People have been using fire for pastoralism in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland for thousands of years, though the way has been done has changed in different economic, social and political conditions. Before the Highland Clearances, burning (known in Scotland as muirburn, or falasgair in Scot’s Gaelic), on a small-scale, was involved in maintaining communal pastures for a variety of livestock. After the clearances, fire was used more widely to manage landscapes for sheep, and new uses of fire related to grouse shooting emerged. Today, crofters (small-scale farmers, largely managing rough hill grazings for sheep and cattle) are one group using fire to maintain what are largely common grazing areas.

There is heated political debate over the use of fire in landscape management in twenty-first century Scotland, especially in the context of peatlands. In response to calls for tighter regulation of grouse estate management, new legislation, the Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill, is being drafted in Parliament, which will, among other things, tighten regulatory control over burning. While the Bill is being designed with grouse moor management in mind, it will also affect crofters. The crofting population has not been vocal in national debates over fire, and crofting fire use has been little researched.

In this context, this research project aims to explore how fire and crofting are related, highlighting perspectives that are commonly missing from national debate. It looks at how and why crofters use fire, how fire knowledge is gained and passed on by crofters, how fire use has changed in living memory, how changes to the muirburn legislation might affect crofters’ fire use, and with what implications for small-scale agriculture and wildfire risk.

Project duration: 2023-2026


Photo: left – recently burned, with fresh growth; right – not recently burned , with dense heather. Location: Skye, Source: C. Smith

Leadership Team

Current land use practices and consumption patterns are increasingly impacting land systems, putting natural resources under greater pressure and exacerbating sustainability challenges. As consumption patterns shift towards more animal-based and processed diets, increasing land area is dedicated to the large-scale production of commodities such as soybeans and palm oil at the expense of natural areas such as forests. Occurrence and severity of fires especially within or near closed canopy tropical forests is also consequently increasing.

Corporations are prominent agents in this food system. Agribusiness actors are key decision makers, influencing production and linking production frontiers to consumers. Large financial actors possess significant corporate control globally, playing a particularly important role through behaviour and influence in companies shaping ecosystems all over the world. In parallel, spiralling deforestation and forest fires are a systemic risk to both corporate and financial actors.

Due to the importance of land use change in achieving sustainability transitions and global sustainability goals (i.e. limiting global heating to 1.5-degrees Celsius and halting terrestrial biodiversity loss) and crucial role that these agents play in markets and in land use outcomes, the consequences of corporate and financial institution anti-deforestation and fires use strategies including trade-offs, possible pareto-improvements and conditions for success warrant exploration.


This research aims to improve our understanding of how corporate and financial institutional actors involved in the food system impact forests and fire regimes through the anti-deforestation and fires use strategies they take.

Fuzzy Cognitive Mapping combined with agent-based models is used to represent interactions among corporate, financial and producer agents. Environmental and economic outcomes emerge from the coupled model. Potential implications and conditions for successfully achieving sustainability transitions and global sustainability goals are explored.

This work is focused on the EU27+UK and China as the receiving systems while Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia act as sending states with countries in the rest of the world representing spillover systems.

Deforestation and fire as rainforest burned to make way for oil palm plantation

Deforestation environmental problem. Cutting down and burning rainforest. Fire and smoke causes carbon emissions leading to climate change. Land clearing for palm oil industry

Banner image: Aerial view and directly from above of some palm oil plantations in the province of Kalimantan (Borneo) that joins with other land that has been slashed and burnt. It is unfortunate to say that because of the palm oil industry, hectares of rainforests are being destroyed to replace those natural habitats with this cheap commodity.

Leadership Team