The role of rewilding in wildfire risk and prevention

Rewilding supports biodiversity and encourages the natural processes essential to sustaining life. Rewilding helps Scotland’s damaged landscapes to recover by allowing our native woodlands to naturally regenerate, and by restoring and rewetting our carbon rich bogs and peatlands. Trees for Life is rewilding the Scottish Highlands to help create more fire resistant and resilient landscapes.

The wildfires of Spring 2023 near Kinloch Moidart, Cannich, and Daviot have prompted discussion around how to best manage wildfire risk and reduce their impact in the Scottish landscape. Healthy and resilient ecosystems play a vital role in creating wildfire resistant and resilient landscapes, and evidence of this was given to the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee at stage 1 of the Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill.

Read our full rewilding and wildfire briefing here.

Rewilded and resilient ecosystems

Almost all UK wildfires are caused by human activity, and natural fire starters like lightning strikes are extremely rare. Nature-based solutions – such as planting belts of broadleaf trees to help create natural breaks – in high fire risk areas will be most effective.

Natural regeneration and large scale expansion of native woodlands is urgently needed to build wildfire resistance and resilience in our landscapes. Research shows that broadleaf and mixed woodlands are highly resistant to wildfire, are low fire risk, and provide resilient habitats. Also, restoring bogs and peatlands results in wetter habitats and raised water tables, making them more difficult to burn. Evidence shows that natural and restored ecosystems like wetted peatland and native woodland are more fire resistant and resilient than degraded landscapes. Rewilding is the solution.

Fire prone landscapes

The Scottish uplands are more at risk of fires because of the amount of plants like heather and purple-moor grass. Historical land management practices including over-burning and overgrazing have created landscapes with plants that dry out in warmer months, catch fire easily, and burn quickly and intensely.

In Highland, evidence shows that wildfires occurred most frequently in shrubland and grassland accounting for 90% of large wildfires, and only 7% of large wildfires occurred in woodland areas. Also, 20% of Scotland’s land area is bog and peatland, which should be incredibly resilient to wildfire, however up to 80% are damaged. Restoring bogs and peatlands to their natural state is a key measure to building wildfire resilience in our landscapes which could be achieved by reducing the numbers of deer, making drainage channels less steep, and blocking drains.

Muirburn and wildfires

Muirburn is the intentional burning of moorland areas to create a habitat for game birds, or grazing areas for livestock or deer. Up until now, a lot of the focus on managing wildfire risk and reducing the scale and impact of wildfires has been on the use of muirburn. In Scotland, moorland is a greater fire risk than woodland, and there is little to no evidence that supports the use of muirburn as a way of reducing wildfire risk, intensity or impact.

Muirburn should not be confused with other fire-based techniques used to reduce wildfire risk (e.g. controlled burning to create linear firebreaks) or manage ongoing wildfires (e.g. tactical burning, back-burning).

Wildfire ready at Dundreggan

With the opening of our Rewilding Centre and the increase in numbers of visitors at Dundreggan, we are working to manage risks from human activity and to make sure that we are ready to respond to any future wildfires on the estate.

> We have developed and submitted a wildfire plan with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.

> We have carried out a wildfire risk assessment, identified any hazards, and developed a wildfire protocol which outlines our approach in the event of a fire.

> We are identifying appropriate measures to reduce the impact of wildfires (e.g. path maintenance and strimming areas to create natural fire breaks, delivering staff training).

> We are investing in equipment and PPE.

> We are identifying appropriate measures to prevent wildfires happening in the first place (e.g. delivering staff training, signage on site, raising awareness about fires and their risks with visitors, having restrictions on open fires on the estate).

When visiting our Dundreggan estate, if you spot or smell smoke, please call 999 immediately and contact the Rewilding Centre on 07983 248573. If it is safe, please also obtain a six-digit grid reference number and as much information as possible.