Hopeful signs of limited Rum wildfire damage

View from a helicopter th day after the fire. Photograph: SNH NO F10 Rum Fire 2 - credit SNH

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A wildfire on Rum last April has been assessed as having a low to medium impact, according to a report published by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) this week.

The fire, which began at about 1pm on April 4, raised concerns about the impact it would have on the habitat and animals in the area.

A helicopter was deployed which slowed the spread of the fire, with the flames eventually going out during the night as temperatures dropped and some rain fell.

The report found there were mainly low to medium impacts, with less than one per cent of the seven-square-kilometre area suffering any high impacts. Thirty-five per cent of the habitat was judged to have suffered low impact, and 58 per cent, medium impact.

SNH was concerned that potential loss of habitat quality since April could affect ground-nesting birds, reptiles, mammals and insects – but so far, signs are promising.

Sea eagles have continued to nest close to the area of the fire, breeding of red-throated divers has been similar to other years, and other birds which are monitored regularly have shown no noticeable changes. In fact, some birds, such as merlin, had more breeding territories in 2018 than in previous years.

However, the report also found the habitats will take anywhere from five to 20 years to recover.

Although the severity of this fire was low to medium, wildfires like this can still increase the risk of soil erosion, encourage less desirable plant species, dry out naturally wet habitats, and inhibit natural processes such as carbon storage in bogs.

SNH used satellite imagery and Geographic Information System (GIS) technology to determine the effect of a fire on habitat for the first time, and hopes to apply the methods that have been developed elsewhere in the future.

While a ground impact assessment was also completed, satellite analysis gave more efficient and complete mapping, showing the areas that need more attention to recover.

Ian Sargent, SNH’s South Highland reserves manager, said it was good news that the habitat had not been severely affected but that it was certainly still a setback for efforts to improve the habitat condition, and there are areas which will take years to fully recover.

‘This work will help us target our management to accelerate recovery, improve resilience of the habitats to fire and get this protected site in the best condition as soon as possible,’ he added.

‘This is also a timely reminder that we’re now moving into a time of year when the risk of fire is often quite high. So we’d urge anyone visiting natural areas or conducting moor burn to take extra care.’

The fire was started accidentally from a discarded cigarette that had not been entirely extinguished by a visitor to the national nature reserve.

Although procedures were not identified as contributing to the fire in any way, SNH reviewed fire training and equipment, and will be posting new information on fire risks on signs in key locations and in inductions to visiting groups.