THE moors have looked like a war zone this warm February due to heather burning. Harry Mead says it is a splendid sight

ANYONE who has visited our northern uplands within the last month 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 its fullest swing. Its purpose is to create the ideal habitat for grouse - a heather patchwork of fresh shoots, a source of food, medium-growth heather, in which the birds nest, and old heather. The latter’s primary value is as shelter, but the seeds on this leggy heather, alone protruding from a covering of snow, are emergency rations in a hard winter.

The heather burning must take place before the nesting season – from early April. March is usually the main month, but the amazingly dry February 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 in last fortnight of February. Every moorland estate appeared to have chosen to burn simultaneously.

It was just as well the BBC’s Country File cameras didn’t turn up to capture the scene. Certainly in the North York Moors it resembled something akin to a war zone. Country File would have been confirmed in its apparent view that the heather burning is among our most damaging environmental activities. For while the moors were smouldering it ran an item highly critical of the practice.

The piece drew heavily on film of last summer’s wild moorland fires, one of which, on Saddleworth Moor, burned for months. It explained how the burning destroys the underlying peat, which sustains the surface vegetation and is a miracle material in holding water and thereby checking flooding.

But, with scarcely a twitch, Country File then pointed its accusing finger at the managed grouse-moor burning. It failed to make clear that this is entirely different from wild fires. Only the surface of the moor is burned – in fact little more than singed. Within minutes of being lit the fire is beaten out - once it has consumed the old, woody heather. A fresh strip is then fired, and so the burning proceeds. On a rotation to cover a whole moor about every 15 years, 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 it would be false to pretend that the recent mass burning lent any appeal to the moors (indeed, let us be honest and admit it marred their beauty), the more scattered burning usually seen is, to many moorland lovers, certainly to your present writer, a splendid traditional sight. Spotted from the lowland its distinctive ochrous smoke signals the open moor. One wishes to be up there, striding out amid the unburned heather. The eye is drawn to the burning – the smoke, the flickering flame, the (often-silhouetted) figures of the burners. Artists portray it - none better than Whitby’s John Freeman, who knows a characteristic moorland scene when he sees one.

Country File touched on alternatives. Cattle will trample the heather, but open moor lacks the necessary fences. Some heather is cut, but this can only be done in easily-accessible, largely stone-free places. Burning is by far the most practical control method.

Rather than brand the heather-burning as destructive, Country File could just as easily have presented an item on how it produces one of our best-loved landscapes – that 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. And the magnificent purple cloak draws thousands of visitors. It is the very reason why the North York Moors is a national park.

Contrary to the entire thrust of the Country File item, the top priority is to not let the burning get out of hand and damage the peat. Burning days are carefully selected and the burning is directed towards natural breaks wherever possible. For the burners it’s hard, dusty work. But their controlled burning gifts us a scenic masterpiece. It seems to work well for all interests. Not least the grouse, which, let us remind ourselves, is Britain’s only native bird found nowhere beyond these islands.