The Aftermath

The previous Saturday afternoon was hot and sunny. I was near the top of Heber’s Ghyll, photographing a rather accommodating toad that was slowly making its way down a gully. I thought there was a faint smell of smoke in the air – but couldn’t see why this would be the case. As I walked back in the direction of White Wells the first of the fire engines was arriving at the car park - although there were already firemen and women on the moor tackling the escalating blaze that was spreading through the dry bracken. Their efforts continued into the night and on Sunday this was supplemented by a helicopter that ferried water from Panorama reservoir. What a great job they did!

Today is Thursday and I’ve just been walking around this area of the moor, now that it is open again. The damage is extensive for both environment and wildlife. The slopes below Rocky Valley are charred black. The vegetation is gone, and there is a smell of ash in the air. This is an area that is usually extensively inhabited by meadow pipits. Their home has been obliterated. It is impossible to tell how many birds were taken by the fire. There are some meadow pipits on top of the ridge, but they are not particularly evident nearby. In previous years stonechats could also frequently be seen along Rocky Valley and down towards White Wells. Now they seem to be very scarce. As I walked along the path, I encountered a male grouse wandering amongst the ashes (see photograph). It seemed rather disorientated and disturbed.

I think the dry, and easily flattened bracken may also be leading to another problem with regard to loss of wildlife habitat. Many new mountain bike trails are being created (it seems more every day), forming a lattice-work of paths across large areas of the moor. I like to see the mountain bikes on the moor – but, in my view, the proliferation of trails is a worry – and all the more so now that a large area of wildlife habitat has been lost to the fire.

However, I did take some positives from my walk. I think meadow pipits are hosts for the cuckoos that visit the moor each year. Last year I watched the cuckoos moving along these lower slopes, looking for suitable nests in which to leave their eggs. The meadow pipits may be scarce, but at least one of the cuckoos has arrived. The male can be heard calling from the wooded areas (the males have a more melodic call than the females). Hopefully the effects of the fire won’t lead them to change their schedule. Willow warblers also seem to be around in numbers and can be heard singing from all available high points.

Perhaps now that this year’s growth of new, green bracken is starting – in just a few places – things will begin to improve for the wildlife of the moor. As I walked down towards the town, the heavens opened. For a short while it poured down. I was soaked – but, more importantly, so was the moor. Let’s hope we have more rain!

Steve Westerman