THE green hills and villages of Saddleworth are under siege from random moorland fires, dogs killing pregnant ewes, and visitors ignoring safeguards at a key beauty spot.

Here, campaigning journalist KEN BENNETT who has urged authorities to provide more “boots on the ground” to help protect the area, visits ahead of the Easter bank holiday weekend.

AT FIRST glance, this just seems like a family kindling a barbecue on a sunny day...

But the setting for their picnic is in an "exclusion zone" at Dovestones where lighting fires and barbecues are strictly forbidden.

Yet despite new “smoke free” banners and fresh warnings from agencies, community watchers fear a recent worrying spate of fires across Saddleworth could put the area uncomfortably back in the limelight.

These pictures, for example, were taken by community conscious local youngsters last Friday just 24 hours before the Dovestone marshals begin their regular weekend vigil at the popular visitor destination.

The images were widely condemned on social media but despite the coverage, the marshals reported another blaze had to be quelled at the site on Sunday.

And Dr Andrew Taylor, chair of Greenfield and Grasscroft Residents Association, an ardent protector of the area, told me: “Most sad is the fire brigade have needed to deploy so many times since the warm week in February.

“It is so infuriating every day those who watch the Dovestone area closely have spotted someone lighting a fire.

“Despite the signs describing the arson that it is, and the penalties if caught, anti-social youths have started grass fires many times.

“Equally sad is the number of barbecuers who can’t read (or won’t!). It seems like we need signs that jump out in front of them and shout!

“Someone has to maintain a protective force against the small, evil group of arsonists and to offer guidance to the dim-witted barbecuers.”

Earlier, Dr Taylor, a long serving member of Oldham Mountain Rescue Team, was among colleagues who shared a training session with GMFRS which allowed crews to practise navigation skills, implementing wildfire safety protocols and discuss wildfire behaviour and suppression tactics with the newly trained NFCC Wildfire Tactical Advisers.

It also gave crews an opportunity to build working relationships and OMRT to demonstrate their capability.

“It is impressive how much the GMFRS have put into moorland fire-fighting in the past few weeks; both as training and operationally,” said Doctor Taylor.

And householders living in properties close to the reservoir praised the marshals who have resolved many problems with visitors blocking their homes at weekends.

Elvin Lucas, boss of Protec Security, said : “We remind visitors of the dangers, particularly after the terrible fires last year. People are working together to protect the area and starting to take rubbish home. But we have to keep watch.”

In the wider area, villagers are still in shock after firefighters were called to tackle a series of blazes in Delph and Dobcross.

And as a counterpoint, Saddleworth farmers are on full alert after a series attacks by dogs off leads which have killed pregnant ewes and unborn lambs.

Last week’s Oldham Times which featured the tragic plight of farmer Darren Hough who had lost six ewes to dog attacks brought widespread condemnation across Saddleworth.

And the 11,000 strong Facebook community, It’s All About The Animals, produced an on line poster urging dog owners to take precautions.

They said: “Please share to raise awareness.We have made this poster and it can be printed off and put up in areas it is needed.

“There have been so many attacks recently which is absolutely awful and resulted in deaths. Ewes have been attacked and lost their lambs.

“People need to keep their dogs on a lead. Farmers will shoot any dogs worrying their sheep. Please keep your dogs under control.”

A spokesperson for the National Sheep Association said: “We welcome this contribution from the Saddleworth community to help tackle dog worrying.

“ A campaign like this by locals helps get the message across in a real and relatable way, and NSA is grateful for this message being picked up and shared so positively.”

But at Dovestone there is a sharp intake of breath as locals brace themselves for the expected rush of Easter visitors.

And Dr Taylor added pointedly: “The battle continues ...”