Controlled burning to protect against wildfires

Last week, residents near Trap, below the Black Mountain, may have been alarmed to see a fire on Mynydd Isaf common near Carreg Cennen Castle, but this time the fire was both intentional and beneficial.  Organised by Bannau Brycheiniog National Park Authority, more than 40 registered commoners, representing Grazing Associations from across the National Park and further afield, came together with landowners and Government officials. They received free training on controlled heather and grassland burning – which as strange as this may sound, plays a crucial role in the management of the uplands in the National Park.


Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service, working in partnership with Bannau Brycheiniog National Park Authority and Mr Bernard Llewellyn, owner of Carreg Cennen Castle, provided the free training to advise people about responsible heathland burning methods as well as effectively responding to illegal wildfires and arson.  Attendees included representatives from Trap and Llandyfan, Black Mountain (West), Glanaman Pedol Twrch, Palleg and Garreg Goch, Black Mountain Graziers,  Mynydd Myddfai, Porwyr Llyn y Fan and Mynydd Mallaen Grazing Associations, along with officers from the Welsh Government’s Glastir team and Natural Resources Wales – making it one of the largest fire training events held in the Bannau Brycheiniog.

The dramatic burn demonstration on Mynydd Isaf saw a 3 hectare block of Molinia-dominated heath burnt quickly and efficiently under very controlled conditions with the fire break established beforehand downwind of the fire.   The practical hands-on training gave everyone the opportunity to experience and manage an open heathland fire and also contributed towards critical habitat conservation work for Mynydd Isaf where for hundreds of years, sheep, cattle, and ponies have traditionally grazed. The entire burn demonstration progressed without incident and lasted approximately two hours.

The free course, one of two, organised by the National Park Authority, was made possible by a grant from Natural Resources Wales, and was organised to complement the upland habitat conservation work undertaken by Mynydd Du graziers under several Glastir Common Land scheme agreements.  Additional works include restoration of hill sheep folds, controlled heather and Molinia burning, heather brash and seed harvesting to be used to protect areas of bare peat, and bracken control to improve livestock management.  The National Park Authority carries out these works – which registered commoners are not entitled to undertake without landowner permission –  under a service level agreement with the Glastir Commoners Associations.


Talking to representatives at the event, Professor Stefan Doerr from Swansea University explained the benefits of responsible and well-planned heather and grass burning to biodiversity, carbon sequestration and livestock grazing.  He said:  “Controlled habitat burning is important in maintaining natural habitats and reducing the amount of dry heather and vegetation which, when left unburnt is a major contributor to the devastating wildlife fires that Wales has experienced in previous years.  Surprisingly, it also helps to sequester carbon in the unburnt charcoal remains.  Training people in the methods used by firefighters and professionally trained land managers has proven to be very effective in improving the regeneration of wildlife – most grasses produce growth within a few months and after a year the heathland is usually fully restored and perfect for grazing – minus the unwanted vegetation.  The trick is to burn on a large enough scale to avoid localised over-grazing and not to burn too frequently, which may kill important heathland plants.”

Nigel Gibbard from the Mid Wales Fire and Rescue Service, along with Paul Chapman and Toby Small from the National Park Authority demonstrated the advantages of planning a controlled hill burn in advance, explaining that the Fire and Rescue Service should be notified before commencing a burn and once the burn is completed, that the correct equipment and number of assistants are to hand, that all risks are managed for and that the type and extent of the planned burn is possible on the day.  The importance of creating fire breaks was stressed, which involves either creating breaks by mowing suitably wide strips, or by using tactical burning methods to create the breaks, backed up where possible with the use of an environmentally friendly fire retardant foam, which all provide safe  breaks the fire then burns towards.

“Last year Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service attended 1,210 wildfires of which 1,185 were deliberately lit.   The simple fact is that even controlled grass burns are dangerous if not properly planned and managed.  They produce extremely hot fires that can spread rapidly and become out of control.  We hope that by providing training and expertise in completing safe and effective controlled burns gives landowners and graziers the tools to manage their land and the land they graze safely and responsibly. ” said Nigel Gibbard.

As one of the leading partners supporting the training scheme, Joanne Rees, Glastir Contract Manager said:  “The course, which complemented an exemplary Glastir partnership, discussed all aspects of using a controlled burn as a management tool for mountain and moorland, and the importance of burning at the right time of year under the right conditions, to avoid wildfires that are often devastating for wildlife, grazing and property. It was particularly useful to learn about the decisions that must be made on the day, including the need to change plans in accordance with the prevailing weather and ground conditions.  Luckily the weather was perfect to enable us all to carry out a prescribed burn on the hill, and cover all the practical issues of controlled burning on site. ”


Toby Small, Area Warden for Bannau Brycheiniog National Park Authority said, “Commons and upland grazing land accounts for nearly 50,000 hectares of wildlife habitat in the Bannau Brycheiniog National Park, so controlled burns are one of the most important tools in our work programmes. Controlled burning accomplishes three main objectives in moorland management: First, burning limits the growth of woody and other unwanted vegetation, thereby establishing a range of vegetation ages and height, which provides adequate grazing for livestock and renewed conditions for heathland wildlife. Second, controlled burning consumes the dead material and unwanted rank vegetation, like Molinia that is not only unpalatable to livestock at this stage, but which also poses a significant wildfire risk throughout summer months. Burning stimulates the vigorous new growth of grasses and, provided the grazing levels are compatible with the areas burnt, also allows other heathland plants to establish. This new growth also promotes insect production, which is a critical food source for skylarks, grouse, and other rare ground nesting birds such as dotterel, and golden plover which rely on our heathlands for their breeding grounds, and only food source. Lastly, working with teams of graziers and landowners to conduct controlled burns will make a major contribution to keeping at bay the devastating wildfires that we’ve experienced in previous years. “

Mr Bernard Lewellyn, a member of NFU Cymru’s Rural Affairs Board, said, “Back in 2011, we experienced one of the worst upland fires in National Park history, near this very area. As graziers and custodians we have a responsibility to protect the uplands and to reduce the risks of arson and wildfires during the hot dry summers we keep experiencing.  One thing we have learnt is that controlled burns have many outcomes depending on what time of year you conduct your burn and what you want to do with the landscape.  As a representative of the National Farmers’ Union we are extremely grateful that these training courses have been set up which aim to give graziers and landowners the means to responsibly conduct controlled burns in co-operation with the Wardens of the Bannau Brycheiniog National Park Authority and other professional organisations.”


Pictures:  Photographs by Eleanor Flaherty
Copyright of Bannau Brycheiniog National Park Authority