May 24, 2009

Moor burning: A Redesdale Daft Laddie’s burning desire

Northumberland, Redesdale, agriculture, farming, history, moor burning, moorland management, dialect, humour

Moor burning: A Redesdale Daft Laddie’s burning desire

By Donald Clegg

The smell of reek
For hundreds of years man has used fire as a means to clear scrub and invasive plants off land so that he could farm it in one way or another. In the uplands of Britain, generation of farmers and landowners have used fire to control the spread of heather, bracken and rushes over the moors as well as to remove the thick accumulated layers of dead bent grasses.

Sheep farmers were interested in encouraging new grass to grow where once was heather, and those with an eye to creating a grouse moor to be shot over by rich clients, required the heather to be short. In each case, controlled burning produced the desired result.

Old, neglected heather moors were seriously unproductive. The tall, woody shrubs tore the wool off the sheep’s backs as they struggled through it and provided very little to eat for sheep or grouse.

Young heather plants, on the other hand, allowed room for grasses to grow between them, didn’t hinder the sheep’s progress and provided tasty shoots in spring to be enjoyed by sheep and grouse alike.

Indeed, the Red Grouse of the heather moor lands lives almost entirely on these young parts of the plant and nests among the tussocks. This being the case, moor burning is still a springtime tradition and, for upland dwellers, the acrid scent of heather burning is as much a precursor of spring as the first snowdrop or the first curlew. “Spring must ha’ cum, Aa can smell the reek”, as the owld men would say.

As children growing up in upper Redesdale, we looked forward to the first whiff of spring because, in our small way, this was an annual tradition we could be part of, even though it was usually unofficially. From January onwards, weather permitting, farmers up and down the valley were burning on the higher tops, the blue-grey smoke filling the air with its pungent perfume and turning the evening sun orange.

Foolin' the Germans
After nightfall the glowing crescents of fire could be seen all around. During World War II of course, farmers were required to douse all fires after dark so as not to give German bombers any navigational assistance. On the few occasions that a fire reignited from a chance gust of wind, the bombers had been known to drop their bombs on what they thought was a fire resulting from the first wave of their attack.

Perhaps, if farmers had been allowed to keep the fires burning through the hours of darkness, many more German bombs might have been dumped in the peat bogs of Redesdale and Tynedale instead of landing on the factories, shipyards and houses of Newcastle, Wallsend and Jarrow.

Now was the time that we youngsters came into our own as we made our small contribution towards the regeneration of grass to feed the sheep by setting fire to the dry beds of rushes surrounding Rochester village. An evening’s moor burning, of course, inevitably resulted in soot-blackened hands, singed eyebrows and hair and clothes that smelled worse than the ash pit in the middle of the village.

'And wesh ahint yor lugs'!
“Where hev ye been to get in that state,” mums would yell. “Get them claes off now, get yoursell a good wesh – ahint the lugs anaal – an’ away up them stairs to bed!” But it was always worth it!
The one that got away!

Our amateur attempts to emulate the grown ups didn’t always go to plan, however. On one occasion Jimmy, Margaret, Ann and me’sell came across a bed of rushes simply begging to be set alight. Tall and dry they would make a spectacular blaze.

We collected fistfuls of dry grass to act as torches as we had seen the farm workers do and, when they were lit, we trailed them across the entire width of the rushy bed. Soon small flames were licking through the dry undergrowth, gobbling their way greedily onwards and upwards into the heart of the rushes, to burst skywards with a tremendous WHOOSH! and an outpouring of masses of dense, grey, choking smoke.

'Man - whaat a sight'!
We stood back from the searing heat and marvelled at the towering orange inferno we had created. Soon, however, delight and congratulations were forgotten as the blaze took hold and rampaged across the hillside faster than we could keep up.

Panic set in as, grabbing sticks and fence rails – anything to attack the fire with – we beat furiously and increasingly desperately as we realised the inferno was racing towards the Storey’s bungalow, only fifty yards away! Ann actually tore off her coat and flapped harder and harder at the flames until, an age later it seemed, the fire slowed as it reached a stretch of shorter grass which allowed us finally, to get the upper hand and stamp out the last flickering embers.

As we sank exhausted to the ground and the last wisps of smoke drifted skywards, a stern voice from the direction of the bungalow bellowed, “What the h—l’s gannin’ on?” We though the blackened ground and our blackened faces were self explanatory, so we didn’t wait to give our considered opinion, but sped off to our respective homes and kept a very low profile for the next couple of weeks.

Fires and Fir trees
'Bent' grass like this pictured was burned off to get new growth, but there was always
a risk of the fire getting into adjacent forest.

Even the moorburning that took place under the grownups’ watchful eye sometimes went wrong. All it needed was for the wind to get stronger or to change direction unexpectedly for a fairly routine, controlled afternoon’s work to turn into a serious situation.

On many occasions a quiet bit of moorburning has been known, suddenly, to race away from its minders, out of sheer mischief, and trespass onto a neighbour’s land, devouring as it went, the fence, sheep hecks, a stretch of hawthorn hedge and anything else inflammable in its path, to be stopped only when it reached the drystone dyke at the top of the inbye fields.

Things became much more risky for the ootbye men when they found themselves, bit by bit, surrounded by hundreds of acres of newly planted conifer forest. Now, not only did they have to make sure that the Forestry Commission were aware of any moorburning plans, but that the wind would not be blowing any sparks or flames towards any potential flash points.

