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Managing Heather & Wildfire Response Plan

Agriculture

Managing Heather & Wildfire Response Plan

Many of our upland landscapes right across Northern Ireland are dominated by large expanses of heather moorland, often found alongside areas of gorse (also known as whin).  If well-managed, a heather habitat is a very valuable resource to have on any farm, both providing valuable grazing for sheep and cattle as well as providing feed and shelter for a variety of wildlife.

Grazing

Heather moorland can be kept in good condition by carefully controlling grazing to ensure the right numbers of livestock are grazing the area at the correct time.   Unlike grasses which respond quickly to management changes, the heather plant goes through a slow distinct life cycle involving four main growth phases each lasting 5-10 years.  As a result, if the heather is not managed correctly, the consequences will persist for a number of years.

Guidance on how many animals you can graze and for how long varies depending on the type of habitat and the condition that it is in.  For example if your heather moorland is on blanket bog (peat depths of greater than 50cm) the grazing levels will be much lower.  Your grazing levels may also be influenced by past management, areas previously overgrazed may need reduced grazing while areas under grazed may need slightly higher stocking rates to deal with the build-up of rank vegetation. 

Any business with upland areas that joins the Environmental Farming Scheme (EFS Higher) is subject to management requirements which stipulate how many animals can graze an area and for how long.  This information is based on research and should be used as a guide for those with upland areas not in EFS. The table below summarises the stocking requirements under EFS Higher:

Habitat TypeLivestock TypeGrazing DatesStocking Density
Lowland HeathCattle And/Or Sheep1st March-31st October0.25 Lu/Ha
Upland HeathSheep only1st March-31st October0.25 Lu/Ha
Upland HeathCattle Only1st June-31st August0.20 Lu/Ha
Blanket BogSheep Only1st March-31st October0.075Lu/Ha
Lowland Raised BogGenerally No GrazingGenerally No GrazingGenerally No Grazing
(1 ewe = 0.15 LU)

Within the EFS scheme grazing is not permitted from 1 Nov – 28 Feb inclusive. Research has shown that heather is particularly vulnerable to livestock grazing during winter and needs a rest period to build up nutrient reserves. Winter grazing in addition to damaging the next season’s growing shoots may lead to trampling and poaching of the moorland and a decline in heather cover. 

What Should I Do With Overgrown Heather

If the upland vegetation has become over mature and in the case of heather, tall and woody, then it may need flailed or burnt to allow it to regenerate.  Further guidance is available on flailing and burning in the DAERA Guide to Land Eligibility.

Managing Tall Overgrown Heather

If heather becomes tall and over mature it may need to be managed to allow it to regenerate.  Techniques to encourage regeneration include burning or flailing blocks of 0.1-0.2ha in a planned sequence. The aim is to produce a patchwork pattern with a range of heather ages which will increase grazing quality; encourage livestock to graze the whole area; prevent regenerating blocks from being overgrazed; and provide an excellent habitat for wildlife including Red Grouse.

Anyone considering burning heather should be aware that the law states that burning of vegetation such as heather, gorse, whin or fern must not be carried out between 15 April and 31 August, and only carried out at other times of the year under prescribed, controlled and expert supervision.  If you are planning to control vegetation by burning that has perhaps become ineligible for area based schemes you will be committing an offence unless you comply with these dates. (Cross Compliance; GAEC 5)

In addition, it should be noted that any burning within a designated site such as an Area of Special Scientific Interest will need consent from DAERA.  These rules are in place to try to prevent wildfires that can devastate large areas of our countryside, damage habitats and put lives at risk.

Wildfire Prevention

All landowners with significant areas of heather, whin or forestry on their land should plan ahead.

This includes:

  1. Preventative measures such as firebreaks that are placed to prevent wildfires spreading on to your holding.  Firebreaks can be natural features such as streams and areas of rock or they can be created, most commonly by flailing strips 6-10m wide.  The example below shows burn plots for 2017-19 each surrounded by a firebreak, – before any prescribed burn it is vital that a firebreak is put in place to ensure the fire is contained.  A natural stream firebreak and one that has been flailed to prevent fire spreading into the area of forestry are shown A map of these should be included with a response plan.
  2. A simple response plan that sets out details such as access points for emergency services, locations of water supplies and contact details etc.  This information should be shared with the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service and the Northern Ireland Environmental Agency’s Wildfire Officer.

An example of a Wildfire Response Plan has been added below.  You can download this and amend it to suit your farm.  You should contact your Northern Ireland Fire Service Area Headquarters and speak to the designated wildfire officer before completing your plan.  You should also share the details with any other agencies that are relevant.

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Wildfire Response Plan
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Wildfire Key Messages

The messages about the impacts of wildfires and how to avoid them are clear and simple:

  • Wildfires are not natural – they are almost always started by humans either deliberately or by being careless;
  • Wildfires put lives at risk – they could result in tragedy for people caught in the line of fire. Dealing with these types of incidents puts not only firefighters’ lives at risk but the lives of everyone in the local community. Firefighters are diverted from other emergencies and contingency plans have to be put in place to ensure continued emergency cover for towns and villages across Northern Ireland – this may result in a slight delay when responding;
  • Wildfires cost everyone – the whole community, as well as businesses that provide much needed employment.
  • Wildfires destroy our surroundings – how they look and the wildlife in them;
  • Wildfires are illegal – deliberate setting of wildfires is a criminal offence

CAFRE Hill Farm

Following the serious wildfire that engulfed Slieve Donard in April 2021 CAFRE put in place a Wildfire Response Plan for the 960Ha CAFRE Hill Farm at Glenwherry Co Antrim.  This plan uses the same format as the example above, setting out key information to assist the emergency services.

In addition to this we have also mapped all the tall heather that is on the farm.  This shows us which areas are at greatest risk of wildfire (highest fuel load) and which areas need regenerated.  Running in parallel CAFRE has also began a process of peatland restoration.  This is seen as the most effective long-term sustainable solution for addressing wildfire risk on peatlands by returning the sites to fully functioning bog habitat by removing those factors that can cause degradation, such as drainage, unsustainable livestock management and excessive burning regimes. Re-wetting and restoring will naturally remove the higher fuel load from degraded peatland vegetation.