Opinion: Ban sky lanterns now as fire risk mounts

Harvest time often has me in nostalgic mood. It’s probably partly due to long hours in the combine cab that give me time to reflect as I stare down at seemingly endless acres of ripe crops.

I find myself recollecting the varying challenges and triumphs of previous harvests. And thus 2018 is bringing back memories of the summer of 1976. I was only a schoolboy at the time, but I remember it being one seemingly endless hot dry period.

It was as if the weather had got stuck in a freak Mediterranean groove.

See also: Advice on minimising fire risks

That year, Dad, wasn’t just annoyed with droughted, semi-yielding crops, but also by the fact that grain was exceptionally dry coming off the fields.

He had heard rumours that the merchants were buying wheat from farmers then adding tonnes of water to give them more weight before they were sold on to the millers.

Not to be outdone by such skulduggery, our old Ransomes crop dryer duly had its flame chamber removed to be plumbed up with hosepipes in what looked like something out of a mad Heath Robertson cartoon.

It proved a predictable disaster. Most of the grain remained unwetted, while pockets were turned into unmanageable porridge, thereby blocking the augers.

A key difference between this year’s drought and the one in 1976 is that the former followed on from a particularly dry 1975. This year, in contrast, follows a particularly wet period.

I remember, in 1976, the trees looked badly stressed. In contrast, this year they look nicely green, with their roots in sub-soil water.

How’s the harvest?

Although it’s early days, our harvest is not proving to be the grain-sapping disaster of 1976.

I’ve no doubt that when we get into some of the more stressed wheats, then yields will get worse, but at the moment my standard response to the question “How’s the harvest?” is ‘”It’s better than expected, but I wasn’t expecting much.”

Even so, it’s a timely reminder that food supplies are dependent on fickle weather. That’s why most governments have programmes of farm support. It keeps farmers in the game and, as we move to a new domestic agricultural policy, this needs keeping in mind.

One worrying similarity with 1976 is the fire risk. Back then, thousands of acres of heath and crop were lost due to fires. Some were started by plain arson, but most by ignorance or carelessness.

Countryside Code

But a difference between then and now is government then took the role of educating people about how to behave in the countryside seriously, with adverts on TV explaining things like the Countryside Code.

Today public information films about fire risk in the countryside may seem a bit old hat, but in times of extreme heat and drought, property, livestock and livelihoods are at risk from wildfires.

It’s at times like these that government needs to step up with advice and warnings. And as for launching sky-lanterns, let’s not beat about the bush here. Such behaviour has to be seen as random arson and therefore a serious criminal act.

Even selling them should be illegal. With a countryside that is tinder dry, sky lanterns become as dangerous as handguns. They must be banned.

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