Swaling on the Quantocks

Until 31st March you may see great plumes of smoke rising from the hills. What's going on?!

What exactly is swaling? Swaling is the name given to controlled annual burning of vegetation. It is a traditional means of managing heathland, moorland and grassland to encourage new growth. It's been going on for thousands of years. The actual word ‘swaling' may come from an Anglo Saxon word Swaelan- to burn. The aim in swaling, is to have a controlled fire that removes surface vegetation to allow new growth from roots and seeds that remain undamaged in the soil.

So why do we need to swale? Heathland is one of the rarest habitats in Europe. The Quantock Hills heathland is designated by Natural England as ‘lowland' heath as the majority is below 300metres in altitude. The Quantock Hills have 12% of the SW region's lowland heath (3% of the UKs lowland heathland) Of this lowland heath a particular speciality is maritime heath of which 10% of the world's coverage is found on the Quantock Hills. For this reason the Quantock heathland is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
If left unmanaged our heathland would quickly become overgrown, with scrub species such as mountain ash (rowan) and silver birch that have self-sown amongst the heather. Gorse may also out compete the heather, therefore changing the wildlife value and landscape appearance of this rare habitat.

Swaling (burning) in conjunction with grazing, is the most efficient way to control this growth and it enables vegetation to quickly re-grow, starting in the spring immediately following the burn.

Other benefits of swaling are:
• A good burning rotation creates a mosaic of different habitats that maximises benefits for a wide range of heathland wildlife.
• Reveals hidden archaeology
• Reduces the possibility of larger uncontrolled summer fires with serious impacts on the fragile wildlife.

Swaling is never carried out without the landowner's permission.

Although it may help, swaling is not carried out to destroy tick larva as these are buried in bracken mulch and can survive the above ground vegetation burning of a swale.

When do we carry out swaling?
Areas are swaled on an approximate 15 year rotation. On the Quantock Hills swaling is carried out between November and the end of March to avoid breeding wildlife and the damp and cold protects the valuable root and seed stock. We ususally are not permitted to swale beyond 31 March. To do so could impact on nesting birds like the skylark, Dartford warbler, nightjar, whitethroat meadow pipit, stonechat and yellowhammer. Many ground nesting birds actually prefer the shorter fresh vegetation which grows back after swaling.
Though we are allowed to start swaling in November, the Hills are very exposed to wet south westerly winds so swaling before Christmas is rare. We usually wait for cold dry, but relatively calm high pressure weather from the east in January, February and March. Too strong a breeze can make fires too intense and more difficult to manage, possible even jumping fire breaks if not watched very closely.

What about the wildlife, is it in danger from swaling and what benefit is it to them?
The swaled area does not immediately provide a valuable habitat but vegetation is quick to re-grow in the spring and also provides lots of young fresh shoots for wildlife and livestock to eat. The edge of the swaled area can be a particular favourite of the adder on warm days but you'll be unlikely to spot an adder in the heart of the burned area - too exposed to a hungry bird of prey! The Quantock Hills AONB Service in partnership with the Reptile and Amphibian Group for Somerset (R.A.G.S) have been carrying out detailed surveys of adder populations and hibernation sites, allowing us to avoid them when swaling.  The most important benefit however, is that swaling perpetuates the habitat the heathland wildlife depend upon.

But isn't burning releasing carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change and having an adverse effect on the environment?
This is an understandable reaction, but, in short, the answer is ‘no'. Swaling is generally regarded as ‘carbon neutral' and, in overall terms, better for the environment, e.g.

  • It's neutral because the heather starts regrowing as soon as it's burnt, taking back carbon equivalent to that released into the atmosphere.
  • The emissions from very small controlled burns between November and March are substantially less than the large damaging burns in summer.
  • The whole objective of swaling as a form of land management, is to create the best possible living conditions for plant life and animals, so, indirectly, it actually contributes to maintaining and increasing wildlife populations;
  • The vibrant more lush, new growth following a burn - in the years until the next swale - can make a more positive contribution to the atmosphere than the vegetation there before the burn.

Who carries out swaling? The areas that are burned are agreed between landowners, commoners (farmers), the AONB Service, National Trust and Natural England.On the day of a burn once the landowners and emergency services are informed, the burn is undertaken by the Quantock Hills AONB Service and National Trust staff and specially trained volunteers.



Owen Jones - December 2017


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Useful Contacts

Quantock AONB Service
Tel: 01823 451 884

Somerset Wildlife Trust
Tel: 01823 652 400

National Trust
Tel: 01823 451 814

Forestry Commission
Tel: 01278 732 319