A burning issue for Dartmoor

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I learned a new word recently, swaling, which is the West Country term for controlled burning of moorland. It comes up in the Dartmoor National Park Management Plan 2020-2045, and in ACT’s response to the consultation on the Plan.

Swaling only gets two mentions in the Plan. The first notes that the Moorland Vision for Dartmoor, agreed in 2005, confirmed that swaling, along with grazing, was “essential to delivering the Vision”. The second advises that concerns about swaling being in conflict with climate change objectives were raised when the Management Plan was developed.

Cliff edge of Bench Tor, Dartmoor

One of the Principles in the Plan under the section headed A grazed moorland landscape is to “Ask Government to review the Heather and Grass burning code to provide updated guidance for land managers on management regimes to deliver conservation objectives and respond to the climate emergency.” This needs to take account of the wild fire risk and other means of delivering environmental outcomes, it adds.

ACT in its response says swaling needs to be reduced and better controlled, although this needs to be balanced against the risk of wildfires.

There are many other aspects of the Plan that Act’s response covers but swaling caught my eye because of its novelty value. I looked it up on Google and came across a polemic about the practice by George Monbiot, in which he states that swaling, and grazing (he’s not a big fan of sheep), are causing “an environmental disaster”.

Competing interests will always present challenges, but we must make sure economic interests do not always trump those of wildlife and the environment.

One thought on “A burning issue for Dartmoor”

  1. Thanks for writing about his, Pauline!
    Swaling is such a difficult issue that I don’t have a fixed opinion on it, there are so many issues and details. Various Government schemes, usually intended to help farmers and the moors, have had unintended consequences – such as over-grazing, followed by under-grazing – and the ‘wrong sort of grazing. Swaling is meant to be an early spring management tool, but anything involving fire is a scary tool – if the wind rises or changes then THE FIRE TAKES CONTROL; burning delicate habitats like species-rich wet flushes.
    Ideally, swaling an area (every 20 or so years) rejuvenates the heather and reduces the gorse; but frequently it encourages purple moor grass and gorse, so that moorland habitats have become less good for stock and wildlife.
    If no swaling was carried out, there would be an increased risk of disastrous summer wildfires which would affect wildlife much more – burning bird nests, small mammals and reptiles, such as adders.
    Maybe the answer is to control swaling more – with pre-agreed areas, fire-breaks and minimum numbers of trained operators?

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