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Forestry Commission answers ‘The Burning Question’

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fire blaze in New Forest

Every year the Forestry Commission undertakes controlled burning of New Forest heathland – and not only does it benefit the local wildlife but, this year, it is providing an important training exercise for Hampshire’s firefighters.

Gorse and heather is burned by the Commission to encourage new growth, which is beneficial to a variety of flora and fauna, as well as providing food for the forest’s ponies and other stock. It also results in a mosaic of different aged habitats which creates effective fire breaks to protect large areas of heathland, woodland and private property from wildfire.

In recent years, the rural safety unit from Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service has forged a close working relationship with the Forestry Commission to assist their teams by damping down after controlled burning and ensuring staff safety during the process. However, this year the Service is preparing to film the entire exercise to provide a county-wide training resource for Hampshire’s firefighters.

Jim Green, watch manager for Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service, explained:

“A forest fire is unique to any other type of fire our staff might encounter. Unlike a contained fire in a building, which is relatively predictable, a forest fire reacts to a range of factors such as the topography of the land and the weather - and it is crucial that our teams understand how a forest fire behaves. The controlled burning exercise gives us the perfect opportunity to do just that.”

The reasons for controlled burning are often misunderstood by the general public who can naturally feel dismayed by the sight of fires.

Dave Morris, the Commission’s Open Forest Manager in the New Forest explained:

“Wildlife and vegetation actually benefit from burning, as vigorous new growth helps to create a diverse environment. Woodlarks, for example, do well on newly bare ground, marsh gentians enjoy reduced competition from more vigorous plants, and reptiles and insects benefit from the ‘edge’ effect created.

“Importantly, we only burn two to three per cent of our heathland each year and this only takes place after careful on-site consideration the previous summer. Many people don’t realise that heathland is a low nutrient habitat and we need to maintain this through controlled burning. Allowing vegetation instead to rot and decay will return nutrients to the soil which can affect and, ultimately, destroy the delicate balance of our heathlands.”

Legally, controlled burning can start on the first working day in November, ending on the last working day of March each year. However, it typically starts in early February when the worst of the winter weather is over, vegetation is likely to be quite dry, still-wet ground offers protection to the peaty soil, and the impact on wildlife, particularly breeding birds and reptiles, is minimised.

1. The Forestry Commission is the government department responsible for forestry in Great Britain. It supports woodland owners with grants; tree felling licences, regulation and advice; promotes the benefits of forests and forestry; and advises Government on forestry policy. It manages more than a million hectares (2.5 million acres) of national forest land for public benefits such as sustainable timber production, public recreation, nature conservation, and rural and community development.

Paula Quigley or Louise Perfect at Grayling PR, tel 02380 382970 or email or 
Libby Burke at the Forestry Commission on 02380 286832.