On 9th June, Upton Heath nature reserve in Corfe Mullen near Poole Dorset, resembled a scene from a disaster movie as suspected arsonists caused a raging inferno which devestated about 200 acres of precious heathland.
News footage showed hundreds of fireman trying to contain the flames which were at times 30ft high along a fire front of 700 metres. The fire leaped across the heath like a wild horse in its attempt to trample and burn anything in its path.
What did this path look like? Upton Heath is one of the few remaining old heathlands of our forefathers and is characterised by heather and gorse plus grasses and bracken growing on sandy and acidic soil which provides a safe habitat for a range of animals including some rare species. This is the time of year when animals and birds are breeding and when new life is being born to complete the cycle of death and birth in the ongoing regeneration of this precious eco system. Nightjars and other birds, deer, lizards and snakes each of which complemented the delicate ecosystem didn't stand a chance against the intense speed and heat with which the fire burned furiously, determined to destroy the fine and beautiful balance.
Dorset Wildlife Trust who manage the site called for volunteers, once the flames had died down and the heathland was safer, to search the decimated site for signs of life that could be relocated to a safe space.
There was a sense of both shock and sadness as the news and photos showed footage of the blackened ground with animals that had been unable to outrun the flames and died where they were. One of the most haunting images was of a beautiful deer who was searching for her fawn but sadly its little burned body was found where the doe had left it protected in the undergrowth. Another image was of an adder semi coiled with it's mouth open as if screaming in agony as it burned to death. Yet more photographs captured the horror and realisation that this fire had destroyed an ecosystem that is known throughout the world.
I joined a band of volunteers 5 days after the fire, to comb the blackened landscape for signs of life. It was an eerie feeling to be part of a team that moved mostly silently and deliberately as we looked for small lizards that might still be alive. There was a sense of anger that someone or some people had deliberately started the fire which not only destroyed the heathland but had posed a serious threat to the human community living nearby.
Within the first few minutes I saw something move under a scortched clump of grass and bending down found a small common lizzard desperately clinging to life. We each had a pillow case which would serve as a keep for the creatures we found until we could release them to a safe place. The little lizzard seemed to be gasping for each breath and I let it go in a green area unaffected by the fire, however I doubt he would make it.
For the next three hours each team of volunteers painstakingly combed areas of the burned heathland. Surprisingly from the ashes of disaster we found several lizzards which we relocated to some lush heathland untouched by the fire. There was a sense of joy as each little lizzard was released and we watched as they scurried away to make new homes.
One of the saved common lizards ready for release.
He seemed quite happy sunning himself and resting on my hand.
I almost named him!
There were of course moments when nothing but laughter was in order and one such moment was when I got stuck thigh deep in a bog. The fire had destroyed the green tufts that would ordinarily help you to see where to step but on this occassion the bog got the better of me! I have to say that whilst stuck and awaiting rescue I did manage to capture another lizard to the safety of a pillow case! We also saw a lively and beautiful little vole that we didn't bother to try and capture but that just scurried about the bog possibly wondering if in fact I was the creature from the black lagoon!
Me being sucked into the bog - note the twisted plimsoll expression! My boots filled with mud and water and I squelched all the way back to base where I tipped them out to see if I'd actually transported any livestock back with me - which I hadn't!
I'd like to thank the wonderful people at Dorset Wildlife Trust who galvanised the volunteers, made sure we were safe and who, when we have all gone home, continue to care for the heathland.