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RSPB-led study reveals extent of upland burning in Scotland: Burning found in over half of conservation areas assessed

Last modified: 21 July 2015

Heather moor/fell above Old Water, Geltsdale RSPB reserve

Image: Andy Hay

A new study led by the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science has revealed the extent of moorland burning across Britain’s upland areas. Burning on moorlands, a mixture of bog and heath habitats, is widely used to increase the numbers of red grouse that are available for recreational shooting.

Burning was detected in 55 per cent of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and 63 per cent of Special Protection Areas (SPAs) assessed in the study, and significantly more burning took place within them than on comparable moorlands outside. These sites are designated under EU legislation for their conservation importance and in Scotland include important places for blanket bog and golden eagles. Governments are charged with protecting them from damage and ensuring that they are restored to the best condition. However, many SACs and SPAs are in unfavourable condition, with burning identified by governments and statutory agencies as a primary reason for this poor status. In Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) is reviewing the scientific evidence which underpins its policies towards upland management through their Scientific Advisory Committee, and this new research will make a valuable contribution to such reviews.

Dr David Douglas, Senior Conservation Scientist at RSPB Scotland and lead author of the study said: “Upland ecosystems are highly sensitive to burning practices. Knowing how much burning takes place and where is crucial to developing sustainable land management policies for these precious environments.”

This study, published in Biological Conservation, is the first time upland burning has been mapped in detail across mainland Britain. Using aerial photography and satellite images, 45,000 1-km squares were mapped across Scotland, England and Wales, and revealed that burning occurred across 8551 of these squares, including 5245 squares in Scotland. In the ten year period covered by the study from 2001 to 2011, the number of burns recorded increased rapidly by 11 per cent each year. Other studies have found that the potential number of red grouse shooting days in some areas of Britain has risen over a similar period, and moorland management has also intensified.

In Scotland and England, a third of burning took place on deep peat soils, an important carbon store. The UK has 10-15 per cent of the world’s blanket bog peatlands. Locking in 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon[1], upland deep peat is the largest carbon store in the UK[2]. Eighty per cent of the UK’s blanket bog is in Scotland[3] and of the 1-km squares assessed in Scotland for the study, 28 per cent of those with burning present were classified as overlying deep peat.

Upland areas are also a vital water source, supplying around 70 per cent of our drinking water[4]. Burning has been linked to poor water quality in these areas, requiring large sums of money to treat the water.

Duncan Orr-Ewing, Head of Species and Land Management at RSPB Scotland said: The Scottish Government is in the process of reviewing the Muirburn Code, its advice to landowners and farmers in connection with burning practice. As 28 per cent of the current moorland burning in Scotland overlies deep peat , and the Scottish Government has rightly set challenging targets to reduce climate change emissions, it is essential that new burning guidance provides clear direction to sporting interests and farmers as to where burning can be damaging to peatlands and may now be inappropriate.”

[1] The amount of carbon stored in the UK’s blanket bogs is detailed in the 2011 “IUCN UK Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands.”


[2] The size of the UK’s blanket bog as a carbon store is contain in the 2012 study “A GIS based MCE model for identifying water colour generation potential in UK upland drinking water supply catchments.”


[3] The amount of the UK’s blanket bog found in Scotland is detailed in the 2011 “IUCN UK Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands.”


[4] The amount of UK drinking water from upland areas is detailed in the 2001 study “Long term variation in water colour from Yorkshire catchments.”

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