Dec 02 2011

Burning The Lands

Published by at 6:18 pm under Expeditions and Experiences

Over the last year I have realised more and more that we humans have a role in most of the ecosystems on the planet. And I think for a very long time we lived in relative balance with it. Balance itself in it’s true form does not exist, neither in nature or in humans, but the interactions can be mutually helpful or marked by single sided destruction. These systems of mutually helpful interactions are the kind of balances I am talking about.

In this area, if nature was left alone at least within a couple of hundred years what would probably happen is that the Norway spruce (Picea abies) would take over and you’d get boom and bust cycles due to forest fires. This is a sustainable system, like any other natural system, but it’s not optimal for biodiversity, animal density and not least human density. In order to get a richer environment, there must be a kept a higher than “naturally occuring” ratio of open spaces,

All over the world, also locally, burning was one of the tools to keep open spaces and forest floors more productive and openly spaced. Whereas I have more or less given up the thought of burning forest floors in this area (would probably be too dangerous and might shift the vegetation too much), open spaces like dry bogs and meadows were burnt here traditionally to improve pasture.

Burning meadows is something I have done since childhood, so it was not a focus this year, although it could be very interesting to see specifically what kind of plants are favoured by burning.

Two kinds of patches were burnt this year. The ground underneath one hazel (Corylus avellana) bush that was coppiced last winter as well as a dry bog with grass, heather (Calluna vulgaris), various berries and spagnum moss. I was a bit concerned with parts of the bog area, which overlaps with a very dry patch with cowberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) and bilberries (Vaccinium uliginosum).

There is a relatively short window in which burning the lands is possible without causing damage to animals. It has to be done before the birds lay eggs and before the fire hazard becomes too great. The best is while there are still large patches of snow, where the fire can be curbed before it gets out of hand.

The burnings were done on two seperate days, in nice weather with almost no wind (although it seems that the fire calls upon the wind when it gets going to a certain size).

The hazel burn was pretty straightforward, and was a very slow burn, mostly grass burned and some leaves. Decideous woods seems rather safe to burn.

The dry bog burn was different… This time I tried not to limb the pines to see the effect. I didn’t remove the junipers (Juniperus communis) either. What happened was of course that the junipers burnt like petrol and flamed up quite a bit up into the smaller pines, killing the smaller ones.

Lesson number one:

Conifer branches must be kept out of reach of the fire if they are to survive the fire. If young trees are ever to develop in such areas one needs to take at least a decade of burning breaks every now and then in a particular spot.

Burning frequency is part of the experiment. With the hazels I plan on burning every year, to promote a rich herbal understory and since the regeneration of the hazels seems less impacted by fire.

If I burn the dry bog, what will happen is that after a few years, the understory will be grass alone, and I’d prefer to keep some of the heather and the berries for variety. I’ll start off with the guideline that when the ling is past it’s prime and is dying off I’ll do another burn. My hope is that this will increase berry production and reduce the amount of spaghnum moss, which very few animals consume.

After the burn everything looks kind of barren, but after relatively short time things regenerated. Especially with the hazel burn there was an explosion of growth after the burn. What was very interesting with the bog burn was that the patch of concern regenerated particularily well and might carry new berries already next year. Whether the species composition has shifted is too early to say. Only thing that is a definite is that a lot of the spaghnum moss was burnt and since they grow very slowly this will be a lasting effect when burnt every few years.

Hazel burn:

After a few weeks:

A month or two:

Showing hazel growth in midsummer:

Dry patch after burning:

After about a month:

At end of growing season:

From further out in the bog:

Same place about a couple of months after burning:

At high summer:

Showing the dead moss being replaced by grass:

It seems that burning promotes the growth of valerian (Valeriana sambucifolia), angelica (Angelica sylvestris), fireweed (Epilobium augustifolium) and wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca). The two first are probably due to their ability to spurt new growth quickly with their big roots. Fireweed probably due to prolific seeding and germination. Strawberry I have absolutely no idea to why, maybe because the burn removes competition. This burn from last year shows valeriana.


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3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Burning The Lands”

  1. Deus Ex Machinaon 03 Dec 2011 at 2:08 pm

    I have often thought of doing this. Thank you for sharing your experience, and pictures. There is so much wisdom, and beauty, is this kind of balance.

    I just finished reading “Nature’s Way” and he discusses many of these same concepts. We, the human race, must chose how to interact. As you pointed out, there are two types of relationship. We have been using the wrong one for the last few hundred years. Perhaps, it is time for a change.

  2. Thomason 27 Dec 2011 at 6:58 pm

    For many decades the policy for forest fires here in the northwoods (and in fact the US in general) has been to suppress them. As a consequence, ecosystems have changed – some quite dramatically. Some agencies seem to slowly recognize this and so the practice of controlled burns is gaining some momentum.

    Where I currently live forest fires have been an integral part of the natural cycle for a long time. Some species are actually directly dependent on fire – they can’t germinate without it. On of the more obvious changes is that balsam firs are crowding out a lot of other species. Balsams are fast growing trees that are designed to be “pioneers”, and they can quickly re-forest an area. However, they’re also very sensitive to fire, and so other, slower-growing species have a chance to establish themselves. Without fire, some of our forests turned into what a friend of mine calls a “balsam fir desert”. It almost looks like a monoculture plantation and is similarly lacking in biodiversity.

    The Ojibway people used to burn blueberry patches every few years to increase their yield. Without the fire, the blueberries yield only a tiny fraction of what they once did.

    Of course fire suppression is not the only factor here. Almost all the woods around here have been cut over the last century to satisfy the timber needs of the south, and this, along with the ongoing logging and other human activities, greatly affects the natural cycles. I do agree with Torjus that we can have “mutually helpful interactions”, and there are many examples of it.

  3. Torjuson 30 Dec 2011 at 10:06 am


    I have been reading up on Finnish slash and burn practises. It looks like it was a very sustainable approach, where they cut the forest, but left a number of dead standing trees as well as alders for nitrogen fixing and sometimes some seed trees. They planted annual and biennial crops there the first 1-3 years, and after that they tended the woods that then appeared by encouraging the plants that offered desirable products, such as birch. Sometimes they appearantly also planted bushes and trees. I can imagine that such areas would be very rich for a large number of years, with much grass for deers in the beginning and later a lot of edible branches for winter food for deer and moose.

    Appearantly by the turn of the 20th century conifers made up something like 20% of Finnish forests, now they make up 80%.

    There is a video (out of stock) and a book on Canadian indian burning practises. Might be interesting for you.

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