Environmental groups call for national ban on heather burning in the uplands

Heather moorland near GoathlandHeather moorland near Goathland
Heather moorland near Goathland
Environmental organisations are calling on the Government to ban deliberate burning on peatland, which they say is damaging to nature and the climate.

Rotational burning takes place on upland moorland peat, including in National Parks such as the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors, as part of management for grouse shooting. It produces new heather shoots for birds to feed on and older heather they can nest in.

A year ago, the Government said it was committed to ceasing the practice of burning on blanket bog and would set out its plans to restore and protect peat.

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Peat is an important habitat for plants and wildlife, can store water to prevent flooding and also stores carbon if it is in a healthy state. But when peatland is degraded, drained and burned it releases carbon, worsening climate change.

A coalition made up of the RSPB, the National Trust, Plantlife, countryside charity CPRE, Friends of the Earth, the Soil Association and Wildlife and Countryside Link are calling on the Government to bring in a ban.

They say it would demonstrate climate leadership in the run up to UN climate talks being held in the UK next year and would show the Prime Minister’s commitment to protecting 30% of the UK’s land for nature.

Moorland managers say controlled burning does not harm peat or moss, provides habitat for wildlife and reduces the risk of wildfire.

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But the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) UK Peatland Programme, which aims to promote peatland restoration, recommends burning should not occur on peatlands.

It says available evidence indicates burning on peatland can result in damage to species, the habitat, peat soils and functioning systems and that healthy peatlands do not require burning for their maintenance.

The most effective long-term solution to addressing wildfire risk is to restore sites to fully functioning bog habitat by removing drainage, unsustainable livestock management and burning regimes, the programme says.

And the Government’s advisory Committee on Climate Change has recommended a ban on “damaging practices” such as rotational burning on peatland as part of efforts to cut emissions to “net zero” by 2050.

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Ben McCarthy, the National Trust’s head of nature conservation, said: “We welcome the Prime Minister’s pledge to protect 30% of land for nature but this ambition is undermined when burning on peatlands is allowed to continue in so many of the country’s protected areas.

“Burning has a huge impact on peatlands’ ability to support nature, releases their massive carbon stores into the atmosphere and reduces the role they can play in storing water and reducing flood risk.”

Dr Pat Thompson, RSPB senior policy officer, said: “One year from now, the world will watch on as the UK hosts the United Nations climate conference, Cop26, where all national governments will be expected to present new pledges to cut emissions.

“To end burning in England’s uplands demonstrates both UK global climate leadership ahead of our Cop26 presidency.”

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Jenny Hawley, Plantlife’s policy manager, added: “Only a fortnight ago, Boris Johnson pledged to protect 30% of land for nature by 2030.

“Let’s start with the exquisite carbon-absorbing carpets of mosses, cotton grasses, sundews and wild flowers such as bog asphodel, cuckooflower and marsh violet that would thrive and support wildlife on healthy peatlands.”

Amanda Anderson, director of the Moorland Association, said: “Controlled heather burning is a highly valuable tool for moorland managers who work day in, day out to restore and protect precious upland habitat. It has to be carried out in the right place, at the right time and for the right reasons.”

She said no one deliberately burned peat, instead “skilfully removing heather canopy leaves peat and moss underneath unharmed, benefiting a range of wildlife and peat-forming plants”, and also reduced the risk of wildfires.

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She said much of the science around peatland protection was uncertain and complex, and added: “We believe that the matter is best resolved through local solutions, led by the most up-to-date science and practitioner observation and a ban on heather burning would be detrimental to the protection of our iconic heather moorland.”

An Environment Department (Defra) spokesperson said: “Healthy peatlands have an important role to play in cutting greenhouse gas emissions and helping us reach our net zero target, which is why we are committed to restoring 35,000 hectares of England’s peatland through the Nature for Climate Fund.

“We have always been clear of the need to phase out rotational burning of protected blanket bog to conserve these vulnerable habitats, and we are looking at how legislation can achieve this.”

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