Swaling – sounds like some sort of manic folk dance, but it is a practice that has been carried out for centuries. Swaling is the annual burning of the gorse and scrub in order to thin out the old vegetation in order to allow new grass shoots to grow thus providing grazing for the livestock. The first recorded instance of the word ‘swaling’ comes from a poem written in around 1205 AD by Layamon called Brut, it is suggested that the actual word comes from the Anglo Saxon word – Swælan meaning to burn. There were some strange beliefs associated with swaling, for instance in the 17th century it was thought that by setting fire to the moorland vegetation would make it rain. So deep seated was this idea that when King Charles was due to visit and area he would write to the High Sherriff forbidding that any fires should be lit on common land. This was because he was; “desirous that the county and himself may enjoy fair weather as long as he remains in those parts.” Other later reasons for swaling were to allow the commoners their right to gathering ‘black stick’ – pieces of burn wood that would be collected into faggots and taken away for use on the home fires. This was usually a chore that the children were expected to do. It was also thought that by burning the vegetation it would also destroy any snakes that may be harboured within it. The famous herbalist Culpepper noted that; “Fern being burnt, the smoke thereof driveth away serpents, gnats and other noisome creatures.” Swaling was also thought to be a way of controlling any local fox populations.
In 1808, Vancouver regards swaling or burning to be, “a safe and effectual means of bringing coarse moory land, when effectually drained, into a state of profitable cultivation …” Swaling would occur on the commons and wastes of the moor, and as stated above the idea was to burn off the old growth and allow new shoots to establish thus giving some good grazing. In addition the wood ash would also act as a fertiliser which in turn would encourage good regrowth. As can be seen from the picture below it does not take long for the new shoots of grass to establish themselves amongst the charred remnants of the gorse.
When swaling is taking place the huge plumes of smoke can be seen from many a mile, in the past I have seen the far horizons glowing from the fires which is hell of a sight. At one time the larger pieces of burnt wood, or ‘black stick’ would be collected and tied into faggots, usually by the children, then taken home to use on the fire. Another feature of swaling is that for a few days after any sheep in the area virtually turn black as their fleeces attract the dark ash. This also means that if you walk through a recently swaled area expect everything below your knee to take on a similar black coat of ash. These days the practice of swaling is strictly regulated and controlled as can be seen from the following guidelines issued by the Dartmoor National Park Authority and DEFRA:
The burning, not only of heather and grass, but also gorse, bracken and bilberry, is controlled by the Heather and Grass, etc (Burning) Regulations 1986.
1) Burning is only allowed between: 1 October – 15 April in upland areas. The National Park Authority recommends no burning after 31 March to prevent harm to nesting birds. Outside these dates burning is allowed only under licence issued by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
2) Permission of the owner must be gained.
3) At least 24 hours but no more than 7 days notice of intent to burn must be given in writing to the owners and occupiers of the land concerned and persons in charge of adjacent land.
4) You must not start burning heather, grass, gorse, bracken or bilberry between sunset and sunrise.
5) You must ensure that sufficient people and equipment are on hand to control the burn.
6) You must take all reasonable precautions to prevent injury or damage.
7) You must not cause a nuisance through the creation of smoke. This is an offence under the Clean Air Act 1956.
8) You must contact English Nature if burning on a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
9)Under the Dartmoor Commoners’ Council’s Regulations, arising from the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985, no person or local Commoners’ Association shall burn moorland where heather is present on the commons exceeding an area of 9000 square metre at intervals of less than 12 years, nor where the distance between burns in any one year is less than 150 metres.
10) No Person or local Commoners’ Association shall burn moorland where dead grass, bracken or gorse is present on any common land unit exceeding 50 acres (20 hectares) or 25% of the area of that common land unit which ever shall be the less and such burning shall take place at intervals of no less than 3 years.
As can be seen, the above hardly gives anyone the inspiration to go swaling yet on the other hand numerous bodies are de-crying the amount of gorse and bracken now colonising the moor.