The Luibeg woods – aftermath of a blaze

Part of the hillside in the Luibeg woods, damaged by fire in June 2014

Burnt vegetation and charred wood – a hillside stripped of life

Three weeks since the fire and the smell of burnt wood still wafted across the river in the slight breeze. Not that you could have missed the charred hillside and riverbank: acres of black ground and browned pine needles where both should have been the vivid green of summer.

On 18th June fire struck a large area of the Luibeg woods, from about 300 metres west of Luibeg Cottage up the south bank of the river and over the area of hillocks that narrows the course of the Luibeg between the Derry Flats and the upper meanders of the burn.

Hillock and riverbank by the Luibeg burn showing fire damage

Just one of the hillocks and a section of the riverbank affected by the fire

The area affected comes to about 25 acres, and the scar is visible from Derry Lodge – a vivid reminder of the damage fire can do in this very vulnerable woodland. It was caused, said the fire crews who tackled it, by a campfire, either let out of control or left smouldering.

Fire circle and area of excavated peat at the fire site in Luibeg

The seat of the fire? A stone fire circle can be made out in the centre of this section where burning peat has been dug down to the subsoil.

And the danger is still there. Despite some rain on Saturday, the ground is a lot dryer than normal; on Sunday I crossed the Derry Flats without having to avoid any of the normally boggy stretches. Over the weekend both NTS rangers and police have visited the Derry Lodge area advising campers not to light fires.

There are many who regard a campfire as an integral part of camping and will witter on self-righteously about not being cheated of their god-given right to burn wood by officious, jobsworth rangers too pussy-whipped by health & safety fascists to realise that the campfire-makers are real outdoorsmen who know how to make a proper campfire without leaving a trace etc, etc.

But this isn’t an argument about the rights and wrongs of campfires in principle. This is about now: the fire risk is high; don’t light fires. Just don’t.

A walk over the burnt ground shows how lucky we were with this wildfire. There are some areas where the fire-fighters have had to dig away burning and smouldering peat clear through to the subsoil below, but much of the ground is normally wet and boggy: here the fire has spread quickly across the vegetation – heather and blaeberry mainly – leaving the ground still squelchy under the surface charring. It’s likely the ground cover plants will recover fairly quickly here. The mature trees, too, have mostly survived, with bark charred and needles scorched; the estate has said these will recover.

But there are several trees where deeper damage has clearly been done.

Damage to ground and tree roots at Luibeg fire site

Another section where smouldering peat has had to be excavated, causing damage to tree roots

Fire damaged tree at the Luibeg woods fire site in the Cairngorms

The fire has eaten deeply into this tree trunk.

And, sadly, there are also hundreds of seedlings, sprouted since the depredations of the deer were halted, which are no more than charred sticks. They look unlikely to recover.

Burnt pine tree seedlings at Luibeg, Cairngorms

The burnt vegetation reveals a field of charred sticks that once were seedlings

And that’s not even thinking about the wildlife. Elsewhere at the weekend I saw lizards, frogs, a toad – all of which would have been present in the fire area and few of which would have managed to escape. The only wildlife I found there on Sunday was a plague of clegs.

It could, I suppose, be argued that fires are a natural part of the life cycle of a forest, and we should just accept them. But I think it is important to remember that this is not – yet – a healthy forest. After over a hundred years of landowners forcing deer numbers artificially high for commercial exploitation, we are left with a sparse fragment of forest with geriatric trees, minimal undergrowth and, until the last few years, no signs of regeneration. Recovery depends on making every effort to allow natural regeneration, and the destruction of several hundreds – thousands even? – of  young seedlings represents a setback of several years in that not inconsiderable area of this precious woodland.

This is a forest in intensive care. So treat it with care.

Addendum:

Just back from a Corrour workparty on July 17th: spoke to Mar Lodge head ranger who confirmed that a second fire, in Glen Quoich last week, was caught early and extinguished before too much damage done – but was also started by a campfire.

Please do not light campfires just now.

Trio of burnt tree seedlings at Luibeg

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9 Responses to The Luibeg woods – aftermath of a blaze

  1. alanfmackay says:

    Two of the blokes fighting the fire on the Friday were good enough to help me back to Linn o Dee with my injured dog via their agri cat and hilux. I couldn’t have carried her 28kg another step. I never got their names but they dug me out a hole.
    The damage to the forest was depressing enough when I thought it was an act of nature. To think it was caused by the stupidity of people isn’t making it any better. At least Nell and I got home. There’s generations of critters wiped out. Sad.

  2. andy says:

    Dreadful, just plain dreadful. There are some more details on this trip report:
    http://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/Forum/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=43438

  3. Sinbad says:

    Hi Neil,
    I always thought the Robbers’ Copse was the plantion at the Lui Ford. But I didn’t realise it reached so far.

    Sinbad.

    • I used to think it was just the far end too, Sinbad, but over the years I heard the whole lot referred to as the Robbers’ Copse so often that I assumed it was me was wrong and that the name referred to all the trees on the south side of the Luibeg. Be interesting if anyone has a definitive answer…

      • No sooner did I ask… Joe Dorward, who runs his own Uplands of Mar website, pointed out that no less an authority than Adam Watson describes the Robbers’ Copse as being the furthest block of woods from Derry, up at the Luibeg ford. Duly rebuked, I’ve changed the title of this post and will slink off in disgrace.

  4. Dave says:

    Neil and Sinbad
    I too thought that the Robbers Copse was the Luibeg end. There I saw a near miss with a fire in the late 80s!

    Friends of mine almost set fire to the top of Ben Alder with a stove some years back when the grass on the top was parched. luckily the adjacent snow put the fire out. The simple message is – when it is dry take extreme care, or better still don’t have a fire at all.

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