Last October, the RSPB launched a new Upland Burn Reporting App, allowing members of the public to share records of recent and active burns in the English Uplands. Over the last 6 months over 270 burns have been reported by members of the public.

These reports provide a snapshot of the extent of burning throughout the English uplands and will be used as evidence to support the RSPB’s position that the actions by the UK Government to regulate burning do not go far enough to protect our iconic upland peatlands.

Why are our peatlands important?

Often overlooked, England’s peatlands are amazing places for nature and vital to our fight against the climate and nature emergency. Described as ‘England’s Rainforests’, these bogs, formed over thousands of years, store ten times the amount of carbon found in our forests and provide a home for some of our most iconic plants and animals, including hen harrier, curlew and lapwing.

Peat is formed by the partial breaking down of plants and animals in waterlogged conditions. Over time these layers of build up locking in carbon, storing water and leading to the development of blanket bog.

Blanket bog is found in only a few parts of the world and the UK has a special responsibility at a national, European and global level to restore and conserve it.

But for hundreds of years England’s blanket bogs have been degraded by intensive land management practices, designed to make the landscape productive for certain industries. Draining, the planting of commercial forests and burning have pushed nature to the fringes of these wild spaces and have transformed these carbon sinks into large carbon emitters.

Much of this damage is attributed to a practice known as rotational burning. Burning is used by shooting estates and farmers to encourage the growth of young heather shoots to provide food and grazing for red grouse and livestock but it also transforms the landscape.

However regular burning leads to changes in peatland plant life, causing the bogs to gradually dry out and begin to release carbon.    

When last inspected only 1 in 10 of England’s protected bogs were rated in a favourable condition and on average England’s peatlands release the same amount of CO2 as 140,000 cars each year, with 75% of upland peatland emissions in the UK attributed to burning.

These changes can also have other consequences, including reducing the peatbog’s ability to absorb water putting communities downstream at greater risk of flooding and increasing the amount of soil carbon in the water, turning it brown and requiring it to undergo expensive treatment before it reaches our taps.

What is being done?

In order to protect these landscapes last year, the UK Government introduced new rules designed to limit when and where burning on peatland could place in England. The regulations aimed to prevent burning on areas of deep peat (over 40cm depth) on protected sites unless a licence had been granted or the land was steep or rocky. 

However, evidence reported through the RSPB’s Upland Burn Reporting app demonstrates that despite the new rules, this season, burns have still taken place on likely deep peat in protected sites.

What did we find out?

The RSPB’s Upland Burn Reporting App used eyewitness reports and existing peat depth maps to develop a snapshot of where burning was taking place throughout the English uplands.

Of the 272 burns reported, 1 in 3 took place on likely peat deeper than 25cm and 4 out of 5 took place areas of Special Scientific Interest, Special Protected Areas and Special Areas of Conservation.

Despite the UK Government issuing no licenses for burning in 2021, 70 reported burns took place on likely peat deeper than 40cm in protected sites in clear violation of the new rules and have been sent to Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs for investigation.

The evidence collected through our app demonstrates that the partial ban of burning is not working.  We are in a nature and climate emergency and our peatlands have an important role to play for nature and people but only if they are in good health. If we are to protect these internationally recognised landscapes, we need the UK Government to get serious about ensuring they are properly protected. Time is running out for us to save these wild places, the communities which rely on them and the nature which calls them home.

That is why the RSPB is calling on the UK Government to introduce an immediate ban on the burning of upland peatland and to commit a long term investment in peatland restoration to ensure that these places can reach their full potential.

The burning season has now ended, but members of the public can still submit evidence of burning. To anonymously report a burn and download the app (available on iOS and Android), members of the public can visit the RSPB Burning website. There they can find instructions on how to download the app, as well as information on how to spot a burn and to stay safe when reporting a burn.