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Lack of April rainfall has devastating effect on wildlife and risk of fire

PUBLISHED: 09:06 09 May 2017 | UPDATED: 09:06 09 May 2017

Dunwich Heath. Picture: LEE ACASTER

Dunwich Heath. Picture: LEE ACASTER

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A lack of rainfall in Suffolk last month saw a drop of almost 70% in comparison to last year – causing devastating effects to wildlife and increasing the chances of fires catching and spreading.

The fire at Southwold Common on Sunday afternoon.    Picture: JOHN NOTTAGE The fire at Southwold Common on Sunday afternoon. Picture: JOHN NOTTAGE

Just 14.5mm of rain fell last month according to Weatherquest forecaster Adam Dury – the average for the month is 44.6mm.

On Sunday, the effect of this dry weather was laid bare as flames ripped through gorse and reed beds at Southwold Golf Club.

A few scattered showers are set for Thursday and the weekend, but Mr Dury says these will not be enough to make a difference.

“Even with that rain there will be warmer temperatures which will dry the ground out,” he said.

Simone Bullion, senior conservation advisor at Suffolk Wildlife Trust, said fires could be devastating to animals and birds.

She said: “They cannot get away from grass fires and you will have nesting birds and reptiles on Suffolk heathland as well as hedgehogs. All these animals will not be able to get away from a fire.

“The dry weather can be bad for wildlife anyway.

“Birds are nesting and are struggling to find enough food.

“Animals like hedgehogs depend on earthworms being at the surface for food but they go deeper into the soil in dry weather.”

In Dunwich, the National Trust takes steps to reduce the risk of fires by cutting fire breaks into the heathland. The bare strips of land help slow the spread of fire and provide access routes for fire crews. The trust also has an on-site water bowser and patrols the area to check for hazards.

Richard Gilbert, senior ranger at Dunwich Heath, said: “Once a fire has established on dry ground, it becomes very difficult to control, so being vigilant and reporting smoke as soon as you see it can makes a big difference.”

The region’s farmers are also being affected by the dry weather, with many having to irrigate their crops early.

Brian Finnerty of the National Farmers Union (NFU) said rain-fed crops such as cereals are beginning to suffer from low soil moisture levels. He said the NFU is working closely with the Environment Agency and water companies to keep an eye on how the weather develops.

An Anglian Water spokeswoman said: “So far, this winter and early spring has been drier than usual, however we’re in a good position, and a single dry winter doesn’t give us immediate cause for concern.”

FIRE SAFETY

Richard Gilbert, senior ranger at Dunwich Heath, gave these tips for preventing countryside fires during dry weather spells.

He said: “One of the main things people can do to prevent the risk of fires is not to have open fires or barbecues on the beach or heath.

“Gorse is a very combustible material so even if the barbecue is on the beach, the wind can be unpredictable and it doesn’t take many embers being blown onto the cliff vegetation to start a fire.

“Chinese lanterns can be a real risk as once they are lit and in the air, there is no way of controlling where they land and being really careful with cigarettes is also essential – again on dry heathland a fire can start quickly.

“On a hot day, discarded bottles and glass can heat up quickly and have the potential to cause a fire, so a lot of fire prevention is about common sense and not leaving rubbish behind you.”

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