Grouse moor owners threaten legal action as DEFRA prepares to ban burning of peat bogs

Well, well, well.

Remember all the hysteria and abuse directed at Wild Justice last year for taking legal action against the Government to protect wildlife? Well would you believe it, according to this article in the Guardian the grouse moor owners lobby group, the Moorland Association, was threatening to do exactly the same (although not to protect wildlife, but to protect their ‘right’ to set the moorlands ablaze to increase red grouse stocks for shooting).

A bit of background……..In 2017 DEFRA agreed to allow grouse moor owners in England a two-year period of grace for them to voluntarily stop burning heather on blanket bog or face a compulsory ban following mounting pressure from environmental campaigners and from the European Commission (see here).

Apparently more than 150 grouse moor owners signed up to a commitment to stop this burning after a private meeting with Michael Gove but it didn’t take long for evidence of alleged breaches to emerge (see here).

DEFRA had given the grouse moor owners until mid-2019 to comply with the voluntary ban and had committed to introduce legislation for a compulsory ban if the voluntary agreements weren’t working.

According to new documents released under a Freedom of Information request by Guy Shrubsole (Friends of the Earth and author of the excellent Who Owns England), DEFRA began to prepare legislation to enforce a compulsory ban last summer and that’s when the Moorland Association threatened legal action, as discussed in the Guardian.

For an amusing commentary on this have a look at Mark Avery’s blog from this morning (here).

For even more amusement, have a read of some of the FoI documents below (thanks, Guy Shrubsole, for sharing these):

Moorland Assoc letter to DEFRA1

DEFRA response to Moorland Assoc

Moorland Assoc letter to DEFRA2

The sense of entitlement laid bare in this correspondence is staggering, even after the grouse shooting industry has apparently failed to comply with the voluntary ban. Credit to DEFRA for holding its ground here. (Incidentally, we’ll be coming back to the issue of ineffective voluntary bans in light of today’s news that the shooting industry is planning a ‘voluntary ban’ on lead ammunition).

According to the Guardian article, DEFRA says it intends to ban the burning of heather on blanket bogs and will publish its plans shortly.

13 thoughts on “Grouse moor owners threaten legal action as DEFRA prepares to ban burning of peat bogs”

  1. In recent news I heard of the plan to ban the domestic burning of coal and damp firewood. This was because of concerns about dust pollution (PM<2.5, ISTR). Whether soot or ash, or both didn't feature.

    I wonder whether live heather might also fit into the damp firewood scenario.

    1. “I wonder whether live heather might also fit into the damp firewood scenario.”

      The burning of heather is certainly a major source of atmospheric particulates. It is also a major source of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and contributes to serious soil erosion and water pollution.

      Burning of heather also seriously degrades water retention and leads directly to greatly increased flooding in the surrounding valleys.

      Grouse moor owners’ land management practises therefore present major threats to the safety of everybody who lives nearby and are in direct opposition to the Government’s stated policies.

  2. They clearly have no regard for anyone else.

    What I think is very telling is that the MA could only offer the view that the voluntary ban had been adhered to “substantially”, ie not totally. Who didnt comply…..a few bad apples?

    DEFRA and NE should take note of this admitted shortfall in the ability of the the MA to deliver hard commitments.

  3. ‘The sense of entitlement laid bare in this correspondence is staggering ….’. this one line in your blog says it all. They realised that they’d been rumbled by Defra and didn’t like it. Good to see Defra standing up to them.

  4. All heather burning is a blight on rural communities and needs to be banned, it is not just burning on blanket bogs or deep peat that is the problem. Toxic smoke and pollution is routinely inflicted on rural populations; villages, schools, housing and businesses are all affected at times. In the Yorkshre Dales rural air pollution is not being monitored by either the national park or the district councils (who’s statutory responsibility it is) and no doubt the situation is similar elsewhere. As a result the problem with toxic air pollution from heather burning and it’s impact on public health goes unmonitored and unremarked. No public body seems to have any role, responsibility or oversight of the toxic air pollution, health impact and consequences of heather burning. In the northern Dales there has been no appreciable reduction of burning from the voluntary ‘ban’. Burning of deep peat or blanket bog is a serious environmental problem but ALL heather burning can present significant health risks to local populations. It is not acceptable for moorland owners to inflict toxic and harmful air pollution on their local communities.

  5. Is there any scientific evidence that burning heather actually enhances grouse numbers? I feel it might be yet another blast from the past, because in all my time tramping across heather moorland, one thing I have noticed is that for at least 2-3 years afterwards the burnt areas are virtually devoid of any grouse. This may be because the land has dual commercial purpose, sheep grazing and grouse shooting. The grouse hunters tend to burn relatively small areas, but the hill sheep farmers have a tendency to burn one or more vast areas. These vast areas, before burning, had a plentiful supply of meadow pipits and field voles (the latter having good spells and bad) whose habitat was destroyed by heather burning. Pipits and voles are the principal prey species for hen harriers. In my experience the devastation can cause bad feeling between the farmers and grouse shooters, but my main concern is the disappearance of the pipits, voles and other valuable flora and fauna, but from a personal interest the hen harriers! Unless the grouse benefit (only to be shot) several years later, I don’t really see the point in heather burning.

