What is swaling?
Swaling is the local term for the controlled burning of moorland. The term most likely comes from the middle English swelen, meaning to burn, or be burnt up.
Swaling is a traditional form of management, which has been carried out for hundreds of years to encourage regeneration of vegetation. It is carried out by farmers and land managers between the 1st October and 15th April, when sections are burned carefully on a rotational cycle.
Why burn moorland?
It does surprise some to learn that moorland is a man-made landscape, which has come about from a very long period of cyclical burning and grazing. If you want moorland, then both of these activities have to work together. There is a fine balance between burning, new growth, grazing, climate and other factors.
Who does the burning?
Farmers, commoners, landowners, rangers.
What are the rules?
Swaling is governed by two things – The Grass and Burning Regulations and whatever agreement exists between the landowner and Natural England (if the moorland area is a SSSI). These agreements are guided by the Heather and Grass Burning Code 2007.
How does the National Park Authority help?
One of the main priorities in the Exmoor National Park Partnership Plan is to maintain the open character of moorland - ‘to ensure that Exmoor’s moorlands remain open, remote and relatively wild in character; that views are preserved, and strategically important areas of former moor and heath are managed in a way that restores their wilder landscape character’.
The main way this is achieved is through direct, practical help to those that graze and burn the moorland. This ranges from the loan of equipment (high pressure water bowsers, road signs, beaters etc) to assisting on burns and providing aerial photos/help in planning which areas to burn.
For more information on these services, please contact Alex Farris, conservation manager.
Annual survey of the moorland
Every year, the ranger team maps out the burns that have been done, which helps show the changes in management and moorland condition over time. The condition of the moors is also assessed in the summer, when the flowering heather clearly shows any sign of heather beetle attack.
What research is going on?
There are a number of interesting projects underway at the moment. Analysis of vegetation change over the years is being undertaken using aerial photography from the 1940s onwards.
On Molland Moor, the ‘Graze the Moor’ project is looking into changing grazing patterns and monitoring the impacts of these changes. Amongst other things, it is trialling increased winter grazing with cattle and also analysing the costs of keeping moorland breeds against lowland breeds.
The impact of bigger burns vs smaller burns is being studied through ecological surveys of various trial plots.
Archaeological research is continuing to supply a wealth of new information, allowing us to see far back into the history of our moorland. Recent peat sampling on Ricksy Ball and Spooners show that the Royal Forest was burnt on a regular cycle in the medieval period.
The best interpretation at present is that the Crown wanted as much grass as possible on the Forest, as it was taking headage payments from farmers for the summer grazing. By contrast, the commoners on the moors surrounding the Forest seem to have valued the mosaic of vegetation; presumably as it gave a variety of things: grazing, thatching materials (reed, bracken and heather), whortleberries etc. so that management reflects a different use of the moor.
This, and other research, is showing the great historic value of the moorland landscape, and begins to explain how the former Forest differs to all the other moorland areas, and how they themselves differ amongst themselves. No two pieces of moorland are the same!
What is the future?
There are so many factors changing, that the future of Exmoor’s moorland is uncertain. Climate change will lead to more extreme weather patterns and a rise in temperatures. Most predictions suggest that there will be an increase in winter rainfall and much drier summers. The blanket bogs are likely to be put under pressure by such changes, and heather moorland in general will see a more rapid change to trees.
Changes in farming practice, animal welfare rules and subsidy payments have been rapid, and we are entering even more uncertain times with the exit of the UK from the European union. The movement from paying subsidy on livestock numbers to area payments has led to a large decline in grazing animals on Exmoor’s moorlands. The increased labour costs and higher risk of diseases such as TB also make it less likely that farmers will put stock out on moorland.
The decline in importance of the moors to the farming cycle also leads to a loss of expertise in carrying out swaling. The regulations and guidelines surrounding burning can also put people off carrying it out.
These major factors, combined with the occasional outbreak of heather beetle, has seen a decline in heather moorland. Bracken, gorse and trees are spreading in from the edges as part of a natural succession.
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