Remember when farmers used to burn the stubble of the previous crop before the practice was regulated in 1993? This is an enduring memory of childhood, of something that is no more - going past in the car and seeing the fields all black and smouldering and the smoke drifting across the road. It was always exciting to see the line of fire as it crept across the field and when you saw the smoke on the horizon someone would always say ‘They’re burning the stubble’. Traditionally, a lot of burning goes on in autumn. Fallen leaves, plant debris, old wood, it all goes onto a big heap and is fired up.
It was a popular event, where friends, family and neighbours gathered to watch the flames; potatoes and chestnuts would be placed amongst the glowing embers at the fire’s edge to slowly bake and be fumbled out with sticks, probably burnt on one side but still delicious; anyway, it was dark and you couldn’t really see the burnt bits in the orange glow of the flames, so they didn’t matter.
Bonfires don’t occur in the number that they used to, and the smoke from stubble burning is a thing of the past, but every year a few heaps are made. Often they’re built in advance and when that happens, many of the local hedgehogs, frogs and toads must think ‘Cool, that looks like just the place for winter!’ and in they go and get comfortable.
Toad found hibernating under a bonfire heap
We all know what happens next. Only it doesn’t have to, you can change that future. Go ahead and stack up all the stuff for burning but, on the big day, take a couple of hours to pull the heap apart and rebuild it a little distance away. If it’s to be a communal fire get children, friends and neighbours together; bring a couple of buckets to transfer the refugees and find a place of safety for them elsewhere, like a new compost heap, or a pile of leaves or logs that isn’t intended for the fire. Most of the creatures you find will be firmly tucked in at the bottom of the pile so make sure to check right down to the ground.
A frog found under a bonfire heap
When it’s all ready and is finally lit, there will be no questions or doubt, just a good honest party - the flames will seem brighter, the flying sparks more magical and the small beings you’ve relocated will be safely drifting off to sleep again in the cool and dark.