Agency stands accused in burning debate

Gamekeepers burn the peat on Westerdale Moor, near Castleton, on the North Yorkshire Moors.
Gamekeepers burn the peat on Westerdale Moor, near Castleton, on the North Yorkshire Moors.
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The Government agency responsible for protecting Yorkshire’s vast swathes of open moorland is failing in its duty to safeguard bird habitats, a charity has said.

The RSPB has accused Natural England of allowing levels of burning, drainage and other forms of intensive land management on peat-covered hills that could prove catastrophic for the environment.

Across large areas of the uplands in northern England, vegetation is burnt on a 10 to 25-year rotation to produce optimum conditions for the commercial shooting of red grouse.

But the practice is blamed for damaging the habitat of bird species like dunlin, sundew and sphagnum mosses and for releasing carbon and peat-stained water.

A number of organisations, including the RSPB, are working to restore degraded blanket bog in areas including the North York Moors, North Pennines and Peak District.

Pat Thompson, senior uplands policy officer at the RSPB, said: “Natural England is allowing activities on sites of international importance that are not conducive to restoring degraded habitats.

“They have entered into an agreement to bring these sites back into a good condition with public money. We want to know if that is happening.”

The controversy surrounding burning made headlines in 2012 following investigations into land management practices at Walshaw Moor, near Hebden Bridge,

Natural England attempted to take steps to halt the burning of blanket bog and began a prosecution over alleged damage.

The RSPB was heavily critical when the agency then dropped the action because of insufficient confidence in the available science.

The charity took the major step of pursuing a complaint to the European Commission.

It says Natural England’s own figures show that only around 10 per cent of the country’s upland peatland sites are currently in good condition.

Chief executive Mike Clarke said: “England’s uplands are some of our most iconic, extensive and important landscapes.

“Our assessment shows they could be among our most damaged too. For the benefit of wildlife, the environment and wider society there is an urgent need to restore these landscapes by blocking drains, re-vegetating bare peat and bringing an end to burning.”

The RSPB is now demanding to know what work has been carried out to improve the condition of Walshaw Moor and is calling for a widespread review of land management practices.

David Renwick, director of conservation at the North York Moors National Park Authority, said controlled burning played a part in preventing unmanaged wildfires and the potentially damaging invasion of conifer

But he added: “We also recognise that burning, especially if it affects the protective layer of mosses and litter under the heather, can make moorlands more vulnerable to drying out, soil and peat erosion.

“We also don’t consider that burning is appropriate everywhere, in order to maintain suitable conditions for some plants or animals.

“The management of peat in our uplands is a sensitive issue and any management requires a particularly well considered approach.”

A spokesman for Natural England said guidance on burning was being revised following a review of the evidence on the effects on upland peatland biodiversity, carbon and water and would be made public once stakeholders had been consulted.

He added that action was being taken to improve the condition of Walshaw Moor.

“Now, for the first time, burning activities on the Walshaw Estate will be subject to specific controls,” he said.

“Burning will not be permitted in areas where heather amounts to less than 50 per cent of the vegetation cover and will not be permitted in most of the areas defined as sensitive by the Heather and Grass Burning Code 2007 – this includes areas of blanket bog.

“An active programme of peat re-wetting has also been agreed, so that blanket bog restoration can take place. In the areas where it has been agreed that burning can take place, limits have been set regarding the length of the burning rotation.”