MANAGED muirburn has been the cause of less than 10% of wildfires in Scotland in the last decade according to analysis of the fire service’s own data.

The Scottish Gamekeepers Association highlighted these statistics in response to a National Trust for Scotland paper – ‘The Relationship Between Prescribed Burning and Wildfires’ – which ascribed 60% of wildfires to potential muirburn.

Burning moorland strips to regenerate heather and grass for grouse and sheep is an activity regularly undertaken by gamekeepers and crofters, governed by strict seasons. The gamekeepers concede that these controlled fires can sometimes spread, leading to deployment of fire crews, but insist that they are not a major contributor to the wildfire problem.

Analysis of raw fire service data from 2009 to 2019 found that nearly 90% of large wildfires stemmed from other causes, which could be anything from campfires to discarded cigarettes and barbecues. It was found that only 9.3% of large wildfires could reasonably be attributed to muirburn since 2009.

Actual figures could be less, though, as fire service notes on ‘potential muirburn’ also contained entries such as bonfires, campsite fires and other controlled fires not related to land management.

SGA vice chairman Peter Fraser said: “We asked for the data to be analysed because we thought the 60% figure very surprising. We also wanted to understand how wildfires were classified under IRS.

“Obviously it has brought clarity. There is a marked difference between 9.3% of large wildfires potentially being caused by muirburn and 60%. There is a tendency, when people see big fires, to point instantly to muirburn. This data shows the extent of other factors.

“All land holdings have a role in managing fire in our landscape, whether conservation bodies, nature reserves, croft lands, recreation groups or estates. It is important the public get reliable information about muirburn, particularly as it has an increasingly important role in reducing fuel loads. High fuel loads can contribute to the types of extensive fires like Moray and the Flow Country this year, which were not caused by muirburn,” said Mr Fraser.

A fire service spokesman said: “I think where the discrepancies have come in is in the way the data has been recovered from the system. We have been able to further analyse the data and use the notes added by the officer completing the IRS to provide a fuller and more accurate picture of the causes of the wildfires we have attended.”

Earlier this year, Scottish Fire and Rescue Service stated that they are exploring the use of prescribed burning as a tool in the prevention and control of wildfires, through the creation of strategic fire breaks, and fuel management.

The SGA added that the recent Moray wildfire started in an area where controlled muirburn had not been permitted for three years and had been severely restricted for 10 years, leading to high fuel load.