  6. Any statutory ban on burning is welcome but Defra are still only talking about a ban on Blanket bog (peat depth 40cm+). About half the Peak District moorlands are Blanket bog and the other half best described as Dry Heath which are still peat soil. 2019/2020 so far burning has continued on both Blanket bog and Dry Heath. Burning Dry Heath still emits carbon, increases flood risk and pollutes the air. The Government’s Climate Change Committee calls for all upland burning to be banned this year. And post Brexit Defra is starting to pilot Environmental Land Management schemes which will pay landowners to provide public goods and number one on the list I’ve seen is clean air and clean water. In light of all this how can Defra let any burning continue?

  7. Someone forgot to tell the GKs in Nidderdale about voluntarily stopping the burning of heather! They are their own worst enemies, thankfully.

  8. Last year in the area where live, I compared the grouse moors where heather burning had taken place with the RSPB raptor persecution map. There was a clear correlation between the moors where prolific heather burning had taken place and moors with a high count of incidents of raptor persecution recorded by the RSPB.
    There was also evidence that some of the burning wasn’t a “cool burn” but had gone into the under lying peat and destroyed valuable sphagnum moss. (Sphagnum moss is valuable for capturing carbon.)
    Even more concerning was that many of these moors had SSI status due the flora or fauna. I did share my observations with Natural England!

    Now for the interesting bit!!
    It is well known among law enforcement agencies that the criminals who commit the more serious offences and are repeat offenders, are also more likely to commit less serious offences such as breaking traffic legislation, or will engage in anti social behaviour.
    So could we be seeing a parallel here- where the estates which have ignored the voluntary ban on heather burning are also those estates which are more likely to engage in other illegal activity such as raptor persecution, or the use of banned poisons?

    It would also be interesting to know if a study has ever been conducted to evaluate the effect heather burning has on ground nesting birds, particularly Hen harriers.
    I understand that gamekeepers allege that burning the heather is necessary for the grouse, as the young shoots provide food, and the burned areas reduce cover for prey species such as stoats or foxes. But is there scientific evidence to support these claims?

    The other issue with heather burning, is that it exposes the peat underneath. The peat then suffers erosion, as it dries in the sun and is scoured by the wind. Loss of peat affects a moors capacity to hold water, and potentially could lead to increased run off after heavy rain, which in turn may lead to flooding. So heather burning not only causes pollution and annoyance from the smoke to local inhabitants, it releases carbon into the atmosphere and can also has a negative impact on the amount of carbon a moor can hold. If the UK is to meet its climate change targets then the moors have a vital role to play. Every reason for a permanent ban on heather burning?

    …and if it is found that keeping patches of heather low is vital for the success of ground nesting birds- then maybe gamekeepers could spend their time scything down the heather rather than roving over the moors armed with a shotgun looking for something to kill?? …I deliberately used the word the use of agricultural tractors and cutters is something we shouldn’t perhaps be seeing on moors with SSSI status where the the use of such equipment could destroy valuable plant species or the habitat of small ground mammals !!

  9. Watchdog’s investigation comes after Michael Gove, the environment secretary, was accused of letting the owners of large grouse moors off the hook over the practice of blanket burning! (Guardian Article)
    No surprise due to Tory landowners making substantial financial donations ..Xxxxxxx Gove hypocrite along with many others in .Gov establishments.Xxxxxxx Vested financial & social interests that many ministerial hypocrites
    also pursue..Xxxxxxx Gove exposed for his interests & beliefs in supporting landowners MA ‘Amanda’ & the rest within the shooting killing fraternity whom display no empathy for all forms of wildlife.

  10. It is not unfair to say that the blood sport fraternity break every voluntary restriction they enter into. This is for their high paid lawyers and spads to attempt to address the issue by two methods, legal and political.
    At worst they kick the issue into the long grass, and, at worst they pass “ghost legislation” which is rarely, if ever, effectively enforced due to the loopholes built into it. … think illegal raptor killing and persecution, hunting with dogs, Tayside beaver protections. This is what our landowning system gifts the few … a hegemonic power which corrupts every sinew of our local and national administrations and those who enforce them.

    1. “to attempt to address the issue by two methods, legal and political”

      Actually, they use three methods: they also seek to terrorise opponents by means of violence.

      “This is what our landowning system gifts the few…”

      It also protects their inheritance. By law, both the Royal Family and the owners of vast (shooting) estates – those considered to be of national importance – are exempted from paying Inheritance Tax on their value. That is the only way their land holdings are kept ‘in tact’ and thus prevented from being steadily broken up over the generations through the burdens of paying Inheritance Tax which apply to everybody else.

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