The scale and extent of burning in our uplands

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

The scale and extent of burning in our uplands

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The publication of new RSPB research (here) outlining the extent of burning in Britain’s uplands reveals some very simple truths...

...burning on peat soils in grouse moors is extensive (see map below) and intensifying (c11% per annum over the past decade – see graph)

...much of this burning takes place on protected areas: 55% of Special Areas of Conservation and 63% of Special Protection Areas that were assessed

...the primary purpose of these sites in law is to achieve their conservation objectives including restoration of degraded peatlands  

...burning will prevent restoration

Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

What's more, as the Adaptation Sub-Committee (of the Climate Change Committee) pointed out a fortnight ago, 76,000 hectares or 27% of blanket bog have lost peat-forming vegetation due to regular burning.  The Committee’s report also highlighted that grouse shooting was the specified purpose for 145 out of 150 consents to burn blanket bog in SSSIs issued by Natural England since 1999: most of those supported by agri-environment funds. All of these consents are in SACs and/or SPAs. There is little doubt this is one of the primary reasons for the poor condition of our upland peat and wildlife is suffering because of it.

And Natural England's own evidence suggests that burning is also bad for carbon and bad for water quality.

So what to do?

It's pretty clear that the status quo is not an option.  Down south, Natural England and Defra have developed a blanket bog restoration strategy which will affect its review of those 150 burning consents.  It is no longer tolerable for the scale and extent of burning to continue on internationally important sites intended to conserve this globally important habitat.  In addition, the Defra led bid for European funding for peat restoration project needs to be prioritised.

I recognise, of course, that this presents challenges to the grouse shooting industry. Yet, I hope it is viewed as a challenge rather than an attack. I’m sure you can have grouse shooting without the damaging burning with which it is often associated.

This is an opportunity for the industry to take responsibility for the environmental damage that it is causing and deliver positive change.

This and other research highlights the extent and intensity of burning across some of our most special sites including internationally important sites. We urgently need to stop burning sensitive peatland habitats and to enable them to recover, so that the vital services they provide for society are protected for future generations.

I hope that this research acts as a turning point in the way that grouse moors are managed, and we’re able to look back on it as a major step towards the industry taking responsibility for its actions and delivering meaningful action to change them for the better.

Map showing extent of moorland burning within 1-km squares classified as deep peat (averaging ≥0.5m) in England and Scotland. Shown are only squares overlying deep peat and with burning present. Legend denotes the percentage areas of moorland burned per 1-km square. 

 Graph showing trend in the annual number of moorland burns recorded in Scotland, England and Wales, using MODIS satellite recording of thermal events.

 

 

 

Comments
  • Excellent blog Martin, which, besides the murdering of our wildlife, reveals the true environmental cost of the grouse shooting industry. All those, including this Government, that are concerned about our environment, (global warming especially and the killing of our hen harriers especially), must confront the grouse shooting industry with the fact that their current practices are simply just not acceptable.

    The oil and power companies (and many other industries) would not be allowed to operate if they did not meet their environmental regulations as they have the potential to serverely degrade our environment. The grouse shooting industry should be no different to any of these industries and should therefore be subject to similar proper controls as soon as possible. The grouse shooting industry needs to become used to the idea that meaningful environmental and wildlife protection regulations are necessary and the sooner they are applied the better.

    The Government needs to provide the lead in all of this, but will vested interests within it prevent it from doing so?  I fear they will despite the clear evidence that the industry is a very damaging one in so many respects.    

  • Indeed Martin, abstracts never tell the whole story. Somehow, without paying-to-read, I'll purloin a copy from one of the authors.

  • Steve, we'll see what we can do. Alas we cannot share in advance of publication date but are now in a position to so so. I'll chat to our editorial team.

    Rob, I think it would be worth reading the paper. I think you'll enjoy it. It's detailed and is open about pros and cons but does put a spotlight on growing intensity which is inconsistent with other environmental objectives.

  • This is an excellent piece of science, Martin. It's a shame its results couldn't have been show-cased in the latest edition of the RSPB magazine, along with mention of Hen Harrier Day, perhaps?

  • Martin, whole heartedly agree poor practice heather burning must be curbed but beware the chart! In Wales, more good quality burning has occurred in line with works to bring heather moorland back into good condition. We must provide nuance between a hot burn (bad) where the fire gets into the lower vegetation (and worst scenario, peat) and a cool burn (good) where only the old woody tall heather is burnt off.

    The public funded Nature Fund has provided for some burning in the Black Mountains which I've walked over today to find new heather growth - along with bumblebees - along with fresh bilberry growth.

    One other matter cannot be ignored - the risk of wildfire can only increase with hotter summers and well structured moorland (and grass) burning helps ensure that huge damaging wildfires are minimised www.beacons-npa.gov.uk/.../controlled-burning-to-protect-against-wildfires

    Let's not throw all the coals out with the fire...

    best  

  • This is  a battle between shooting and conservation at the moment but I'd question whether we aren't heading towards a complete new ball game in the uplands where carbon becomes the dominant rationale for land use. Virtually every activity is heavily subsidised - the figures for grouse show a Government/CAP subsidy pretty much equal to the total turnover of grouse estates - which means switching objectives from the 19th century to the 21st century could actually save money.