A FIRE which was started at a sensitive and important nature reserve has had a devastating impact on wildlife preparing their homes for Spring.

Firefighters attended the scene at Little Woolden Moss, near Salford, on Monday evening (April 12), where an area of approximately 500m2 was ablaze, a suspected victim of arson. The affected area was a region of extremely rare lowland heath habitat, of which the UK has lost approximately 84 per cent of since 1800.

Along with the obvious destruction of plant life in the area, which includes heathers and cross-leaved heath which are vital nectar sources for pollinators, this habitat also provides a home for a number of species including common lizards, field voles and field mice, many of which may not have been able to escape the flames quickly enough.

The area may also have been supporting a number of ground-nesting birds who nests would have been destroyed in the fire, including the nightjar. Amber listed as a bird for conservation concern in the UK, the distinctive churring call of the nocturnal nightjar was heard in the area last year, raising hopes for the establishment of a breeding pair on Little Woolden Moss for the first time in 20 years. However, the fire may have destroyed hopes for a return of the nightjar for 2021.

Another potential victim of the fire, a suspected arson, may have been the bog bush cricket. Once common on the peat bogs of the area, the species has seen a significant decline with the loss of its habitat. A population of bog bush crickets survives on Cadishead Moss which borders the area affected by the fire, and it had been hoped that the burnt area may have been being used as a highway for the species to spread to the rest of Little Woolden Moss. This surviving population is also providing donors for a Great Manchester Wetlands reintroduction programme of the species to other peatlands and heathlands throughout Greater Manchester.

Jenny Bennion, Peatlands Communications Officer at The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside, said, “We are absolutely devastated by this latest fire. Little Woolden Moss has been subject to repeated acts of vandalism and anti-social behaviour over the past few years, including fence and gate vandalism, numerous other incidences of suspected arson, use of the site by off-road vehicles, and even threats against our staff. Addressing this takes up vital resources and staff time, not to mention the effect on the wildlife. It will be hard to ascertain the extent of the damage to the plants and animals from this latest fire for some time, but we will do our best to monitor the situation and restore the habitat.”

“We would like to express our huge thanks to the local fire service who responded so quickly, and to the member of the public who alerted them so promptly. We really rely on the support of our local community, as we simply cannot be on site 24/7, and would appeal to anyone who witnesses any further instances of anti-social behaviour in the area to contact the police on 101, if it is safe to do so, and to also report it to us at info@lancswt.org.uk.”

Little Woolden Moss is a former horticultural peat extraction site and one of the few remaining fragments of peatland, that was once extensive in Greater Manchester. Not only are our peatlands homes for lots of rare and specialised wildlife, but when in a healthy state they act as carbon stores, absorbing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in their peaty soils for millennia, making them vital natural resources in the fight against climate change.