The prolonged spell of dry, warm weather in late April and early May created the conditions for a number of ‘wild’ fires around the country, most or all of them started carelessly or deliberately by people. One of the more unlikely places to be set ablaze was Ness Glen, a dramatic wooded ravine at Craigengillan Estate near Dalmellington in East Ayrshire. Estate owner J Mark Gibson tells us more.
Ness Glen is designated as an SSSI and notable for the variety of mosses and ferns that thrive in its (normally) damp microclimate. It is also a popular attraction for walkers, with a dramatic riverside path incised at the foot of steep cliffs draped with curtains of moss. At the bottom of the gorge the air is (almost) permanently humid, supporting a diversity of lower plants that is normally encountered only in the rain-sodden West Highlands.
Fortuitously, at the beginning of this year SNH commissioned a new survey of the bryophytes of Ness Glen (bryophytes include mosses and liverworts, both diminutive and primitive plants that can’t stand too much dryness). The survey turned up 162 different bryophytes in total, and confirmed the presence of an unusually large number of ‘oceanic’ species which are especially dependent on the constant humidity typical of the western seaboard. Four of these bryophytes are considered ‘nationally scarce’ because they are found in only a small number of locations in Britain.
Nature conservation is a key focus of how we manage the whole of Craigengillan Estate. At Ness Glen in particular we are working with support from SNH and the Scottish Government to carry out practical measures that will enhance the woodland, improve conditions for the important lower plants, and make the place interesting and accessible for visitors. Managing the glen sympathetically for bryophytes means removing invasive rhododendron bushes that shade out native flora, encouraging the regeneration of native trees, and controlling grazing.The threats to the site have therefore seemed slow-moving and manageable. What we did not foresee is that the site could be vulnerable to catastrophic damage by fire.
On the afternoon of the 9th of May, a walker alerted the Fire Service to a blaze in the gorge. The fire appears to have been started deliberately at several locations along the riverside, from where it must have spread rapidly up the steep wooded cliffs. On arriving, the Fire Service encountered an intense and fast-moving blaze sweeping up the slope, but despite the challenges of accessing the steep-sided ravine, they were able to prevent flames spreading beyond the top of the gorge and onto neighbouring woods and moorland. The riverside path is currently closed to walkers as we assess the damage done and the risk of falling debris. Certainly the west side of the gorge presents a rather charred scene.
It is too early to tell just how much harm has been caused to the woodland and its flora, but it looks as though most trees have been only lightly scorched and are unlikely to have suffered serious injury. The fire burned through many normally dripping-wet carpets of moss clinging to the slopes but a good number of areas remained moist enough to be spared, and these probably include many of the more damp-loving species that are of special interest. So there are reasons to be hopeful. We will work with SNH to monitor recovery of the vegetation over the next few years, and hopefully confirm that the rarer mosses have survived.
Notwithstanding the occasional arsonist, we are fortunate to have support from many people in looking after the Estate and its wildlife. We work closely with Doon Academy in Dalmellington and our three local primary schools, to foster respect for nature and a sense of wonder and awe. And just a few days after the fire we had what is now an annual visit by pupils from George Watson’s College in Edinburgh, here to do practical conservation work as part of a week-long Scottish tour. They found great satisfaction in cutting down rhododendron bushes and so opening up the woodland floor for smaller plants to find a home. I believe that the key to conservation, not just of Ness Glen but all wildlife habitats in Scotland, lies with education and encouraging a love for the natural world, especially among young people. The fire in Ness Glen caused anger from all quarters in the villages and we hope that it will never happen again.
Find out more about the conservation work going on at Craigengillan Estate.
There’s more information about bryophytes on the SNH website.