Who on earth would destroy all this?

A A A

It is Britain's silent environmental disaster. A series of mysterious fires has reduced some of Britain's most precious heathlands to little more than a pile of cinders, wiping out vital nesting sites for birds and mammals at the height of the breeding season.

It is Britain's silent environmental disaster. A series of mysterious fires has reduced some of Britain's most precious heathlands to little more than a pile of cinders, wiping out vital nesting sites for birds and mammals at the height of the breeding season.

As winter ends, Britain's heather heathlands should be preparing to flaunt their glory. The purple flush of common heather, accompanied by gorse, bell heather, cranberries, bilberries and marsh violets, is one of the great sights of the remoter parts of the country.

But in the past six weeks, several dozen small fires have broken out across the West Country, from north Devon to the southernmost tip of Cornwall, causing widespread damage to more than 3,600 acres of moor and heathland.

There is probably more than one cause. But environmentalists believe the most damaging fires were started deliberately. But by whom? On one hand they say it is a classic case of mindless arsonists at work. On the other, some whisper privately about more sinister motives.

Goss Moor, near Roche Moor and St Dennis in Cornwall, is one of the heathlands worst affected. Firefighters took six hours to extinguish a blaze that destroyed 125 acres of this prime heathland. The moor's wide variety of flora and rare fauna has given it the status of a National Nature Reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It has been put forward to be upgraded to a Special Area of Conservation, an EU designated status which would protect it further against development.

Such a move would thwart any plans to develop the A30 east of Indian Queens, a notorious tourist-season bottleneck. There are those who wonder whether some, so desperate to see impoverished Cornwall receive more investment, are prepared to harm its countryside so that the A30 scheme will not be held back by further environmental protection.

There may be more innocent reasons for the destruction. Small fires break out in spring on moorland for no other reason than the land is usually bone dry. Other blazes may have been caused by fag-ends thrown by motorists.

There is an even more bizarre theory that the fires may be the work of the arsonists who last year damaged the Men an Tol and Lanyon Quoit stones in Cornwall, which date from 3,500BC. They then tried to justify their act by citing past mistreatment of the stones and claimed it was an attempt to make them more aesthetically pleasing.

So far, 15 to 20 per cent of heathland in Cornwall has been destroyed since the start of March, affecting areas across the county including Penrith and the Lizard. In mid-Cornwall, English Nature puts the figure destroyed as high as 70 per cent. The heathlands alongside the A30, the main route over Bodmin Moor and into west Cornwall, have been affected worst of all. The optimistic assessment is that it will take 10 years for the heathland to recover while precious species such as the silver-studded blue butterfly and the endangered Dartford warbler may become locally extinct.

There are fears the fires may jeopardise the Cornish Heathland Project which will recreate 1,000 acres of lowland heathland on old waste tips excavated for china clay. Despite recent wet weather, the gorse has remained dry, allowing fires to spread rapidly at speeds of up to 35mph.

Nor does there seem to be any let-up. There was a recent string fires on Rosenannon Downs, near St Columb Major. And only last week another was started at Carn Brea, near Redruth, while in Devon firefighters used beaters to put out a fire on East Anstey Common near South Molton.

Yet the blazes have received almost no publicity and, as yet, no satisfactory explanation. Fire crews have sought to play down the issue, wary of encouraging or giving a platform to the activities of arsonists.

"We're quite certain that we are dealing with heathland arsonists," said Martin Davey, site manager for English Nature in east Cornwall. "We can see that some fires have been started accidentally but the more serious ones look as if they have been orchestrated by someone who knew what they were doing."

Swaling, the controlled burning of heather to encourage regrowth, has been used to manage heathland for centuries but the nature of the recent fires has gone far beyond this traditional benefit, according to Mr Davey. "This kind of blanket burning kills off the roots and the seed bank of the heather which means it will not grow back quickly. It will take about 10 years to recover."

In the past a fire that devastated a stretch of heathland would have been a serious but manageable cause for concern. But today the heathlands of Cornwall and Devon are fragmented by the intensification of agriculture, housing and military training. The problem for wildlife is that the next stretch of heather may be five miles away, too far for some species to travel. Mr Davey said: "Some animals will just die out locally. We've got linnets and stonechats just standing around not knowing what to do because their nests have been destroyed."

Police, too, believe many fires were started deliberately, though they admit they are struggling to come up with hard evidence. They point out that the fires around Goss Moor broke out near electricity pylons which are rigorously monitored for fire risk and unlikely places for natural fires to occur.

Detective Sergeant Terry Carne of Newquay police, who is investigating the fires on Goss Moor, said: "It is significant that some of these fires have been started within a few miles of each other." The areas in question are remote and not easily policed. So, it may be that the environmentalists who first raised the alarm have a role to play. DS Carne called on wildlife enthusiasts to remain vigilant. "Bird watchers pursue their hobby in areas we can't cover so if they see anyone behaving suspiciously then we want to know about it."

Heathland is a rare and declining habitat. England has just 10 per cent of the heath we enjoyed at the end of the 18th century, and more than 40 per cent has been lost since 1950. What precious little is left, including the beautiful lilac-pink Cornish heaths, is recognised by nature lovers and statutory bodies for what it is: a national treasure worthy of gentle protection.

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
scotland decidesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping First Minister up at night?
Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmSo what makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes the hobby look 'dysfunctional', they say
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Maths Teacher

£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher (mater...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for an ...

Maths Teacher

£22000 - £37000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: A West Yorkshire School i...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week