STANDFIRST The fire that has stained Saddleworth Moor is the worst in living memory. Here, campaigning journalist Ken Bennett examines the unfolding drama that stunned the nation.

I FIRST came to Saddleworth Moor more than 50 years ago for all the wrong reasons.

It was to join the first day of a macabre search for the bodies of young children hidden in these killing fields by murderous Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.

More recently, I spent more than a year in the company of GMP detectives and distinguished filmmaker Sarah Hey recording a Despatches Channel 4 documentary, which pieced together the last days of ‘The Mystery Man of The Moor’.

In an interview at the time I alluded to the moors reminding me of the sea: dark, brooding, restless and not to be trusted.

Today, I’m returned again in the aftermath of fires that have rampaged across seven square miles of heather, peat and grasslands to deliver their very own distinctive, acrid “calling card” to Manchester and the very heart of government.

Christopher Crowther, whose family has farmed the moors for three generations said sadly: “The fires could burn until October.

“They have caused a complete change to the moors. The moors are coveted in ash and nothing will grow here for twenty years. It’s like a wilderness.”

Dr Andrew Taylor is one of the longest serving members of Oldham Mountain Rescue Team and chair of Greenfield and Grasscroft Residents Association.

He said: “This blaze started in several places, and hard work by all the services left us with about six fire points but now it’s like a hundred sores festering in the peat.”

The National Sheep Association (NSA) warns of increased risk of similar disasters if proposals to re-wild many of the UK’s upland areas are pursued.

It says the combined risk factors of predicted climate change and weather patterns with removal of grazing animals that have in the past protected uplands from out of control fires by creating natural fire breaks could mean fires causing distress amongst people living and working in the area and could become more widespread.

NSA Chief Executive Phil Stocker said: “Moves to re-wild many of our upland areas would put far more and far larger areas at risks.”

And Doctor Taylor says: “It’s not sufficiently understood in the halls of power how sheep have shaped and tamed our uplands over centuries. If they want ‘wild’ it includes wildfires and floods - that’s the way nature works.

“Sheep grazing, man-made fire breaks and controlled burning are all valid fire prevention techniques used for years and now banned by the various authorities. This is the price.”