The fire at Upton Heath in Dorset has devastated a large proportion of this 205 hectare nature reserve overlooking the picturesque Poole Harbour and Corfe Castle. As dampening down continues by the fire service it’s believed that between a third and a half of this nationally important site has sucumbed to arson.
Packed full of wildlife and micro habitats Upton Heath is one of our most important heathland habitats. Despite being in a semi urban area, the reserve contains dry, humid and wet heathland types and is one of the few places in the UK that you will find all 6 of our reptile species.
Upton Heath fire came at exactly the worst possible time.
There’s no doubt that the recent fire was devastating to the reserve. It happened at the most damaging time – right in the middle of the breeding season. Large numbers of threatened and rare species have effectively lost a generation in the region. Species from adders to the Dartford warbler have all been lost.
The pools and mires that dot the landscape contain 19 species of dragon flies and damsel flies together with the rare raft spiders. dotted around the reserve you’ll find rare plants such as the carniverous sundew.
The worst fire at Upton Heath for 35 years.
The fire was one of the most severe on the heathland for close to 35 years. In the short term it will set back the management work in the reserve but what does the long term future hold for the reserve?
It’s still very early days as the wardens and volunteers from the Dorset Wildlife Trust start to shift through the remains of lost habitat. There’s no doubts that the fire has severely damaged this years breeding season and many young and eggs have been lost. But are some of the claims about the heathland needing decades to recover true?
Previous studies on heathland fires are encouraging.
Studies have been done on the impact of fire on heathlands and one of the most relevant studies is that done by Bullock and Webb. Their study looked at the response of 11 heathlands in Dorset in repsonse to severe fires.
They undertook a survey of the heathlands just after the fires in 1976 (a real scorcher of a summer) and returned in 1987 to look at the long term impacts. the burnt heathlands had recovered and to some extent were in better conditions than unburnt heathlands because successional plants had not become established.
Over the 10 year period unburnt heathlands had lost some of it’s dry heath to woodlands and scrubs while in the heaths that had experienced fires the normal successional ecosystem of scrub, woodland and carr had not become estabnlished. The only vegetation type that had done a little better on the burnt heaths was bracken.
The ability and speed of recovery of the plant life will play a big role in how well and quickly animal and bird life can become re-established on Upton Heath.
Heathland will recover in under 10 years.
I certainly do not want to play down how devastating the impact of the fire has been on the local wildlife but I think the estimates of decades to recovery is probably overly pessimistic. Over half of the site has been untouched by the fire so there is a ‘reservoir’ of animal life that can expand into the burnt area once the vegetation become re-established.
Over the next 3 to 5 years the reserve will be well on the way to recovery and within 10 years I doubt that there will be much left of the impact of the fire.
Looking out over the blackened and charred landscape it can be easy to think that the heath will not recovery fully. There’s no doubt that it will have an immediate impact on wildlife and the local community that enjoyed the reserve. Nature is pretty robust though and will recover. It may need a bit of a helping hand to speed it up with re-introductions of some species. However I would not give up on nature’s ability to repair itself just yet.