Deliberate grass fires, their impacts and nature’s recovery – a year in pictures

In April 2015, south Wales was plagued by weeks of wildfires that ravaged the countryside and threatened our homes. From 1st to 15th April 2015, South Wales Fire and Rescue Service attended 473 grass fires, the vast majority of which were started deliberately. By 23rd April, this figure had risen to 776. By the end of the month, the total number of deliberate grass fires in south Wales stood at a shocking 874!

April 2015 saw a 183% increase in deliberate grass fires in south Wales compared to the previous year (2014). The Easter period is historically a peak period for deliberate grass fires, but I was shocked by the magnitude of the fires last year.

These fires couldn’t have come at a worse time for our nesting birds, small mammals, reptiles and insects. Coity Wallia Commons Biodiversity Enhancement Partnership – a project to restore and reconnect 1,063 hectares of priority habitats north of Bridgend – reported on the severe impacts of deliberate grass fires on the wildlife of Coity Wallia Common. Following fires on 17th and 20th April 2015, they reported on the discovery of “46 dead slow worms, 2 dead adders, 1 dead toad, 2 dead common shrews, as well as 53 burnt birds’ nests and 32 burnt mammal nests”. They further stated that “the number of animals that we found are just the tip of the iceberg. Our finds don’t include those who died under ground, the animals that we missed, those that were burned with no trace, or those eaten by predators/scavengers”. When you consider the severity of this 5.6 hectare fire alone, it’s hard to imagine the devastating impacts on wildlife experienced across the whole of the south Wales region that month.

Rhondda Cynon Taff was among the worst areas affected. A total of 322 deliberate grass fires were experienced in this county alone during April 2015. Among the many areas affected by fire was Clydach Vale Country Park, near Tonypandy. The park covers 113 hectares and was formed following the reclamation of the Cambrian Colliery site in the 1980’s. The park supports a mixture of habitats including neutral and acid grasslands, woodland plantations, scrub, lakes, quarries, ffridd, and dry heath, all of which support a variety of wildlife. Clydach Vale Country Park was somewhere I regularly visited that year to conduct invertebrate surveys. I was unfortunate enough to witness first-hand the destructive nature of these fires, where an almost entire south-facing valley side within the park was burnt (Picture 1; Picture 2). Exploring the frazzled aftermath of the fire with a work colleague on 19th April, we discovered some of the victims of this mindless act. Several dead adders (Picture 3; Picture 4) and slow worms (Picture 5) were discovered, along with other victims including terrestrial molluscs (i.e. snails). Who knows what other animals perished in that fire – birds, mammals, more reptiles, insects, other invertebrates?

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Picture 1: Looking down the valley (Photo: Liam Olds)

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Picture 2: Looking up the valley (Photo: Ben Rowson)

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Picture 3: Dead adder discovered following the fire (Photo: Ben Rowson)

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Picture 4: Another dead adder that perished in the (Photo: Ben Rowson)

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Picture 5: Dead slow worm discovered following the fire (Photo: Ben Rowson)

The impacts of wildfires are clearly severe for wildlife. With most female Slow worms (Anguis fragilis) and Adders (Vipera berus) usually only reproducing every other year, it could well take some time for populations to recover at Clydach Vale Country Park. We will never know the full impact that this fire, and other across south Wales that year, have had on our wildlife but I dread to think.

While the impacts on wildlife are clearly severe, there are also financial impacts to deliberate grass fires. The cost of tackling grass fires in April 2015 alone was estimated by South Wales Fire and Rescue to be a staggering £1.2 million. There are also impacts on frontline services, with emergency services diverted from important work to tackle fires started as a result of the mindless behaviour of individuals. South Wales Fire and Rescue are now hard at work educating children about the impacts of deliberate fires and I can only hope that this helps to prevent fires from continuing to ravage swathes of the countryside every year.

Following the fire at Clydach Vale Country Park, I thought it would be interesting to track the process of regeneration by taking photographs at the same locations every month for an entire year. It is rather amazing how fast the vegetation regenerated following the fire, as is evident in the pictures. Unfortunately though, much of this vegetation is bracken. To the untrained eye, it is no longer obvious that this area was badly burnt just 12 months ago. While the vegetation has regenerated, I have no way of knowing how the animal populations are faring – I can only hope they are recovering well. I now hope that this area avoids another fire this year and can continue to recover for years to come. I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog and enjoy the picture slideshows below.

Liam

 

A year in pictures

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