Burning on Mid Hope Moors Peak District (C) Tim Melling

Todays Blog is written by Pat Thompson, Senior Policy Officer for the uplands. He outlines the impacts of burning on our upland habitats and how you can help prevent it. 

The beginning of October heralds the start of the heather and grass burning season. From now until the middle of April, the smell of heather burning accompanied by the sight of great plumes of smoke will be an ever-present feature of moorland areas in northern England. Though burning is permitted between the start of October and mid-April, the weather largely dictates when burning occurs, with more burning in the second half of the season, particularly during fine spells of weather.

The use of fire in the uplands

The RSPB has a long-standing interest in the way fire is used to manage heather and grass in the English uplands, particularly where fire is used to create a patchwork of heather of different ages for Red Grouse across areas of so-called heather moorland. Despite the name, heather moorland typically comprises a mix of peatland, heathland and grassland habitat types, some of which, like blanket bog, are globally scarce and internationally important. Despite ecological and functional differences, these habitats are often managed as if they were a single habitat (‘moorland’) with the result that the wetter peatland habitats have become drier over time, with drainage, grazing and burning enabling heather to grow more vigorously and become dominant. Fire is then further used to break up the stands of heather to produce a mosaic of heather age and structure, visible in the landscape (next time you are on your phone, have a look at the pattern of burns across the English uplands using google maps), with younger heather tips a favoured food of the red grouse. Thus, some former extensive areas of peatland and heath have become drier, increasingly uniform and heather dominated. Away from the peatlands, grazing and burning have also been used over many years to create extensive open areas and to maintain these areas unnaturally free of trees.

The downsides of burning

Across the northern English uplands, large tracts (approx. 3,140km2) of bog and heath are now managed primarily for grouse shooting with associated and sometimes negative impacts on wetland habitats. Large areas of blanket bog and wet heath are now in poor condition, with drainage and repeated burning leading to the loss and damage to peat-forming bog mosses which are vital to ongoing peat formation and protection of underlying peat formed over millennia.

Additionally, given the tendency for burning to continue right up to the end of the burning season and the known impact of climate change on the timing of breeding in birds (recent research has found that nesting dates of moorland birds have advanced one to two days per decade1), this could impact early nesters such as Stonechat and other species that favour older heather such as Hen Harrier, Merlin and Short-eared Owl, all of which are on territory in early April.

Stonechat on heather (c) Ben Andrews (RSPB-images) 

Protecting upland peatland

The RSPB recognises that much of the burning you might see in the hills today may be legal. However, we believe that some burning may be in contravention of regulations intended to protect carbon and nature rich habitats, some of which are specially protected.

In May 2021, following lengthy dialogue between the UK Government, the European Commission, Natural England and moorland owners, the UK Government published a Statutory Instrument2 to prohibit (except under licence) the burning of vegetation on peat (more than 40cm deep) inside designated sites of European importance (Special Areas of Conservation & Special Protection Areas). Whilst we recognise the introduction of this new legislation as an important step forward, large areas of peatland may still be burnt – particularly areas where the peat is less than 40 cm deep.

Two years ago, we resolved to monitor compliance (in the absence of others doing so) with the new regulations and invited people to send us records of fires in the hills via a custom-made Burning App. At the time we had no idea what sort of response to expect, but it soon became evident that lots of people wanted to get involved and reports of burning in the hills soon started to come in. Records received through the app are cross referenced with maps of peat depth and the boundaries of designated sites, with records worthy of further investigation sent to Natural England Enforcement and Defra Investigations for further investigation. During the most recent burning season (2022/23) we received 260 reports of burning in the hills. Of these, 87% were believed to be within a designated site (as above) and 32% were believed to be on peat over 40cm deep. More critically, over a quarter (28%) of reports received were believed to be potential breaches of the regulations – inside protected areas and likely to be on peat over 40cm deep. Thus, whilst we acknowledge that many of the burns reported to us appear to be legal, we still received 70 reports worthy of follow up action by Defra and Natural England. Earlier this year, the owner of Midhope Moor in the Peak District National Park pleaded guilty at Sheffield Magistrates Court to six breaches under the regulations and was fined £2,645. More recently, the owner of Middlesmoor Estate in the Nidderdale AONB pleaded guilty at Skipton Magistrates Court to three breaches of the regulations and was fined £925. Whilst these paltry fines are unlikely to deter future rule-breaking, we would hope that the grouse shooting community makes good on its public commitments to protect and restore upland peatland habitats like blanket bog.

Peatlands need water not fire!

Our changing climate is an increasing cause for concern, with rising temperatures and more frequent and prolonged droughts rendering our carbon-rich peatlands increasingly vulnerable to fire, not least because many peatland sites are already in such a poor, unnaturally dry condition. Whilst we acknowledge the increasing threat of climate change and associated wildfire risk, the RSPB rejects the idea that burning is essential to reduce fuel load, thus reducing the impact of uncontrolled fires where they occur. Instead, we believe that we must act at pace to rewet our peatlands, enhancing their resilience to changes in climate and the increasing threat of fire. The RSPB will continue to argue passionately that using fire to manage peatlands is simply not acceptable in the 21st Century. Rather than continuing to burn sensitive upland habitats, like our globally important blanket bogs, we must invest in restoring our uplands to ensure that they can play a key role in tackling the nature and climate emergencies, providing a home for nature and providing people with a range of vital ecosystem services like carbon storage and drinking water. There is much to do! Together with our partners, we are confident that restoring our uplands to their former glory is both possible and vitally important. We must press on at pace.

How you can help

The Burning App is a means of encouraging and enabling people to play an active role in protecting our precious upland peatlands through reporting burning that may be damaging some of our most special places. In future, with further advances in technology, it may be possible to remotely map burns from satellite imagery, thereby allowing ever more precise mapping of where burns occur without even visiting a site. Such work will be further enhanced with the publication of a new England peat map, expected in 2025.

We are grateful to the many people who have submitted reports of burning via the app and to Defra Investigations and Natural England Enforcement for their assistance.

Our work continues. Do please continue to help us. If you see a fire in the hills that you think is likely to be on peat and inside a protected area, please send us a report via the burning app - Upland Burning (arcgis.com) and we will follow up.

If you see a fire that you think is out of control, contact the emergency services immediately.

For more in this series of blogs see: 

(+) RSPB | Lead ammunition in the firing line - Nature’s Advocates - Our work - The RSPB Community

(+) RSPB | RSPB calls for the release of non-native gamebirds to be licensed - Nature’s Advocates - Our work - The RSPB Community

(+) Gamebird Shooting: A Review of Progress - Nature’s Advocates - Our work - The RSPB Community


1 Wilson et al. 2021. Nesting dates of moorland birds in the English, Welsh and Scottish uplands. BTO Research Report 741

The Heather and Grass etc. Burning (England) Regulations 2021