Fears over muirburn practices in the Western Isles

Tradition versus public safety has been brought into sharp focus following the spread of uncontrolled fires in Harris last week which endangered properties and had the potential to lead to tragedy.

The fires which broke out in North and South Harris saw the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service facing a difficult challenge to curb the flames as they crept close to properties, with some islanders fearing for their own safety.

The blazes also brought wider disruption, as in the interests of public safety, the road into the area was closed and power supplies across the Islands were cut to thousands of residents.

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Although it is unclear how the fires started there are suspicions amongst Harris residents that the fires were set as part of the ‘muirburn’ tradition, where crofters burn the heather to encourage new vegetation growth.

Eye-witness Sally Lessi, owner of the Anchorage Restaurant in Leverburgh, said: “I am worried for public safety because of these fires which have been set and then have got out of control.

“I asked the fire officer if they were informed about fires being set and was told they had not been informed.”

With a tremor to her voice, Sally explained how the flames had come close to her property and her staff had been in tears. She described how she had to run between her home and business to make sure there had been no damage.

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She continued: “This is all I have what if that had gone up in flames?

“People say setting these fires is traditional, but what if we had been dead today, what would they say then?

“It is not just us but the safety of everybody.”

Muirburn is only allowed between October Ist to April 15th, which could prove tricky for crofters, if there is no decent period of dry weather during the permitted season. And perhaps the looming deadline last week - along with its spell of dry weather - also contributed to the Harris wildfire outbreak.

The Muirburn Code - set out by Scottish Natural Heritage, states:

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You must have sufficient people and equipment to control the fire properly.

Have consent from Scottish Natural Heritage, if a fire will be within a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)

Inform the proprietor of the land concerned and occupiers within 1km of the proposed location where it is intended to burn

Provide, if requested, additional information about dates, location and extent of the proposed muirburn to landowners and occupiers within 1km of the proposed muirburn

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You must not burn between one hour after sunset and one hour before sunrise.

Burn within 30m of a public road.

Leave a fire unattended.

Cause damage to any woodland, neighbours’ property or a scheduled monument.

Create smoke that is a nuisance.

Endanger anyone’s health and/or safety.

Intentionally or recklessly damage the natural features of an SSSI.

Harass birds listed in Schedule 1A of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

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However, there seems to be no indication about how these ‘rules’ are enforced and there is a growing worry amongst islanders that many of these safeguards are not being followed.

Councillor for the Na Hearadh Agus Ceann A Deas Nan Loch ward, John G. Mitchel is also suspicious that the Harris fires had not been sparked by a rogue cigarette or by campfire embers.

Talking to the Gazette he said: “I don’t know for sure whether the fires were started by muirburn or by someone’s cigarette, but I have a strong suspicion it was part of the muirburn tradition, especially as the deadline of April 15th was getting nearer, I am not a great believer in coincidences.”

He added: “I have been contacted about these fires by residents and I have asked for a report from the Council, which has a responsibility as a community body in the area, in terms of bylaws. I’ve also made contact with the local Police to find out if there is to be a report, or action taken and have written to the Senior Fire Officer in Stornoway about the matter.

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“I understand why crofters do this, but there has to be some sort of protocol, some safety and overview, there needs to be control, you can’t just set fire to the landscape and put people’s property and lives in danger.

“We have to make sure steps are taken to ensure this doesn’t happen again - next time we might not get off so lightly.”

A Comhairle spokesperson also stressed the aspect of the wider public safety, saying: “Heather burning should be carried out responsibly. No individuals should take it upon themselves lighting heather fires.

“This should be a coordinated activity under the auspices of common grazings committees or the landowner and with the full cooperation of the fire service.

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“Recent events in Harris have highlighted the dangers of out of control heather fires and the need to look at measures to regulate how they are supervised.

“Guidance for muirburns is laid down in the MuirBurn Code, http://muirburncode.org.uk/ and anyone carrying out muirburns should familiarise themselves with all the requirements in law.

“If these restrictions are not followed, the muirburn activity will be in breach of statute.

“The principal legislation governing muirburn is the Hill Farming Act 1946, as amended and supplemented by more recent legislation, listed in Supplementary Information 2 – Offences & Legislation.”