Sunday, March 11, 2012

Muir Burning

In late winter this is a common sight in the northern Pennine dales: muir burning -burning away patches of old, woody heather. This encourages the growth of fresh, palatable new heather shoots, that are essential for the survival of red grouse at these high elevations. Muir burning is a highly skilled process, ensuring that the fire moves fast enough to burn away dead wood without killing the roots or setting fire to the peat if the ground is too dry. If you double click on this image to enlarge it you should be able to see the geometric outline of a black recently-burned patch and the browner outline of one of last year's burns.

The end result is a patchwork grouse moor landscape like this one between Edmundbyers and Stanhope in Weardale. When flowering time comes around in July you see a similar patchwork, but now in shades of purple heather flowers

Double-click for a clearer image of this picture and the next.

The grey areas here were probably burned during winter and have yet to regrow - the umber areas are older heather with new shoots, in peak flowering condition, that will hum with bees when it blooms.

For a year of two afterwards there's often a flush of growth of sorrel plants in the fertile ash released by burning, which in turn are colonised by small copper butterflies. Some of the best small copper populations that I've found in the uplands have been in landscapes like this.

These upland areas are also breeding grounds for curlew and golden plover and hunting grounds for merlin.


  1. I find it so clever the way it is burned like that. It must be a worthwhile skill to have.

  2. You can see controlled fires like this all over Weardale at the moment, toffeeapple...

  3. You got a good vantage point to show the muir burn patterns.

    As I mentioned in my blog, we encountered a couple of guys doing this on the moorland close to Beauly when out walking locally about 3 weeks ago,

  4. Hi swanscot, it's a good viewpoint across the valley here - I must go back in summer to photograph the patches in flower...

  5. Lovely photos - and interesting to hear of the sorrel that grows afterwards, and of the small copper butterfly.

    I attended your lectures while I was at Durham Uni - and now I have the pleasure of working in landscapes like these in the Peak District. Thanks for the inspiration!

  6. Hi Rachel, delighted to hear from you .... and to know that you are working in such a beautiful location. All the best, Phil