Cairngorms Wildfire Strategy 'non-existent' say professionals

Gamekeepers have assisted at wildfires nationwide

Muirburn professionals have accused Cairngorms leaders of not having a credible Wildfire strategy in place to keep people safe, despite having 2 decades to do so.


The Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA), whose members have assisted Fire crews at wildfires nationwide, say the National Park’s blueprint to tackle major blazes is ‘non-existent’.

They also claim the strategy is overly dependent on a presumption that, should a large wildfire rage, local gamekeepers and land managers will ‘bail them out’.


Cairngorms leaders’ creeping attempts over recent years to restrict muirburn have led to resentment and tensions with resident land managers within the Park.

As a result, the SGA believes the Park’s wildfire strategy is fraught with risk.

Furthermore, with such a dangerous volume of vegetative fuel to burn in certain areas, the SGA say it is not fair to expect their members to attend every SOS.

Cairngorms National Park does not have a credible wildfire plan say gamekeepers

The comments come as the Cairngorms National Park Authority’s Fire Management consultation draws to a close.

The consultation has further strained relations between Park leaders and land managers over a potential blanket byelaw restriction on muirburn, when fire danger warnings reach a certain level.

“As far as can be understood, the Park’s wildfire plan seems to rest on the shoulders of the Fire Service, helped by gamekeepers and land managers.

“Without full cooperation, realistically, what is the Park’s Plan B?

“Government body, Forestry and Land Scotland, won’t train and equip staff to attend fires outside of their own forests and have said so in recent wildfire meetings. 

“Conservation or NGO landowners, with the exception of Wildland, don’t have the equipment or skill to help. The NGOs have tried to put roadblocks in the way of professionals undertaking controlled burning, at every step of the way, so they won’t step up,” explained SGA Chairman, Alex Hogg, MBE.

Gamekeepers creating firebreaks during the massive Moray wildfire

Good Will


Last year, gamekeepers assisted Scottish Fire and Rescue Service at megafires at Cannich, and Daviot.

Forty eight local gamekeepers, with specialised equipment, also helped extinguish the Moray fire of 2019 (pictured above) which burned for 44 square miles over 17 days.

The SGA believes local estates place equipment worth millions of pounds at the disposal of the fire service during peak fire seasons, through good will.

“In the debrief after the Moray fire, which reached the edge of the Park, leaders were told what they had to do, in terms of equipment, manpower and access, to keep people and property safe.

“What has been delivered?”, asks SGA gamekeeper, Bob Connelly. 

“Professionals pointed out the vast areas of un-managed vegetation within the park. Since then, with policy encouragement of more scrub through rewilding and less grazing, vegetative fuel loads are arguably higher than anywhere else. It’s a tinderbox of the Park’s making.

“Do Park leaders then simply expect volunteer gamekeepers, or anyone else, to risk their safety, in these extremes, to bail them out? The Park’s residents deserve better after 20 years.”

The Cairngorms National Park’s fire management consultation seeks views on issues such as visitor use of barbecues and flammables.

However, it also proposes a potential blanket byelaw restriction on muirburn during times of high risk - something land managers say is not necessary.

“No professional will burn when it is not safe. It’s just not in their interest,” added SGA gamekeeper, Ed Jaundrell. 

“Imposing a Park-wide restriction makes no sense. Ground conditions in Donside will be vastly different from Drumochter, on the very same day.

“Individuals with proper equipment and vast experience know much better how to make those judgements on conditions, on their ground, than Park policy people sitting in Grantown.”



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Read the SGA's FULL Consultation response, below.

The Scottish Gamekeepers Association believes prescribed burning should be exempt from any new byelaws regarding wildfire mitigation in the Cairngorms National Park and wishes to confine its response solely to prescribed burning.


The reasons for this stance are outlined below.


1/ The consultation makes it clear that the Park authorities are concerned about public perceptions of inconsistency if land managers are allowed to carry out prescribed burning at the same time as restrictions may be imposed on leisure fires.


Whilst understanding the basic point, the two are not comparable. Firstly, a land manager lighting a fire will, unlike the leisure user in most cases, have the necessary equipment and skilled staff on hand to extinguish said fire successfully, should anything occur. This is a condition of lighting the fire in the first place. 


Secondly, all prescribed burning professionals are to be trained, licensed and regulated following the provisions of the Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill. This places trained individuals on a different professional standing to the untrained leisure user and the two should not be compared as like for like. 


Part of the consideration for lighting a fire under licence will require having a full understanding of conditions and the risk which ignition could pose to a land managers’ own ground and the wider landscape at any given time, should something occur. 


Failure to adequately do so could result in the loss of a muirburn licence and significant penalties; sanctions which would negate the necessity for the Park to introduce further regulatory intervention, particularly through a blanket restriction which could severely limit a professional’s ability to manage their land and protect their property.


2/ Regulating prescribed burning using a fire severity rating fails to adequately acknowledge that there can be huge differences in ground conditions, weather and topography across the Park area, even within specific regions. 


Even with current systems of fire danger ratings operational today, it requires knowledgeable people, who know their ground and have many years of experience of lighting fires, to match the maps to actual conditions on their ‘hill’ and to interpret this, along with other information such as local weather, to make the decision to burn or not. 


Quite often, within a region, an estate’s gamekeepers will be burning while not far away, as the crow flies, another estate will have decided to wait off because the ground conditions are not right where they are.


It is important to get away from one-size-fits-all solutions to prescribed burning because such methods of restriction rarely work. This is well understood by Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, who would be called on to activate any byelaw scheme. 


We consider that including prescribed burning in any new byelaw, therefore, is heading back in the wrong direction. After much debate during the Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill, there was a recognition that the Bill still had to enable qualified people to make professional judgements, using their knowledge, and the final Bill allows some flexibility for that to still happen. Having further byelaws, in addition to this, runs counter to the spirit of that legislation and narrows the work done.


3/ No land manager wants to lose the asset which is their lifeblood, by taking unnecessary risks. This, however, is balanced by the need to ensure their assets are resilient to withstand fire caused accidentally - or deliberately - by others. 


Muirburn is, therefore, understood by land managers to be one of the best insurance polices they have to protect their own land from wildfire (if not the best).


An additional byelaw, on top of new restrictions on prescribed burning already brought in as part of the Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill, could impact a holding’s ability to protect its land, assets and business. It could also endanger the public and habitats within the Park and these responsibilities should be carefully weighed by the Park’s Board along with any culpability which could fall upon them through someone’s land going up in flames as a result of being unable to adequately mitigate against wildfire due to byelaw restrictions.


It should be noted that land managers have already lost 2 weeks of the season (through the new Bill) in the part of the year considered by many to be critical. 


4/ In a recent Q and A session on the Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill at Holyrood, Bruce Farquharson of Scottish Wildlife Forum relayed to cross-party MSPs a piece of work carried out by SFRS in relation to data held on its fire registration system.


From detailed assessments, covering a 10 year period, it was found that 95% of the wildfires attended by SFRS had been started by members of the public. 5% were a result of muirburn getting out of control and we are sure, if asked, that Bruce would be able to quantify that data in more detail. 


Nationally, it is clear where the focus should be. We would argue the byelaw, in respect of prescribed burning, is unnecessary and will only serve to further alienate land managers who perceive the interventions of the Park into their practices, at times, to be overbearing and ‘one-way’. Park leaders should be mindful of existing perceived tensions as it considers how best to engage land managers in helping to make the Park more resilient to future fires.

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