Huge Dartmoor fire may have spread due to decline in grazing livestock

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A huge wildfire which swept across Dartmoor may have spread so quickly due to a decline in grazing livestock and a rise in the amount of flammable grass on the moors, according to farmers and rural experts.

Several miles of land were destroyed by the blaze on Thursday night, which is believed to have started accidentally.

Colin Abel's family have farmed the land around Peter Tavy since the late 19th Century.

He believes 20 years of agri-environmental schemes - where farmers are paid by the Government to remove sheep and cattle from the moors - has caused a surge in flammable material.

Colin Abel's family have farmed land around Peter Tavy since the late 19th Century. Credit: ITV News

He said: "In the past there was a lot more livestock up there.

"We've had to reduce the stock numbers because the powers that be say the stock is damaging the commons.

"Over the past 20 years the stock has been reduced and reduced to such an extent that the animals are targeting smaller areas, and the other areas become under-grazed."

Adrian Colston, from Exeter University's Centre for Rural Policy Research, says the fire was "an accident waiting to happen".

"The grass that caught fire - the so-called Molinia grass - has got away and formed a sort of jungle in quite significant areas of Dartmoor," he said.

"And in certain weather conditions, in dry weather or when there's a strong easterly wind, it dries out and becomes an absolute fire hazard. So there is tons of it up there and was inevitable that at some point it was going to catch fire."

Farmers sign up to agri-environmental schemes and remove livestock from the moors. Credit: ITV News

John Holmes, Natural England Director of Operations (South), said: “We work with farmers and commoners on Dartmoor to manage the land sustainably and safely, with key fire prevention measures such as summer grazing to reduce grass build up, managing fire breaks and rewetting bogs all possible under agri-environment schemes.”

A fire service spokesperson said: "We can confirm that the fire on Dartmoor (near Peter Tavy) on 11 February was caused accidentally by a member of the public. The fire damaged six square kilometres of moorland in total.  

Although it is winter, wildfires can spread very quickly to a large area, so avoid using any naked flames on the moors, including camp fires and barbecues.

"Please take great care with cigarettes. Wildfires don’t just happen in the summer. We go to twice as many moorland fires in the three months of February to April (inclusive) than we do for the rest of the year."