This grouse moor peat burning season, RSPB Senior Conservation Officer Pat Thompson describes why this is a bad for the environment, and why it must stop ...
The moors and hills of Northern England are very special places – the North and South Pennines, the North York Moors, Bowland Fells, the Lake District High Fells. They are home to an amazing array of wildlife, which depends on the subtle mix of upland 'moorland' habitats that include blanket bog, wet heath, and dry heath.
Healthy blanket bog, and underlying deep peatland soils, is home to delicate peat-forming sphagnum mosses, cotton-grasses, and sundews, which support a diverse range of breeding birds, including breeding dunlin and golden plover. They are also a crucial carbon store. UK peatlands (in the uplands and lowlands) store an estimated 3,200 million tonnes of carbon.
Sadly, however, just one in ten of our upland peat bogs are currently in a healthy state. Given their value, for both wildlife and as a carbon store, simply put, this is a national disgrace.
The main reason for their state lies historically in the effects of atmospheric pollution during the industrial revolution and today in the intensive way they are managed. They have suffered years of overgrazing and drainage. But one of the most significant pressures on these places is that they are routinely and deliberately burned, largely to support a single industry – grouse shooting, where they have been systematically burnt since Victorian times when shooting became popular.
The reason they are burnt on shooting estates is to encourage the growth of young heather on which the red grouse feed. But burning blanket bog dries out the underlying peat soil and damages the internationally important ecosystem, impacting on water quality and flows and releasing climate-changing stored carbon to the atmosphere.
Soil carbon is also released into watercourses, degrading drinking water quality and requiring costly treatment. Continuing this outmoded practice of burning peatland habitats in a climate and ecological emergency is wholly inappropriate. It will make legally binding climate change targets much harder to reach by continuing to add carbon emissions to the UK total, undermining efforts to reach the Government’s goal of net-zero carbon by 2050.
This burnt, degraded blanket bog is also less able to slow the flow of water across the bog surface, leading to heavier floods after torrential rainfall, affecting communities downstream of the moors. Similarly, desiccated and damaged blanket bogs are less able to withstand worsening heatwaves, reducing ecological resilience in the face of periods of drought. Drier habitats are associated with increased wildfire risk and impact, with unknown impacts on local air quality in our northern towns and cities.
The scale of the problem
Today peatland in the English uplands can be legally burnt between 1 October – 15 April. Burning in the uplands is increasing with recent research finding a seven-fold increase in burning on peatland in England from the 1940s to the present time (i) and burning increased at a rate of 11% per annum between 2001 to 2011 in Great Britain (ii).
To give an idea of the scale of this issue, grouse moors in the northern uplands extend to something in the region of 2226 square kilometers (iii). Many of these grouse moors lie within Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas, a statutory designation that describes their importance for wildlife on a European level. The designation restricts a range of activities in these places, and so special consent must be obtained from Natural England in order to carry out burning.
Information from Natural England suggests there are over 400 consents to burn blanket bog on grouse moors in north England’s European protected areas, covering around 950 square kilometers of the (deep) peat soils this precious habitat depends on (iv). That’s a staggering amount of land.
Most of the consents are given through Higher Level Stewardship agri-environment agreements, with an estimated value to the shoot owners of around £108 million. This is in addition to any payments the shooting estates received by way of Basic Payments under the Common Agricultural Policy (v).
In essence, the taxpayer, you and I, are funding the burning of peat bogs for the benefit of grouse shooting.
Of course, the industry itself claims that the burning is a vital part of managing the uplands, not just for the red grouse, but for keeping the heather in good condition. The UK Government itself, in response to legal challenges from the RSPB, introduced the concept of “restoration burning”. And to be sure, burning can sometimes be useful as a tool in the management of heather. However, burning peat bogs is a disaster for wildlife and for our climate. It has to stop.
What the RSPB is doing
In 2012, the RSPB made a formal complaint to the European Commission about concerns over Natural England’s action in relation to an upland grouse shooting estate, Walshaw Moor, in the South Pennines. The case expanded to cover the way in which Natural England permits and financially supports the ongoing burning of blanket bog in protected areas in northern England.
In September 2018, the RSPB called for a stop to burning on upland peat bogs. In the same year, Natural England sought to negotiate a voluntary halt to rotational burning on grouse moors, as a precursor to the estates giving up just over 400 consents to burn blanket bog. Although several estates did agree to give up their permission to burn, the majority did not.
Then, in line with its commitment to the European Commission to end the burning of blanket bog by October 2019, the Government committed to bringing forward new legislation to bring a halt to burning. It has said that the England Peat Strategy – which will include a decision on burning and was due in 2018 - is now due before the end of 2020.
In support of the ban, RSPB has organised several joint letters to Defra emphasising the strength of feeling and agreement in the NGO sector that burning needs to be banned – including one from 35 NGOs.
In response to a question in the Lords in September 2019 Zac Goldsmith, Minister of State for Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said that the government has “always been clear—as I have—on the need to phase out the burning of protected blanket bog to conserve those vulnerable habitats. We are looking at how legislation can achieve this and are considering next steps.” (vi)
The decision now rests with George Eustice, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Sources:i Natural England. 2014. IPENS 055 Burning in the English Uplands - A Review, Reconciliation and Comparison of Results of Natural England’s Burn Monitoring: 2005-2014
ii Douglas, D.J.T., Buchanan, G.M., Thompson, P., Amar, A., Fielding, D.A., Redpath, S.M. & Wilson, J.D. 2015. Vegetation burning for game management in the UK uplands is increasing and overlaps spatially with soil carbon and protected areas. Biological Conservation 191, 243-250
iv https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/our-positions-and-casework/casework/cases/walshaw-moor/ v https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/our-positions-and-casework/casework/cases/walshaw-moor/
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