ANYONE visiting our northern uplands in the last week or two can’t fail to have been struck by an astonishing sight. Columns of smoke rising everywhere, then flattening out and drifting into the valleys. The clear air turned into a haze. An acrid, though not unpleasant, smell in the nostrils.

Yes, the heather burning that is a key part of grouse-moor management has been in full swing. Carried out to create a patchwork of heather ideal for grouse – young shoots as food, medium-growth heather for nesting, and older heather for shelter – the burning must take place before nesting time. March is usually the main month, but this amazingly dry February has brought the peak forward, with spectacular results.

Though it is not uncommon on a suitable day, dry with a light wind, to see burning-off fires dotted around the moors, rarely can so many have been burning at one time as recently. Every moorland estate appears to have chosen to burn simultaneously.

Just as well the BBC’s Countryfile cameras haven’t been present. For last Sunday’s programme included an item highly critical of the burning. It opened with film of last summer’s wild moorland fires, one of which, on Saddleworth Moor, burned for months. It then explained how burning destroys the underlying peat, which sustains the surface vegetation and is a wonder-material in storing water and thereby checking flooding.

But the charge of damage was then transferred, lock, stock and licking flames, to the managed grouse-moor burning. It was not made clear that this is entirely different. Only the surface of the moor gets burned – really little more than singed. Almost as soon as it is lit, the fire is put out – once it has consumed the old, woody, heather. A fresh strip is then lit and so the burning proceeds. Each burned area is generally little more than about 100 square yards, and within a year or two fresh growth emerges – the moor reinvigorated.

While the recent burning has definitely given the moors the appearance of a war zone, the more scattered burning usually seen is, to many moorland lovers, certainly your present writer, a splendid traditional sight. Spotted from the lowland its distinctive ochrous smoke signals the open moor, making one wish to be up there, striding out amid the unburned heather, but with the eye drawn to the burning, a hard dusty job.

Countryfile touched on alternatives. Cattle will trample the heather but open moor lacks the necessary boundaries. The heather can be cut, but only in easily-accessible, largely stone-free places. Burning is by far the most practical method.

Countryfile could just as easily have presented an item on how heather burning produces one of our best-loved landscapes – the breathtaking spectacle of a sweeping heather moor gloriously in bloom. Every August locals ask each other: “Have you seen the heather yet?” Opinions on its quality are exchanged. The magnificent purple cloak draws thousands of visitors. It is the very reason why the North York Moors is a national park. And, take good note of this Countryfile, the moorland estates fear nothing more than a fire getting out of hand and the peat being damaged. Gifting us a scenic masterpiece their controlled burning works well for everyone.