Tristan Rees describes how the increase in wildfires across Scotland is indicative of how we are ignoring the devastating effects of the climate crisis.
In March, Gruinard Island in Wester Ross was enveloped by flames. Once used for anthrax testing by the military in the 1940s, the island was declared anthrax free in 1987. There has been speculation to what started the fire – whether it was deliberate or not – and the consequences. Many animals died amongst the flames, but firefighters could not do anything because the island is uninhabited. What does the fire and the media’s reaction to it tell us about how we view nature?
Humans have been managing nature for thousands of years using different techniques. Moorland burning is common across Scottish grasslands and areas covered in heather and gorse, and this muirburn practice encourages regeneration of the vegetation. The goal of the moorland burning is to create patches of vegetation at different stages of growth across the landscape. This creates spaces where areas of short fresh growth lie next to areas of older, denser, and higher vegetation, which is beneficial to the fauna, like deer, sheep, birds like grouse, insects, and reptiles by providing vegetation variation to shelter or graze on. Much of the highland and island areas, including Gruinard Island, are landscapes that are suitable for moorland burning and when done responsibly it can promote the biodiversity of the land. To achieve this, the muirburn code follows strict guidelines to prevent damage to ground nesting birds and reptiles.
However, it is unlikely that the Gruinard Island fire was planned, and therefore it was not a muirburn but instead a wildfire. It spread across the entirety of the island leaving no available spaces for the bird and insect life to move to. Wildfires can burn for days and devastate habits and ecosystems. Often the victims of these unplanned fires are species at the bottom of the food chain. Unlike larger animals which migrate, insects are more likely to perish in wildfires. Despite being largely dismissed by the general public, compared to their larger cohabiting creatures, insects fulfil pivotal roles in the ecosystem and are more important to the cycle of life than any other animal. They pollinate plants, disperse seeds, decompose biological matter and act as a food source to immeasurable numbers of species. They are fundamental to life on earth, and we could not survive without them.
Wildfires have become more and more common across the world. In the last decade the typical at-risk areas such as Australia and California have seen an increase in wildfires. But what about Scotland? The climate crisis is one of the main causes of the increased wildfire risk in Scotland. Scotland’s summers are becoming increasingly drier, and these hot and dry conditions increase the likelihood of wildfires.
In tandem with the climate crisis, wildfires are started by other types of human activities. Irresponsible and reckless use of disposable barbecues, sky lanterns, cigarette butts and portable stoves can cause the outbreak of wildfires, and the hotter and drier conditions caused by climate change only make their threat worse. Some local councils in Britain have banned the use of disposable barbecues and sky lanterns and some supermarket chains have stopped selling them, and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has started implementing a new strategy to enhance its ability to stem Scottish wildfires. But what else can be done to prevent their outbreak? It seems that education would be the best course of action.
The threat of wildfires has shown that Scotland’s wildlife is at risk at the hands of human-caused disaster – be it irresponsible behaviour or through the climate crisis, you could argue both are part of the same attitude. Every year thousands travel to the highlands and islands to get away from their problems, but we are at risk of bringing our problems with us in the form of our litter, fire, and blatant disregard, all for our own pleasure and Instagram pictures. There is a certain mysticism and allure to the highlands and islands, but when we act irresponsibly, we are destroying these habits which intrigue us so much.
I want more people to go and experience what the Scotland wilderness has to offer and to understand the important role wild places play on the ecosystem, livelihood, and culture of Scotland, but only in the right way and for the right reasons. Currently the damage to wild places is like a cancer in that we can only treat the symptoms rather than providing a cure. In a way, the subdued reaction to the Gruinard Island burning acts like a metaphor for the destruction of all wild places. Like the firefighters, we can only stand and watch as nature is being destroyed by the actions of humans, all the while the media and public’s interest turn to the next more click baiting story. It really is a slap in the face to nature.