RSPB Scotland's Duncan Orr-Ewing and Andrew Midgley discuss muirburn and what we would like to see in the face of the nature and climate crisis .

Muirburn: Scotland’s Uplands Going up in Smoke in the nature and climate emergency

As one of our key election requests, we are asking Scottish political parties to support the licensing of muirburn, and indeed the banning of muirburn on deep peatland soils (defined as over 30cm in depth). Peatlands are our vital carbon stores, and both their protection and restoration to healthy condition are critical to meeting Scottish Government targets for Net Zero carbon emissions.

Muirburn is the practice of burning vegetation and is mainly associated with managing land for grouse shooting, deer management or for sheep farming. Much of this vegetation burning is visible from plumes of smoke rising from moorland and upland farmland across the country during calm and warm spring days.

In recent years, RSPB Scotland has been receiving messages and photographs from concerned members of the public asking why, in the context of the climate and nature crises, the practice of muirburn is still going on in many of our upland areas across Scotland. Although lowland farmers no longer burn stubble—they have adapted and found alternative ways of managing the land—burning continues in the uplands.  Members of the public appear, quite rightly, to be struggling to reconcile the clear messages about the need to reduce carbon emissions with the locally widespread practice of muirburn.

At present, our approach to muirburn has two strands. In the first instance, we want to see burning on peatland soils banned. Our peatlands are precious and it is widely accepted that burning on peatland soils has no place in the climate and nature emergencies. The current good practice guide—the Muirburn Code—says that burning should not take place over ‘deep peat’ (where the peat is greater than 50cm), but we know from previous research that burning does still take place in these areas and we think that the depth definition needs to change to include shallower peats.

We were pleased, therefore, to see the commitment to a statutory ban on burning on peatland and to reviewing current peatland definitions. We want to see all political parties make this commitment in this election. This is vital because tackling climate change requires significant public investment in restoring peatlands. Yet burning is one of the reasons they are damaged and in need of restoration; it is a practice on peatlands that needs to stop if we are to avoid wasting public money.

The second strand of our approach to muirburn is to seek to see it become an activity that requires a license. If muirburn does get banned on peatlands it could continue in other places and we believe that stronger regulation through licensing is appropriate because of the clear risks to wildlife. There is a strong coincidence between the main spring muirburn season (running up until the 15 April) and the time when much of our wildlife has started their various breeding seasons.  Recent wildfires, as well as causing damage to property and risk to human lives, have impacted sensitive wildlife habitats and nesting birds. We are aware in recent years of golden eagle and other raptor nests having been burnt out, as well as the habitat of ground nesting birds including waders and divers. Much of our other wildlife is less mobile than birds and will often fall victim to such fires.    

Again, we were pleased to see the commitment that in future muirburn will only be permitted under licence from NatureScot, regardless of the time of year it is undertaken. But, again, we want to see all political parties make this important commitment.

Muirburn licencing already exists for those wishing to burn outside the usual season; extending licencing to the whole year should not be seen as controversial. Land managers must apply for licences to undertake various land management activities including tree felling and water abstraction, that affect a wide range of wildlife, yet it seems perverse that the vegetation over large areas of land can still be burned into the start of the bird breeding season, also impacting a wide range of other sensitive species and habitats. This situation should change, and it should change quickly, in recognition of the climate and nature emergencies. 

At present, muirburn is only weakly regulated and enforced under the terms of the largely voluntary guidance set out in the Muirburn Code. Some of the images that we have been sent by the public, or are appearing on social media, and which have been taken in the past few years, show muirburn activities, which do not appear to follow the requirements of this Code. For example, the Code is explicit that burning should not take place on areas of peatland, steep and rocky slopes, or cause damage to woodlands including areas of juniper and regenerating trees. Muirburn should also not be set in a way that could result in a wildfire. We leave you to make your own mind up about some of the images that we have been sent. 

In the run up to the election we encourage members of the public to raise the issue with their local candidates and to report incidents of muirburn that they believe to be in contravention of the Muirburn Code to the public authorities, including NatureScot.

All the images included in this post have been taken in the last two years and are examples of problematic practices discussed.