Along with lighting fireworks, a bonfire is a traditional way to commemorate the foiled 17th-Century Gunpowder Plot, Guy Fawkes' attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament and assassinate King James I. On the first anniversary of the failed assassination, in 1605, King James I invited the public to celebrate by lighting bonfires, as long as they were "without danger or disorder". We've been celebrating annually ever since.
These days, most of us attend large, public events, where there's a bonfire and fireworks display. However, thanks to Covid and social distancing considerations, many of us are choosing to have a bonfire at home, instead.
With more bonfires being lit in gardens, we must consider garden wildlife, particularly hedgehogs and toads, which seem to find an unlit bonfire irresistible. Remember that November is a key hibernation month for many species, and so a large pile of garden waste poses the perfect dry habitat for a winter sleep. Many gardeners pile up waste over the course of a few weeks and then set fire to it on Bonfire Night. This can be devastating for hedgehogs and other wildlife caught inside.
The best way to protect wildlife this Bonfire Night is to not have a bonfire. Pile up your garden waste and simply leave it, instead. I have a 'dead hedge' of twigs and branches behind my shed, which I've added leaves, garden waste and lawn clippings to. It makes the perfect spot for nesting and hibernating hedgehogs, as well as frogs, toads, field mice and insects. I love knowing there's a space in my small garden that I can't access – it's for wildlife only.
If you are intent on having a fire this Bonfire Night, then do consider wildlife and do everything you can to ensure no-one is harmed – and that includes you!
Five tips to a wildlife-friendly bonfire
Dismantle your bonfire before lighting
If you've been piling garden waste up for a few weeks, there's a good chance wildlife will be using it. This can include anything from ladybirds, centipedes and other invertebrates, to amphibians and small mammals, such as hedgehogs. By simply taking apart and rebuilding your bonfire on the day you light it, you can potentially save lives. Remember that insects are less noticeable than amphibians and mammals, so it's worth shaking bits of garden waste to dislodge insects from the material.
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If you do find wildlife sheltering in the pile, gently move it to a quiet, sheltered spot in the garden, such as an open compost heap or pile of twigs and branches you don't intend to burn.
Better still, don't build the pile at all until the day you light it. This way you can ensure no wildlife has made a home among the nooks and crannies made available by a big pile of waste, and you won't be disturbing any animals during hibernation, either.
Build your bonfire on open ground
When building your bonfire, clear the ground first as any fallen leaves or other material could be providing shelter for wildlife. For example many moths overwinter as caterpillars and they seek out leaves and other debris to hide beneath. Simply raking this material away, and moving it to an unused corner or open compost heap, can enable these insects to continue hibernating, and give them a good chance of surviving winter.
Build your bonfire away from trees
It's really important to ensure there are no overhanging trees above your bonfire. A large fire can quickly spread into a tree, causing damage to the tree and harming birds and other wildlife sheltering in it. What's more, once a fire has spread into a tree it's very hard to control. Potentially, the fire could spread into neighbouring gardens and cause untold damage.
Light your bonfire from one side
Lighting your bonfire from one side, instead of the centre, can give any animals inside the chance to escape. However it's still better to dismantle and rebuild the bonfire prior to lighting it, so you don't put hibernating animals through the stress of waking up to find their home on fire.
Ensure water is nearby
Keeping a few buckets of water nearby, or better still a hose with a tap that you can turn on quickly, will ensure you can put your bonfire out in case of an emergency.