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Scotland's Winter Contrast - Fire & Ice

Updated: Nov 3, 2021

Since the start of 2021 Most of Scotland has been experiencing its coldest winter since 2010. The period of cold weather culminated in mid February with the arrival of the the "Beast from the East" and significant snow brought in on fierce easterly winds from the Artic/Scandinavia. A Nasa Satellite image showed that by 11th of February much of Scotland as well the northern Isles of Orkney & Shetland was blanketed in white.

NASA Satellite Image of Snow covering

However in the west, along the Atlantic coast and on the Western Isles with the exception of the higher ground (The Cuillins on the Isle of Skye & the North Harris Peaks) the gulf stream helped maintain higher temperatures and kept the snow away.

And so whilst much a Scotland shivered in the sub-zero temperatures, on Skye & in the western Isles the local fire brigades were out on call fighting heather moorland fires. The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service reported 24 separate instances of "out of control" wildfires during the week, blaming out of control "Muirburn" for the cause but not ruling out malicious intent either. So What is Muirburn?

Between the months of October to April land Managers and crofters, under strict controls, deliberately burn away old heather/gorse/grasslands to encourage new growth for their managed livestock. This is called Muirburn and is an ancient mechanism for ensuring a natural regeneration of the moorland come springtime. As well was providing fresh pasture for livestock it also helps to encourage wildlife - birds, insects & reptiles - ensuring their continued important role in the ecosystem. Importantly it also plays a key role in preventing wild fires occurring during the drier spring & summer months and the collateral damage they produce.

There is a strict code on Muirburn activity issued by Scotland's Natural Heritage Agency as it clearly states: "Fire is one of our oldest and most powerful land management tools. But controlling it requires planning, skill and experience." It publishes a 24 page guide to ensure every aspect of the environment is protected. The Agency says the code's aim is

" to ensure that when muirburn is carried out, it:

  • is in the right place

  • avoids damage to sensitive habitats and ecosystem services

  • doesn’t lead to wildfire"

Images courtesy of firefighter Scott J MacLucas-Paton - Dunvegan Community Fire Station,

Land management is complex in Scotland when it is a question of balancing the needs of human & wild life. Scotland's West coast terrain is made up of rock, peat & bog, ancient woodland and rainforest sometimes all in extremely close proximity. It is a finely balanced ecosystem and easily damaged. Wildfires are able to destroy that balance very quickly and the local fire services ensure that any out of control fire is contained and subdued as rapidly as possible.

In 2020, as a direct result of COVID 19, the Muirburn was curtailed early and this has had for consequence a build up of dead vegetation. Coupled with a drier first half of the winter this meant tinder dry conditions during February and the extraordinary sight of wildfires set against snow covered hills - pictures provided by Dunvegan Community Fire Station based on the Isle of Skye.

Download the latest Muirburn code:

Guidance - Muirburn Code
Download PDF • 1.97MB

Further Reading:


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