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Last modified: 19 July 2013
Image: Lee Shields
With the hot weather showing no signs of cooling down, the RSPB in the South East are urging residents and visitors to Berkshire’s countryside to take extra care.
The hot, dry conditions and swell of visitors keen to enjoy the great outdoors increases the risk of countryside fires, particularly on heathlands.
Heathland fires are a stark reminder of the vulnerability of this ancient landscape and the unique wildlife that depends on it for survival.
Although the cause of individual fires is not always clear, they pose a serious threat to specialist heathland wildlife including smooth snakes, sand lizards, Dartford warblers and many butterflies and dragonflies.
Mike Coates, Heathland Project Manager for RSPB South East, said: “An uncontrolled fire can have a devastating impact on heathland wildlife, particularly at this time of year when many specialist heathland species are still breeding and raising young.
“Most countryside fires are caused by carelessness so should be avoidable; ten seconds of carelessness can cause fires that take hours to put out and years for the habitat and wildlife to recover.
“Heaths are wonderful places to visit – but until we’ve had some rain they are incredibly fragile and susceptible to fires, we have already experienced a fire on our Hazeley Heath reserve in Hampshire. Please be careful with cigarettes and matches, report anything suspicious and don’t use disposable barbeques or Chinese lanterns.”
By following the following simple tips, people can enjoy a visit to the countryside, whilst keeping themselves and our wildlife safe.
· Always extinguish cigarettes and other smoking materials properly
· Never throw lit cigarette ends out of car windows – they can destroy whole fields of crops
· Avoid open fires in the countryside. Only use barbecues in safe, designated areas and never leave them unattended
· Don’t leave bottles or glass lying around - sunlight shining through glass can start a fire
· If you see a fire in the countryside, report it to the fire and rescue service immediately, dial 999
· Don’t attempt to tackle fires that can’t be put out with a bucket of water – evacuate the area as quickly as possible.
· If you can, prepare for the arrival of the fire and rescue service at the pre-arranged meeting point, by unlocking gates, etc.
Heathland once covered vast areas of southern England, however since the 1800s forestry, agricultural intensification and urban development have contributed to the loss of 75% of this precious habitat.
Heathland fires are one of the growing problems associated with increased numbers of people living close to heathland sites. Hotter, drier summers, linked to climate change, are also increasing the risk and scale of uncontrolled heathland fires.
The RSPB has been working alongside local authorities and landowners to help protect the Thames Basin Heaths from increasing urban pressures, which also include disturbance to ground-nesting birds from people and dogs, predation by cats, fly-tipping and vandalism.
To encourage more sensitive use of the heaths and limit damage, the RSPB is advising measures such as creating alternative open spaces for people to use, increasing rangers on the heaths, and improving public awareness of the historical and ecological importance of heathlands.