Scottish Wildfires – the culprit!

Driving north along Loch Lomondside on Friday 25 March 2022, large portions of the hillside on Ben Lomond were blackened. Extensive areas of burning could clearly be seen on the Ptarmigan ridge, across the route of the hill path to the summit, from a wildfire earlier in the week. News reports this week also told of a wildfire near Mallaig covering an area of 80 acres. No casualties were reported from these fires, but the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service warn of the dangers posed by these fires and seek to educate the public in preventing them.

Widfires are normally associated with hot dry climates – places Australia, Greece and California come to mind – however every year, in Spring, Scotland experiences wildfires. The main culprit is a particular type of grass, common throughout Scotland – purple moor grass, Molinia caerulea.

Purple moor-grass is native to Europe, West Asia and North Africa. It grows in acid soils and is most commonly found in Britain on heath and moorland habitats. The grass will be well known to any Scottish hillwalker as the plant that forms tussocks: clumps and hummocks of grass that create difficult, awkward, ankle-twisting terrain for walkers, should you stray off the hill path. Balance precariously on top, crossing stepping stone fashion, or feeling for the gullies and troughs in between, either way, journeying through tussock grass slows you to a snail’s pace. As well as being a haven for wildlife, particularly rodents and birds, the tussocks serve an important purpose for the plant, it affords it fire resistance!

In late summer Purple moor grass has leaves, or spikelets, with a blueish, purple colour (the Latin word caerulea means dark blue or sky-coloured). In early summer, however, the blades of grass are green and are long, broad and thin. Their edges are slightly serrated too and can give you a ‘paper-cut’ like cut. In the winter and Spring the dead blades of grass are a blond colour. Being so thin, the grass dries out very easily, even in winter, amid spells of rain, the wind, or a brief spell of sunshine can dry it out and make it prone to combustion. It is this dead plant material that is the main fuel in Scottish Wildfires. Spells of high pressure and dry sunny weather in the spring, lead to high fire risk. A carelessly dropped cigarette, or perhaps a broken shard of glass that concentrates the sun’s rays, can be enough to start a fire.

Such is the combustibility of purple moor grass, it’s my go-to material for a tinder bundle, when making a fire. A small ember of punk wood or charred cloth, placed in a bundle of grass, is enough to create a flame. It burns very quickly, so adding birch bark is often needed to extend the flame, in readiness for small twigs.

Every year I try to collect lots of dead dry grass for bushcraft courses, throughout the rest of the year. After a long spell of dry weather, the conditions today were perfect for collecting. I managed to collect two bags full, in a few minutes, at Loch Ardinning Nature Reserve, near Strathblane.

If you’d like to learn some bushcraft skills like using a tinder next and charr cloth to start a fire, please get in touch. We can organise courses on request and we have open courses, several times a year.

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