GAMEKEEPERS and estates in the north of Scotland have called for controlled muirburn to prevent wildfires from devastating the landscape as the UK climate warms.

This week's heatwave has increased the risk of wildfires, with The Scottish Wildfire Forum issuing a warning for most of the country.

It came as firefighters and landowners worked to contain two fires near Tongue in Sutherland which spread over seven square kilometres (three sq miles) and left resources stretched.

Earlier this week, at Howden Moor in England a fire caused by a disposable barbecue set alight heather and blanket bog on National Trust property, torching 200 acres of land and destroying birds' nests.

Gamekeepers practice controlled rotational burning of strips of moorland, in set seasons, to rejuvenate heather as a protein source for red grouse.

The process removes old and dry surface vegetation, one of the principal elements causing accidental fire to intensify and spread.

Burning in strips or patches also creates vital fire breaks, preventing flames licking unchecked across vast areas and potentially destroying breeding habitats of conservation-listed birds.

Gamekeeper Ian Hepburn, a member of Loch Ness Rural Communities group and a retained firefighter in Inverness-shire for 23 years, said: “Muirburn is a beneficial practice, for a variety of reasons, and there is no doubt controlled muirburn could have helped prevent the worst of what we have seen recently.

“Given the heat we’ve had this week, everything is so dry and, if the heather on the moors are not being managed by controlled burning and the creation of firebreaks, all it takes is a strong wind in the wrong direction and an accidental fire will just take off.

“It takes an awful lot to get it under control, when that happens, not to mention the strain on the resources of the fire service."

Hans Mckenzie Wilson, gamekeeper and member of Grampian Moorland Group, added: “Muirburn is undertaken, principally, for grouse shooting, which brings over £30 million to Scotland...but it also benefits a whole host of rare species and helps ensure that accidental moor fires can be brought under control much quicker than we have seen in the last few days.”