Gamekeepers who helped battle a huge wildfire in Moray have urged investigators to keep an open mind about whether it was set deliberately.
Dozens of firefighters, backed up by gamekeepers, worked for four days to bring the blaze at Knockando – which spread through 23 sq miles of moorlands and forest – under control last month.
An inquiry into the circumstances is expected to be held.
And yesterday, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association said they believed dismissing criminality is premature.
The cost of the damage is still being assessed, but it is expected to run into hundreds of thousands of pounds – with two estate owners preparing for a five-year hit on income from grouse shooting.
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About 1,000 acres of native pinewood was burnt out on Altyre and miles of deer and stock fencing knocked out at Knockando.
Habitats for mountain hares, meadow pipits, skylarks, curlew and adders were also destroyed, along with nesting sites for black grouse lek sites.
Gamekeeper Dave Thomson said: “It appears criminality has been ruled out, but someone or something definitely started the original fire in an area of rewilding on Pitchroy.
“The estate has been severely restricted for 10 years in the controlled muirburn they can do in that area. No heather burning has been allowed at all for three years, on ecologists’ advice, due to historic bird nesting sites in the wind farm.
“Once the fire started one of the main reasons for it getting away was the build-up of fuel load after ending the annual muirburn policy.
“When the fire re-started on April 22, it was then a much bigger job, spreading through Altyre, Knockando and onto Dunphail. No one has seen anything like it.”
Dozens of firefighters tackled the wildfire, which was one of the biggest ever seen in the UK.
More than 50 gamekeepers assisted the crews over four days as the flames spread from Knockando to Dallas with thick smoke seen for miles as it enveloped wind farms in Paul’s Hill and Berryburn.
It would have continued spreading into the Cairngorms National Park if controlled muirburn to create firebreaks had not taken place.
Gamekeepers claim if they had not stepped in, commercial forest plantations at Dallas would have been at risk. A house near Tomcork Farm was protected in a similar way.
Allan Hodgson, from the association, said: “If this wildfire had been as a result of muirburn on a grouse moor, there would have been a public outcry.
“The truth is, if controlled muirburn had not been carried out in the area, creating firebreaks, it would have spread more extensively.”
On one flank of the fire, 54 gamekeepers assisted bringing in 16 fogging units, eight leaf blowers, eight heather besoms and eight tractors with specialist equipment.
Heather management and cutting around one of the turbines at Berry Burn Wind Farm provided a safe area for stranded fire crews, stopping them being enveloped.
The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has since announced its intention is to introduce back burning, a technique used to stop wildfires spreading.
Alex Hogg, chairman of the association, said: “It is encouraging to see the fire service adopting this and we are keen to build on positive relationships with them.
“Thanks to investment by large grouse estates, a lot of specialist equipment and skill was able to be deployed, free of charge. The fire service themselves have admitted that, without that assistance, this fire would have been even worse.”