Sensitive Areas

Sensitive areas are where the risk of damage from burning or cutting is likely to be greater than any benefits.  In some of these areas, burning and/or cutting will be inappropriate; in others extra care will be needed to avoid damage.

(click to expand / collapse the headings below) 

Existing Vegetation

Woodland, woodland edges and small trees/scrub

  • Fire damages or destroys trees and scrub.
  • Areas with native oak, birch, aspen, Scots pine, or willow are of particular value and generally should only be burnt as part of a woodland management plan.
  • Juniper bushes should not be burnt, as the bushes will not re-sprout.
  • Retaining scattered trees and scrub can be important for birds such as Black Grouse.
  • Burning adjacent to woodland can be used to create the seedbed conditions for native woodland regeneration.
  • Burning can be used to maintain important open habitats free of trees and scrub.


  • Fire does not control bracken, and burning is likely to promote bracken expansion.
  • Bracken should not be burnt.

Tall and old heather

  • A mosaic, or patchwork, of old and young heather should be retained to benefit the widest range of wildlife, including insects. Some areas of old, tall heather should be left unburned.
  • Areas with an intimate mix of tall and short heather should not be burnt.

Special types of heath

  • Damp heaths, usually found on north and east facing slopes, can be easily damaged by fire.
  • Scottish Liverwort heath is mainly found in the west of Scotland; it is a rare habitat rich in fire-sensitive liverworts and should not be burnt.
  • For more detail see the Plantlife publication.


  • Burning should not take place on peatland[1], except as part of a habitat restoration plan, approved by SNH (also see the Muirburn and Peatland section, and Supplementary Information – Muirburn and Peatland).
  • Areas with peat hags, bare peat or erosion should not be burnt.

Thin soils (<5cm deep) over underlying rock

  • These areas should not be burnt. If vegetation is removed, soil may be eroded by wind and water down to bare rock.

[1] Peat is an organic soil, which contains more than 60 per cent of organic matter and exceeds 50 centimetres in thickness. Soil survey of Scotland – page 17 –



Summits, ridges and other areas very exposed to the wind.

  • These areas should not be burnt, as vegetation is kept short by high winds (wind-clipped); burning has no benefit and risks removing vegetation cover, leading to erosion.
  • These conditions are most likely to occur:
    • Above 300 m in the north-west,
    • Above 600 m in the south-east, and
    • In exposed areas at lower altitudes, near the coast or where wind is funnelled.

Steep hillsides and gullies.

  • Fires burning uphill on steep slopes are more difficult to control.
    • Burning on a slope greater than 1 in 3 (18o) should only be carried out by experienced practitioners using appropriate techniques and equipment.
    • Slopes steeper than 1 in 2 (27o) should be avoided altogether.
  • Burning in gullies should be avoided; they can act like chimneys, drawing air upwards and increasing fire intensity. Gullies are also important for biodiversity.
  • Avoid burning into scree slopes to avoid damaging lichen and destabilising the scree.

Edge of waterbodies

  • Vegetation at the edge of waterbodies protects banks from erosion and reduces water and sediment run-off.
  • Fire-free buffer zones should be established:
    • 2m wide for watercourses less than 2m wide.
    • 5m wide for watercourses more than 2m wide, lochs and lochans.
    • Watercourses should not be used as primary firebreaks. In an emergency they can be considered as a back-up to cover the failure of a primary firebreak.
  • Wetter vegetation or dips in the ground beside watercourses may be suitable as firebreaks.  Cutting may also be used to create firebreaks. Techniques to ensure low fire intensity can increase the effectiveness of firebreaks.

Water Catchments.

  • Additional precautions or restrictions may be required in some circumstances in catchments that are acid-sensitive, are used for drinking water, or where there is a high flood risk. If this is the case, SEPA or Scottish Water will contact the relevant owners and managers.
Existing management

Areas subject to heavy grazing are unlikely to be suitable for burning. A combination of heavy grazing and muirburn is likely to lead to grasses becoming dominant, resulting in the loss of heather and species diversity.