Following the Scottish Government’s announcement that it would end burning on deep peat, and the Committee on Climate Change’s call to end rotational burning, the UK Government has made a similar commitment today.
Any progress on this issue is, of course, to be welcomed.
It is particularly pleasing to see Defra conclude:
“There is a consensus that burning of vegetation on blanket bog is damaging to peatland formation and habitat condition. It makes it more difficult or impossible to restore these habitats to their natural state and to restore their hydrology.”
This was at the heart of our original complaint over Natural England’s dealing with the Walshaw Moor in 2012. Under the terms of European legislation, the obligation has been to protect and restore peatland habitats and that burning would undermine restoration efforts and therefore granting consents to burn on peat soils would not be lawful. I am delighted that Defra has now accepted this fact.
Through subsequent research we showed in 2015 that burning on deep grouse moors is extensive and intensifying (the annual number of burns increased by c11% per annum over the past decade). This rate of increase was comparable over soils of all peat depths. Much of this burning takes place on protected areas: on 55% of Special Areas of Conservation and 63% of Special Protection Areas that were assessed. And in England, 43% of the 1-km squares where burning was recorded were on peat >0.5 metres deep. The primary purpose of these sites in law is to achieve their conservation objectives including restoration of degraded peatlands and as confirmed by Defra today burning will prevent restoration.
So, on the face of it, today’s announcement seems to address our primary cause for concern.
Yet, as ever, the devil will be in the detail.
The first problem is that today’s announcement does not address burning on peatlands outside of protected areas. We have calculated the density of burning within and outside of protected areas and have shown that the mean % of moorland burned per 1km square inside Special Areas of Conservation is 13.7% (+/- SE 0.7) and outside is 7.2% (+/- SE 0.5) and the mean % of burning inside Special Protection Areas is 15.4% (+/- SE 0.8) and outside is 6.5% (+/- SE 0.5). This means that while the density of burning on peat soils outside protected areas is lower than within, it is still taking place, still thwarting habitat restoration and still arguably unlawful. And of course, the climate does not care whether emissions are from within or outside protected areas.
The second problem is that Defra has announced a series of exemptions which would allow burning to continue under license. We have yet to see the details of the licensing regime but we are concerned that unless tightly prescribed they could see a steady slew of licences being granted for things which on the face of it look worthy (wildfire management, conservation and inaccessible areas unsuitable for cutting) could all too easily result in business as usual.
Through this long running saga, we have always argued that burning on deep peat is incompatible with the nature and climate crises. And, at every turn we were discouraged from pursuing change in this area. A senior civil servant once said to me that there would never be a ban on burning in his lifetime – that’s how unlikely it felt at the time.
As far as I am aware, that civil servant is still alive (!) but whether he is proven wrong or not will depend on the robustness of the licensing regime and ultimately whether the scale of burning does or does not actually reduce.
Of course, we shall only know whether this has happened or not through good monitoring and indeed enforcement of these new regulations. If this responsibility will now fall to Natural England, then they will need to have the capacity to do this and indeed be prepared to report publicly on progress in reducing burning on deep peat. We would urge full transparency of any licenses that are granted.
In any case, we will watching.
And it's very good you will be watching as it's all this governments pals (and probably party donors) who will be trying to get exemptions.
Classic attempt by a government to try and be seen to be doing something while avoiding doing more than the absolute minimum they can get away with. For example, just compare this to what a bunch of people keen to protect peat, prevent floods and maximise biodiversity would have done. There'd be great gulfs of differences to this.
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