing a lot of digging and dousing with water. Even if the peat doesn’t catch fire the damage to the ground underneath can take a long time to recover and often needs the rangers to dig it out and replace the scar with nearby turfs.

So where can you have a campfire safely in the Cairngorms National Park? Well to be frank not many places. I would echo David Lintern’s article in 2017 that asks the question “do you really need a fire?” Being responsible in the National Park would be to not light a fire at all, however, as an Access Officer I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t highlight where you can safely have a campfire. My advice is keep an eye open for signs provided by land owners and Ranger Services on where it is safe to have a fire. Lochsides and river banks with their shingle and sand and inside bothies are the most suitable places for a fire. You can be a responsible wild camper by always taking a stove to cook on. If you absolutely have to have a fire, ensure that there isn’t a high fire risk warning in place, find a safe location and remove all traces of your fire afterwards so as not encourage others to light fires too.

Fire at Paul’s Hill (Photo: Iain Brooks)

The elephant in the room, or should I say in the moorland, is the issue of muirburn. How can we ask the public to guard against wildfires when estates routinely use fire in moorland management? Muirburn is a hot topic and we are working with partners such as Scottish Land and Estates and the East Cairngorms Moorland Partnership to ensure that our muirburn practices are the best in the country. Adopting best practice methods ensures that they do not impact on woodland regeneration or peatland restoration and all fires are carried out safely and effectively. It is worth remembering that muirburn does not usually take place during high fire risk periods and it is undertaken by teams of people armed with clever kit like ‘fogging units’ which are designed to control the fire and put it out quickly and efficiently. However, even controlled muirburn can sometimes go wrong, thus showing how important it is for anyone with a box of matches to think very carefully before using them!

The Cairngorms National Park is a Park for All and we want everyone to enjoy this special and unique place, all we ask is that you tread lightly as you go.

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Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is each walker's responsibility to check it and navigate using a map and compass.