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Fire alarm; Climate and farming changes fuel risk of moorland nightmare.

Byline: By ANDREW FORGRAVE Rural Affairs Editor

MORE catastrophic wild fires are likely on Welsh hillsides as a result of global warming and changing farming practices.

Fire chiefs says drier and windier conditions - ideal for the spread of fire - are making large areas of bracken, gorse and heather more vulnerable.

Smaller farming families, and fewer workers, mean less manpower to manage the traditional early-spring controlled burning of hillsides.

And reduction in grazing pressures from rationalisation of upland farms means more scrubland.

Some landowners also blame rising fire risks on the Countryside Rights of Way Act, which gave the public greater access to the Welsh uplands.

Next week North Wales Fire Service is launching a campaign at Bryncir market to alert farmers to the dangers of moor fires. It follows the disastrous fire on Mynydd Llandegai in April 2003 when vast acreages were destroyed by a wildfire started maliciously.

Firefighters could only watch helplessly until the blaze reached natural firebreaks, such as walls and ditches.

Mike Owen, fire safety enforcement officer for north Gwynedd, said: "That was a nightmare. The fire was a huge drain on our resources, leaving us stretched for several days. Our biggest concern is that while we are dealing with grass fires on top of a mountain, human safety could be compromised in towns and villages."

Last year the service dealt with 270 heather fire calls in north Gwynedd alone. Some were false alarms, others were malicious reports, but a sizeable proportion involved heather fires started by farmers which got out of hand.

Regular controlled burning of heather and gorse has long been recognised by farmers to re-invigorate vegetation, benefiting sheep as well as moorland birds. It also creates new firebreaks, and this will become increasingly important as the Welsh uplands become warmer and drier, said Dafydd Jarrett, NFU Cymru policy advisor.

"We would urge all farmers to forewarn the fire service of any burning," he said. "However we are concerned at proposals to restrict the amount of controlled burning.

"Not only will this be detrimental to wildlife and habitats, it will reduce the number of firebreaks and increase the prospect of large wildfires."

New curbs on heather burning are proposed in consultation by the Welsh Assembly, due to conclude on March 10. Its review of the 1986 Heather and Grass Burning Regulations proposes cuts to the burning season, now November 1-March 31 in the lowlands, and October 1-April 15 in the uplands.

Conservationists back the changes because they fear moor burning is often haphazard and is damaging habitats and because ground birds are nesting earlier.

But the Countryside Alliance says the proposals, including plans for "no-burn areas", are not based on good science. In its response to the consultation, it said: "With climate change and greater public access, the risk of catastrophic wildfires is increasing.

"A system of regular winter burning, as carried out on grouse moors, is the best way to reduce that risk."

Farmers who let moor fires get out of control run the risk of prosecution and may breach cross compliance requirements of the new Single Farm Payment.

But Mike Owen said the fire service preferred to work with farmers.

"We are appealing to the farming community to give the control room at Rhyl advance warning of controlled burning."

Rhyl fire control room: 01745 343800.

farming@dailypost.co.uk

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North Wales Fire Service is campaigning to make sure farmers know the dangers of moor fires - and how to stop them spreading disastrously out of control
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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Jan 12, 2006
Words:584
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