Peat burning – Your questions answered. (Hopefully)

There are so many hot topics (!) when it comes to the environment and our natural world that it is easy to get your head in a spin. Kaite Helps takes a look at peat burning - question by question.

What is peat burning?

Peat burning is not actually burning of peat, it's burning of the vegetation that grows on top of peat. This is usually heather or grasses, such as purple moor grass.  It has been done traditionally to provide new growth of heather (for grouse) or grasses (for sheep).

Staffordshire The roaches burning

(C) Rod Kirkpatrick

 

I often come away feeling more confused than ever if I dive straight in with some of our conservation issues. So, with peat burning becoming a topic of conversation for us at the Trust over the next few months I wanted to give a little background on the basics. Let’s start at the beginning…

Where does Peat burning happen in Derbyshire?

North Derbyshire and the Peak District is where you are most likely to find peat burning. Here it is done predominantly for grouse moor management. You’ll also find peat burning in the South Pennines, primarily for sheep grazing.

 

Why is peat burning so bad?

Here’s a great video explaining exactly that. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzsr5A4VhZU

Peatlands are wetlands. You’ll also hear of blanket bogs – these are peat bogs (wetlands) on top of hills.

Burning creates a crust on the surface of peat which increases the speed of water flow across it. This reduces how much water the peat soaks up.

If the peat isn’t soaking up the amount of water it is supposed to, that water will run off the peatlands quickly, meaning faster flowing rivers and more water in those rivers.  Peatlands also store carbon, and they do that well when they are saturated with water rather than when drying out.

Burning peatlands also releases carbon which is bad news for climate change. It’s not just burning that causes this – if peatland dries out, the peat begins to break down and old carbon is released. This is actually more damaging to the climate than the clouds of smoke (which are bad for air quality).

 

Why do people burn peat?

As well as land management for grouse and sheep, peat is burnt to create firebreaks. A bit of a catch 22. But, summer wildfires are much more damaging than managed burning so they do need to be prevented.

Sadly, many managed fires become unmanaged wildfires so this needs to be done carefully.

 

What could be done instead of burning?

We’d love to see vegetation cutting to create firebreaks and to create new areas of heather growth rather than burning.

Part of the issue is that there is a misunderstanding over what grouse need.  It’s widely believed that if there is more heather on the peatlands then there will be more grouse. That is the case until you get to about 50% heather, beyond that it doesn't make any difference. Grouse also eat cotton grass and insects, both of which do well on wetter blanket bogs.

There is a huge project to restore Derbyshire’s peatlands called Moors for the Future. They are working hard to cover as much of the peatland with Sphagnum moss. The moss keeps the peat wet and therefore reduces the chances of wildfires. This is the way forward.