The publication of new RSPB research (here) outlining the extent of burning in Britain’s uplands reveals some very simple truths...
...burning on peat soils in grouse moors is extensive (see map below) and intensifying (c11% per annum over the past decade – see graph)
...much of this burning takes place on protected areas: 55% of Special Areas of Conservation and 63% of Special Protection Areas that were assessed
...the primary purpose of these sites in law is to achieve their conservation objectives including restoration of degraded peatlands
...burning will prevent restoration
Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
What's more, as the Adaptation Sub-Committee (of the Climate Change Committee) pointed out a fortnight ago, 76,000 hectares or 27% of blanket bog have lost peat-forming vegetation due to regular burning. The Committee’s report also highlighted that grouse shooting was the specified purpose for 145 out of 150 consents to burn blanket bog in SSSIs issued by Natural England since 1999: most of those supported by agri-environment funds. All of these consents are in SACs and/or SPAs. There is little doubt this is one of the primary reasons for the poor condition of our upland peat and wildlife is suffering because of it.
And Natural England's own evidence suggests that burning is also bad for carbon and bad for water quality.
So what to do?
It's pretty clear that the status quo is not an option. Down south, Natural England and Defra have developed a blanket bog restoration strategy which will affect its review of those 150 burning consents. It is no longer tolerable for the scale and extent of burning to continue on internationally important sites intended to conserve this globally important habitat. In addition, the Defra led bid for European funding for peat restoration project needs to be prioritised.
I recognise, of course, that this presents challenges to the grouse shooting industry. Yet, I hope it is viewed as a challenge rather than an attack. I’m sure you can have grouse shooting without the damaging burning with which it is often associated.
This is an opportunity for the industry to take responsibility for the environmental damage that it is causing and deliver positive change.
This and other research highlights the extent and intensity of burning across some of our most special sites including internationally important sites. We urgently need to stop burning sensitive peatland habitats and to enable them to recover, so that the vital services they provide for society are protected for future generations.
I hope that this research acts as a turning point in the way that grouse moors are managed, and we’re able to look back on it as a major step towards the industry taking responsibility for its actions and delivering meaningful action to change them for the better.
Map showing extent of moorland burning within 1-km squares classified as deep peat (averaging ≥0.5m) in England and Scotland. Shown are only squares overlying deep peat and with burning present. Legend denotes the percentage areas of moorland burned per 1-km square.
Graph showing trend in the annual number of moorland burns recorded in Scotland, England and Wales, using MODIS satellite recording of thermal events.
This is a battle between shooting and conservation at the moment but I'd question whether we aren't heading towards a complete new ball game in the uplands where carbon becomes the dominant rationale for land use. Virtually every activity is heavily subsidised - the figures for grouse show a Government/CAP subsidy pretty much equal to the total turnover of grouse estates - which means switching objectives from the 19th century to the 21st century could actually save money.
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