'Heart broken and devastated': Farmer speaks of Saddleworth Moor blaze

Local farmers and keepers were dealing with 20 foot flames and extremely dry conditions (Photo: NPAS/HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
Local farmers and keepers were dealing with 20 foot flames and extremely dry conditions (Photo: NPAS/HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

A farmer has highlighted the destruction of the Saddleworth Moor fire, and how one gamekeeper has lost everything because of it.

The fire started on the moor on Sunday night (24 June). James Crowther, a gamekeeper and farmer from the Upper Wood Estate, was one of the first to respond with his brother Chris, fellow keeper Richard Birch and another farmer.

The tinder dry conditions meant that early the next morning, the fire was increasing in force and spreading.

James said: “I have never seen anything like it, it was devastating. We realised that the fire was again taking hold and was getting out of control. By Monday evening it was starting to become a losing battle.



“We were dealing with 20 foot flames and the extremely dry conditions, together with the rank heather, which was almost waist height meant that flames were spreading rapidly.

“At one stage, we were all engulfed in the smoke and just could not see anything. You just could not breathe,” he added.



'Just devastated'

As the fire spread, more than twelve keepers and farmers from 10 estates worked together on Arnfield Moor, which is managed by the RSPB and owned by United Utilities.

By 6.00 pm Monday evening, more fire crews arrived. The fire was fanned by wind, and thousands of acres of heather habitat was engulfed in flames.

“I just could not believe my eyes,” explained James. “Everything in front of us was just devastated and the flames kept bursting through. It was heart-breaking.

“I could hear female grouse calling their chicks from within the thick smoke. We were seeing the burnt remains of golden plover, curlew, grouse and deer. There was so much destruction and we were all doing all we could but the fire was ferocious.”

For over three days the keepers and farmers worked alongside fire services, Peak District National Park wardens, RSPB wardens, other volunteers and the military.

James added: “We were meeting regularly with the fire chiefs to assess the situation. We were in the fortunate position of having in-depth knowledge and experience of the moor and it was acknowledge by United Utilities that our expertise and equipment in this tinder dry environment, had made a difference.”



'Lost everything'

Now, James reports that the worst is over and it is hoped that the fire is gradually being contained. However, he said some farmers and keepers have lost everything.

“We are all heart-broken about this catastrophe. For those of use that work on the moor, this is our life,” he said.

“For people like my fellow keeper, Richard Birch, whose estate was in the line of fire, he has lost everything.

“It is going to take absolutely years to recover our precious heather moorland and the important wildlife that it is home too. Words cannot describe our feelings at the moment.”

Liam Bell, Chairman of the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, praised the keepers who put their own lives on the line to fight the fire.

He said: “As usual, gamekeepers were among the first to respond to the disaster and they, together with a number of equally brave farmers and graziers became the front line; trying to contain the fire using their specialist equipment and knowledge of the ground.

“The scale and ferocity of the fire, caused no doubt by the exceptionally dry conditions is unprecedented. Moorland keepers have never been more on edge and concerned about wildfires, and the fire risk has never been higher.

“Our thoughts are with our precious wildlife, our moorland communities and our farmers and gamekeepers who depend on these unique moorland habitats for their future survival,” Liam added.