A recent paper published in Nature Geoscience concludes that fire could be an important tool for increasing carbon storage in soils. This paper has been seized on by a UK grouse shooting industry seeking to justify continued vegetation burning in the uplands, including over peat soils. However, this overlooks crucial caveats that limit the applicability of this work to UK moorland. Here, Dr David Douglas, Principal Conservation Scientist, explains our concerns.

Rotational burning of moorland vegetation is widespread across the UK uplands to underpin recreational shooting of Red Grouse, with additional use of burning by livestock farmers. However, scientific evidence reviews report that such burning in the UK is associated with a range of environmental impacts including on carbon storage, water quality and habitat condition, especially where burning is practised over peat soils.

Government responses to burning

In response to the evidence of negative environmental impacts of burning on peatland, Defra published new regulations on vegetation burning in England, prohibiting burning on peat over 40cm deep within a designated site, except under licence.

Following their own additional evidence reviews, the Scottish Government has announced the intention to licence all future burning, with a statutory ban on burning on peatland, except under licence for strictly limited purposes such as habitat restoration.

The Climate Change Committee, who advise the UK and devolved governments on emissions targets and preparing for and adapting to the impacts of climate change, has called for an immediate ban on rotational burning on peatlands and for peatland to be restored.

These legislative changes could, if properly applied, greatly reduce the future use of burning in the UK uplands and protect peatlands. This challenges a grouse shooting industry wedded to the use of burning.

All of which brings us to the newly published paper.

The paper is a literature review to understand whether fire-driven loss of carbon from soils through combustion, erosion and leaching could be offset by the ability of fire to stabilize carbon and keep it within the soil. The paper concludes that using fire to promote the stability of soil organic matter may be an important means for increasing carbon storage. But the paper focuses largely on savannah, grassland and forest biomes of little relevance to UK moorlands which are subject to burning. Indeed, the paper states that the way in which fire affects the stability of carbon in soils differs across ecosystems – in other words, the results are not automatically generalisable across ecosystems.

The enthusiasm with which the paper has been used by proponents of burning in the UK to justify its continued use on grouse moors is misguided because the review does not evaluate the framework in moorlands or peatlands more generally. In fact, the authors of the paper state that “in ecosystems with deep organic horizons, such as boreal forests and peatlands, the utility and feasibility of prescribed burning to manage SOM [soil organic matter] losses via greater stabilization is less clear”.

Despite these clear caveats, those who wish to burn vegetation in the UK uplands are using the findings of the paper, misleadingly, as evidence of the benefits of burning.

Peatland blog on RSPB Forsinard Flows Nature Reserve (c) Kevin Arrowsmith (rspb-images.com)

The UK’s peatlands store 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon, making them the largest terrestrial carbon reserve in the UK. The UK supports 10-15% of the worlds blanket bog, with large areas protected under UK and international law. Despite these protections, our peatlands are a net source of emissions with 74% of emissions from blanket bog attributed to burning. 

Government policies on burning must reflect the peer-reviewed evidence. Stakeholders must avoid unjustified extrapolation from other biomes simply because the science suits a particular viewpoint.

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  • As you say, it has been seized upon by the dishonest representatives of the environmental arsonist organisations, but the fault lies with DEFRA and their failure to do the right thing. It doesn't help when the judiciary (do those judges shoot?) fail in their duty to help protect our threatened habitats, wildlife and environment (badger cull, HS/2, hunting with hounds, muirburn, bird of prey persecution, snares, etc)