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Generally at this time of the year after a spell of dry weather, the Highlands and Islands are full of the homely tang of burning heather and an ethereal blue light which drifts slowly across moor and glen before sinking to the ground in the cool of the evening.
It is the season for burning, known officially as ‘making muirburn’ – the scent and sight of which carries us back to the time of our ancestors. But where is it this year? Not a sight or a whiff is in evidence – at least not in this part of Argyll.
Originally, large forests were deliberately torched by hunter-gatherers and later medieval communities to flush out ne’er-do-wells and wild animals such as bears and wolves who found sanctuary there. At the time of the great Highland evictions, flames from the thatched roofs ignited the surrounding hillsides burning tens of thousands of acres.
As good an example occurred in Morvern in March 1746 after Culloden, when the Hanoverian Scots Fusiliers came ashore at Drimnin, on the Sound of Mull, from two naval sloops Terror and Princess Anne. Their orders were to lay waste to Jacobite properties. Official accounts tell of 400 houses, barns filled with corn, horses, cattle, meal and other belongings were destroyed by fire and fire-arms. The coastal woods as far south as Ardtornish Point – a distance of 18 miles round the head of Loch Aline – caught fire and were smouldering for months which the local minister was able to described as, ‘one red ember’.
Later when agriculture and sheep and cattle raising became important to sustain a rapidly rising population, more and more ground was being deliberately burnt for the production of food. Nothing was organised and as there were no regulations or any controls as to when it should happen, plants, butterflies, insects, ground-nesting birds and other creatures were lost on a yearly basis especially in times of drought when the ground was tinder dry allowing fire to burn deep into the earth sometimes for weeks on end doing untold damage.
Heather burning was first controlled in Scotland by an Act of Parliament passed in 1773 whereby any person setting fire to heath or moor between April 11 and November 1 would incur a penalty of £2 on the first offence, £5 for the second, and £10 for the third and every subsequent offence, or, failing payment, imprisonment. These were huge sums of money at the time, as were the periods of incarcerations which local court records can no doubt reveal.
In the early 1800s there was an even great incentive to preserve the moors – sport! Grouse, hares and ptarmigan, especially the first, all became highly popular due to the expanding rail network allowing relatively easy access into the Highlands from the south. These combined with breech-loading shotguns meant more rapid reloading in the field matching the availability of target birds.
To start with grouse were shot by sportsmen walking up – that is where the participants move forward in a line and flush the birds as they go, either themselves or with the assistance of specially trained dogs. The typical terrain and vegetation found on grouse moors means that walked-up shooting is more physically demanding than a driven shoot and requires greater physical fitness adding to the popularity of the other where large numbers of birds are driven over a fixed position providing a regular supply of fast moving targets without the need to seek them out. It goes without saying driven grouse gave more employment in local neighbourhoods and a higher rent to the landowners.
In 1900 a well know sporting author in his book, Autumns in Argyllshire, recalled that a moor, ‘With a most commodious lodge and a nice stretch of fishing’, cost four guns, killing over 1,500 brace of grouse, £600 for 10 days in August 1872 (the equivalent of £60,000 today). By the late 1880s, some 500,000 grouse were being shot annually in Scotland in good seasons. In 2014 the price for renting a prime grouse moor in Angus for one day – the Glorious Twelfth – was £39,600.
Heather moorland is a habitat of international importance. But when left uncontrolled it supports little wildlife. Good moor management includes the controlled burning of small patches of heather which not only removes the canopy, but also prevents burning the peat beneath. The result is not just a landscape that is more resilient to the devastating damage from uncontrolled wildfires that burn with greater intensity, but also one that has a mixture of heather, grasses and mosses that benefit ground nesting birds such as grouse, golden plover and many others that share this habitat to breed.
In 1971-72 a Report of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs on Land Resource Use in Scotland recommended that the existing regulations on muirburn should be examined and the Nature Conservancy (the forerunner of Scottish Natural Heritage, now Scottish Nature) to consider, together with farmers and gamekeepers, means of promoting the best possible practice.
Under the chairmanship of Professor C H Gimingham of the Botany Department at the University of Aberdeen this working party flagged up two main headings: firstly, to evaluate existing knowledge and to note any need for further research, and secondly, to produce a draft of a Guide To Good Muirburn Practice for discussion.
The booklet appeared in two versions, the second for land owners, managers and tenants responsible for muirburn as well as a concise theoretical and practical basis for students and advisers who wished to study the practice in more detail. It was a practical publication full of common sense, free of politics and scientific codswallop. More importantly it was aimed at assisting, rather than hindering, the crofter, the stalker, the factor, the shepherd and all the other country folk who live and work ‘up the glen’ which its successor does not.
Continued next week.