A CARELESSLY discarded cigarette may well have started the fire that ravaged 200 acres of the Marsden Moor estate at the weekend.
The accident, if that is what it was, set back years of painstaking restoration and maintenance of the 6,000-acre National Trust property near Pule Hill and Standedge.
For wildlife, the blaze could not have happened at a worse time. This is nesting time, and hundreds of eggs and chicks may have perished.
The heather, moss and grasses are on the cusp of new growth, all of which will have been destroyed, taking away food for a number of species at the time it is most needed.
The moors support a number of threatened species, including short-eared owls, golden plovers, snipe and lapwings.
Peter Robertson, regional conservation manager for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, put the twite, curlew and red grouse at the top of the casualty list.
There are about 100 pairs of breeding twites in the South Pennines, and one colony is on the edge of the Redbrook Reservoir,” he said.
“The worst case scenario is that we could have lost up to half the South Pennines population.
“It might not mean much to most people – the twite is just a little brown finch – but to us, this is a conservation tragedy.
“It will take a long time for the area to recover, if it ever does. And all this for the sake of one cigarette butt.”
But the damage goes even further, says Stephen Morley, regional nature conservation adviser for the National Trust, which owns Marsden Moor.
“This fire has without a doubt damaged all sorts of vegetation including heather, mosses and ferns, all of which provide cover and food for birds, lizards, insects and mountain hares,” he said.
“The peat is a reservoir of carbon. When it burns, that carbon is back in the atmosphere. The fire has oxidised the peat, and it will be years before the land recovers its ability to sequester carbon again.”
The blaze has also removed the fragile ecosystem’s stability. The vegetation absorbs a lot of water. Heat can turn the peat strata into ‘iron pan’, which water can’t easily penetrate. This means peat run-off into reservoirs, and large-scale erosion, bumping up water purification bills.
Conservation workers are also constantly trying to dissuade trail bikers from eroding the moorland, with little success.
“It’s a matter of educating people really. It needs something shocking, like dead chicks in a burned nest, to make people realise how easily damaged this area is. It’s got to hit home to people,” said a Marsden Moor worker.
Parts of the moor have been damaged by fire five times in the last 18 months. In each case, a blaze that takes a few hours can easily knock back years of conservation work – heather spreading, tree planting, fence building – and make volunteers and experts’ wildlife surveying meaningless.
“We’re doing our best to conserve this area, but this kind of thing makes us all wonder why we’re bothering,” she said.
Last weekend’s fire may have destroyed one of the last colonies of the moorland finch the twite. Only 100 pairs survive, all nesting in the South Pennines. One colony nests round Redbrook reservoir, near Pule Hill, Marsden. Conservationists will be out this week trying to establish the exact damage done to the birds’ nesting habitat.
In the Middle Ages the curlew’s plaintive call was thought to be the voice of lost souls. That call is becoming rarer as each year passes. It is probable that several pairs nested in the area devastated by fire last weekend. Regional conservation manager for the RSPB Peter Robertson said: “While the adult birds may have survived, their nests and chicks probably didn’t.”
Red grouse nest in heather and feed on the emerging shoots at this time of year. Their nests and feeding grounds will have been severely damaged. They are resident all year round on Marsden Moor and, with their eggs and chicks dead, the adult birds will move away until the vegetation recovers. Stephen Morley, regional nature conservationist for the National Trust said: “Whichever way you look at it, this is a disaster.”