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Bonfires and the law: what are the rules?

Written by Sarah Talbot

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Posted on 20 September 2021

Its that time of year when the garden needs a good tidy.  The leaves are beginning to fall from the trees.  Plus most summer vegetable have been harvested and its time to dispose of the plants.  Not everyone has a compost heap.  Even if you do, not everything from your garden could or should be added to it.   

For example you shouldn't put diseased plants on compost heaps. In a year with epic blight that leaves the problem of how to dispose of large tomato plants, potato plants and tubers.  The smallest part of a diseased plant remaining in the garden can spell disaster for next year's crop.  These are good candidates for a bonfire.

Whether you have garden waste to deal with or want to celebrate November 5th you might decide you need a bonfire. 

Bonfire burning in the darkBonfire Laws for the UK

The good news is that there are no laws against having a bonfire in your garden. But, (there is always a but!) there are laws to protect those around you from the nuisance a bonfire may cause. 

Can I burn Garden Waste in my garden?

You may burn domestic waste, including garden waste, if it will not be harmful to human health, or cause air pollution.  But as a gardener this shouldn't be your first port of call.  Composting is far better for the environment and your purse.  Just imagine not having to buy those big plastic bags of compost next year!  What a great saving that would be. 

The biggest problem with home bonfires is the smoke they produce. It could make you very unpopular with your neighbours.  On top of that if you allow the smoke to drift on to a road, it could get you into trouble.  Smoke could reduce visibility of drivers and become a real danger to road users. And you could receive a fine.  

Your local council can issue an "abatement notice" if the bonfire is causing a nuisance.  This will contain conditions and if they aren't adhered to the person with the fire can be fined up to £5,000 (2021).

Bonfires and COVID-19

Smoke that would be mildly annoying in pre-pandemic times can take on a whole new dimension in COVID times.  There is evidence that smoke from bonfires can negatively affect the health of children and those with respiratory illness or heart conditions.

For this reason many Councils asked their residents to be mindful of this, and not to light bonfires during lockdown in their garden.  

Smoking garden bonfire

Composting

A gardeners first stop has to be composting garden waste.  Even if you don't have room for a compost bin a Rollmix Composter or Green Bin from your local Council will allow you to put your garden waste to good use.   

Gardening expert Pippa Greenwood rolling a Haxnicks Rollmix composterThe Gold Standard of compost is Leaf Mould.  To make these it is as simple as scooping up fallen leaves into Composting Sacks and leaving them behind the shed for a couple of year. 

Read full instructions and find out what leave work best for this check out this blog How to make Leaf Mound 

But you can make compost out of other garden and kitchen waste.  Find out how here How to Make Seed Compost

If you have diseased plants which can't be composted then there are steps to take to make sure your bonfire is safe. 

Ten Steps to a Safe Bonfire

  1. Check regulations with your Council and your Association.  You need to find out if fires are allowed on allotments in your area first.  
  2. Where possible check with neighbours and agree a time that works for you both. There are urban myths about bonfires during the day not being allowed but really it is more common sense than that.  Just pick a time when the least number of people will be affected.  Avoid the time when they do their weekly wash or very hot days where they would expect to have the windows open
  3. Check the weather - strong winds can cause fires to get out of hand and get quickly out of control. And if the weather has been dry sparks can set the whole landscape alight before you can react.
  4. Always move your materials before you light the fire. Even if you placed them there just hours before, wildlife may have made its home in what looks to them like superb bedding material.  Many hedgehogs have been injured and killed tis way.  Simply lifting your pile up and moving it a few feet is enough to tick this vital box.
  5. Make sure that the bonfire isn't too large.  Anything over 1.5m (5') will get too hard to manage so better to start small and add to it.  
  6. Make sure that your timber is as dry as possible (wet timber = smoke!) and avoid putting anything that isn't organic on there (plastic = thick toxic smoke!)
  7. Don't use any accelerants - a little torn up newspaper should be enough to start your fire.   
  8. Be prepared in case of emergency. Keep a bucket of water or garden hose nearby in case the fire begins to spread.
  9. Watch your fire.  Especially important if there are children or animals around who might get too close.   
  10. After the bonfire is finished, turn over the charred materials with metal shovels and rakes, and douse the area thoroughly with water.  

So now you are all set for your autumn / fall gardening. Enjoy!  

 

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