Harbottle and Fourlaws
Over the years, despite their best efforts, many acres of forest have fallen victim to runaway moorburns and been reduced to ashes. One such fairly recent outbreak happened in the Northumberland National Park near Harbottle in Coquetdale when a large tract of moorland and several acres of trees were destroyed. The situation was made the more difficult because of the problem of access to the scene and the lack of a nearby water supply.

More trees were incinerated by a rogue fire at Fourlaws Forest in the Wannies which took days to get under control due to a fickle wind that kept changing direction, or dying away only to get up again after the firemen had left.

Many years earlier in the North Tyne valley, during an unusually dry spring, a moorburn penetrated below the surface and into a thick layer of peat. The resulting underground fire smouldered for weeks afterwards, bursting out sporadically and necessitating the almost constant attention of the fire brigade to damp down the hot spots as they appeared.

The Stobbs moss
Coming back to our fire raising escapades as children, one of our favourite moorburning sites was an area of only an acre or two of rushes. This patch was part of a much larger boggy piece of fell called the Stobbs Moss, which stretched along the A68 road between Rochester village and Stobbs Farm, about a mile to the East.

“Our” corner was directly in front of the village itself, bounded by the road to the North and the river Rede to the South. Its special attraction for us was the extent and size of the clumps of dead rushes (rashees) rising tall, straight and very dry in every direction and the “bull snoots” of dry grass in between and, of course, its proximity to home (in case we had to make a strategic retreat).

One night in early March our small gang set off with a good supply of matches (sneaked from the kitchen) and soon got a number of very satisfying fires going. The rushes burned fiercely with a great roar and a Whoosh of sparks, sooty embers and columns of thick, choking smoke, before dying down as the flames crept through the intervening space to the next clump. There the exciting process repeated itself over and over as the fire, and we, advanced steadily across the Moss.

After several hours of exhilarating pyrotechnics, and not a few singed eyebrows and burned fingers, the Moss resembled the aftermath of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow (minus the snow) with blackened, smoking and occasional still-glowing acres all around us.

How then - where’s me rain coat?
As we turned to go home weary, sooty but immensely satisfied with our night’s work, I suddenly remembered my school rain coat. I had put it on because of a slight threat of rain but soon discarded it as the temperature around me rose. But where? It took a further half an hour before we found it – or at least its remains – still gently smoldering and only recognisable by the few bone buttons clinging to a charred shred of once navy blue material and the belt buckle, minus the belt, alongside.

In my naiveté, my first instinct was to deny all knowledge of its whereabouts, or even that I’d had it with me at all, then decided instead to hide the evidence in the house where it would be discovered weeks later, to the eternal mystification of my parents. Of course it didn’t work out like that at all.

My mother, following her nose no doubt, sniffed it out the following morning behind the wardrobe in my bedroom. It soon became obvious that how it got there was no mystery at all, or who the culprit was! I got me lugs chowed from Mam and a het backside from Dad, weeks of taunting from my goody-goody sisters and my pocket money stopped for weeks and weeks to pay for a new coat – but it was worth it!
Always a worry. What you thought was a small harmless fire left to burn itself out, could blow up into a raging inferno if the wind changed over night, and take off in an unpredicted direction.

Comment by Dr Clive Dalton
The definitive work on the nutritive value of heather was done in the 1950s by Prof Brynmor Thomas at King’s College, University or Durham, at Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the Agricultural Chemistry Department, aided by Senior Lecturer Alan Thompson. See the paper below which is the first in a series.

Brynmor involved many of his students with his work leading to distinguished careers as leading UK animal nutritionists. Those who come to mind in my time at Kings were the brilliant twin brothers David and Robin Armstrong, Keith Martin, Charles Fairbairn, Arthur Jones and John Clapperton.

This work showed that young heather leaves in the spring were highly nutritious and contained a wide range of minerals, which were of great benefit to pregnant and lactating ewes.

Brynmor Thomas & D.G. Armstrong (1952)
Journal of Agricultural Science (Cambs) Vol 42: No 4. 461-464.
The nutritive value of common heather (Calluna vulgaris). I. The preparation of samples of Calluna vulgaris for analytical purposes and for digestibility studies.

Comment by Dr Tom Batey
Muirburning (the name used north of the Border)
One morning my father set off from the farm house at Broomhill to burn some old heather on our land on the Wannees, taking his bait and a can of cold tea. The fire soon got hold, the wind got up and she raced away - jumped the dyke onto his neighbours, and the poor man battled all day not stopping to eat or drink.

Nearing nightfall, Ma realised that something must have gone wrong so we went down to tell Ivy and Willie Bell on the next farm (Townfoot) as there was no phone in those days. They informed the local bobby and we all assembled at the farm - and then Father staggered in at nightfall in a right state. He drank gallons of water and slept for 24 hours. Our neighbours on the fell said they had the best growth that spring that they had ever seen after Father's great work!

On the scientific side, I did a bit of work many years ago showing that if you heated soil up a bit, but not high enough to burn off the Organic Matter (OM), there was a release of ammonium from the Nitrogen in the OM. This could partly account for the flush of growth often seen after burning off old grass (and reshees - as in Don's account).

One of the reasons why the burning is done in quite narrow strips 20-30 m wide, is that grouse like the proximity, security and shelter of tall heather for protection from predators, then to feed out on the new growth on burnt areas.

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