Time to Bring Moorland Burning to an End

Our peat bogs have often been referred to as the UKs equivalent to tropical rainforests such is their importance in locking up carbon. Yet, each year, between 1st October and 15th April they are burnt. Tim Birch tells us more.

It is a common practice for gamekeepers of grouse moors across Derbyshire’s Dark Peak to set light to the heather on the moorlands. Smoke billowing high, releasing carbon we’re working so hard to store and destroying vital habitats. It’s not just a problem for Derbyshire, sadly this practice is carried out across Northern England and Scotland each year. 

The main aim of burning is to encourage the development of new green heather shoots to feed red grouse which are then shot later in the year during the grouse shooting season. The moorland burning season extends from October 1 to 15 April. 

Moor burning

(C) Richard Walker - a grouse moor (Bamford) being set alight in the Peak District - photograph was taken from Stanage Edge.

The UK has a staggering 13% of the world’s blanket bog. We know that upland peat bogs provide a huge array of public benefits which includes: 

-Locking up carbon and thereby helping to address the climate crisis 

-Storing huge quantities of water in their natural waterlogged state and so helping to reduce the risk of flooding communities downstream 

-Helping purify drinking water as our uplands are a huge source of water for millions of people 

-Slowing the spread of wildfire in our uplands during intense dry weather periods which are predicted to increase with climate change 

-Providing homes for a staggering array of often very rare wildlife 

Our peat bogs have often been referred to as the UKs equivalent to tropical rainforests such is their importance in locking up carbon. What is astonishing is that according to Professor Richard Lindsay an internationally respected specialist in the ecology and conservation of peatland ecosystems from the University of East London “a peatland that is 10 metres deep can have 30 times the amount of carbon stored in the same area of tropical rainforest.” 

But didn’t the UK Government recently introduce legislation to ban moorland burning? 

Well yes they did but with so many loopholes in the legislation burning of our uplands is not going to be fully stopped any time soon. 

So what does the new legislation say about burning? 

Well on the positive side the Government has finally recognized that there are serious environmental concerns about the burning of moorlands and the new legislation that has come into force from May 1 makes it illegal to burn vegetation on blanket bogs. However it only applies to sites that have already got some form of protection such as a Site of Special Scientific Interest that is also a Special Area of Conservation or a Special Protection Area. 

And in addition this protection from burning only covers those blanket bogs that have over 40cm depth of peat. It does not apply to areas of upland heath which are defined as areas of moorland with less than 40 cm peat depth. This is deeply concerning as this accounts for approximately 31% of moorland within the Peak District.

https://www.peakdistrict.gov.uk/visiting/frequently-asked-questions/faqs-moorland-burning 

This cut off point of 40cm peat depth makes absolutely no scientific sense at all and is a political decision. If the Government has accepted the science that by burning heather this damages the formation of peatland which stores huge quantities of carbon in their natural waterlogged state then why allow burning on shallow peat depths which given time could become restored and thereby play a vital in storing even more carbon. 

What the Government has done is in effect legislate for a partial ban of burning on our uplands with an estimated 38% of blanket bog across the UK not protected from burning at all.

https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-questions/detail/2021-01-29/145891 

There are also a range of worrying exemptions which will allow grouse moor owners to continue burning on blanket bogs where the terrain does not allow heather to be mown and is too steep. 

Yet the Government’s Climate Change Committee recommended back in 2020 that the Government needed to ban “damaging practices such as rotational burning on peatland” as one of the ways to reach net zero emissions of carbon by 2050. 

https://www.theccc.org.uk/2020/01/23/major-shift-in-uk-land-use-needed-to-deliver-net-zero-emissions/ 

So come October 1 later this year we could still see our uplands on fire as private grouse moor owners across the Peak District exploit the loopholes in the recent Government legislation and carry on burning. 

The UK Government is hosting the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow this November. The climate crisis is deepening. Yet our uplands will continue to burn both in the Peak District and across the UK whilst this vital global conference is taking place. Boris Johnson only recently said to world leaders that it was time to get serious about climate change. So surely it is now time to get serious about stopping completely the burning of our uplands often within our precious National Parks such as the Peak District which hold such vital supplies of carbon if we want to protect our climate.