Controlled swaling sets Somerset's Quantock Hills alight for 'spring burn'
Large billows of smoke rose from the Quantock Hills yesterday and visitors enjoying the warm spring weather on the West Somerset coast would have been forgiven for thinking that summer heathland fires had begun early – but in fact everything "was going to plan" according to one of the men in charge of the big blaze.
"We've burned off over four hectares of scrub today and it's gone very well indeed," commented National Trust ranger Nigel Garnsworthy as he stood looking at a line of flames on Staple Plain, the most northerly hill on the Quantocks.
"It's been the perfect weather, nothing's gone wrong and we've achieved all we set out to do," he added.
Swaling is a traditional method of land management on the high Quantock heath-lands and for years now the trust, along with the local Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty service, has been using fire as a tool to keep down the scrub which can build up if not enough animals are grazing the hill-tops.
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A trust spokesman explained: "Carefully selected areas of heather, gorse or rank grass are selected and burnt in a controlled way.
"Strips of ground that are cleared of vegetation before swaling begins, act as fire breaks to stop the fire from spreading.
"Later in the spring the burnt areas produce a flush of vigorous new growth rejuvenating these places and the rare plants and animals they support such as bell heather, red deer, nightjars and adders," she added.
In some parts of the Westcountry swaling has been dying out as a management tool.
Three years ago a report by Exmoor National Park Authority found that: "An extensive build-up of moorland vegetation is undesirable for many reasons, including landscape, biodiversity, conservation of archaeology, public access, lack of forage and an increased risk of damaging wild fires."
"You have two choices," said one of the report's authors. "You either burn, or you graze – if you don't do either you end up with too much scrub."