Call to ban peatland burning on grouse moors as burning season opens

RSPB press release (1 October 2020)

Mayors, councils, local communities, and RSPB unite in support of the call to urgently ban peatland burning on grouse moors.

The RSPB is today calling on Government to implement an immediate end to the burning of precious peatlands on moors managed for grouse shooting. The call, which comes on the first day of this year’s burning season, is being supported by city mayors, councils, and local communities. A ban is also supported by a wide range of environmental NGOs.

[Routine burning on a Yorkshire grouse moor. Photo by Ruth Tingay]

Beccy Speight, RSPB Chief Executive Officer, said:In a climate and ecological emergency, the continued burning of precious peatlands is simply not acceptable and undermines the UK Government’s legal obligations to restore nature. The Government has long promised to end the burning of peat, it has widespread public support, and the Secretary of State, George Eustice, now needs to make good on this pledge.

Healthy wet blanket peat bogs are home to peat-forming sphagnum mosses, cotton-grasses, and carnivorous plants, which support a diverse range of breeding birds, including breeding dunlin and golden plover. They are also a crucial carbon store. UK peatlands (in the uplands and lowlands) store an estimated 3,200 million tonnes (Mt) of carbon.

However, the RSPB says that one of the most significant pressures on these places is that they are routinely and deliberately burned, largely to support a single industry – grouse shooting.

Pat Thompson, RSPB Senior Policy Officer said:The burning is done to ensure grouse have reemergent young shoots of heather to eat season after season. This not only directly releases carbon into the atmosphere but degrades the remaining peat – making it poorer for wildlife, less able to slow the flow of water thus increasing flood risk and reducing water quality. All these effects are felt both immediately by communities downstream and by wider society in terms of increased carbon emissions and the cost of treating water.

England’s upland peatlands are also increasingly vulnerable to changes in climate, particularly pro-longed periods of drought which dry out the surface vegetation making them vulnerable to accidental fires in spring and summer.

Peatland in the English uplands can be legally burnt between 1 October – 15 April. Burning in the uplands is increasing with research finding a seven-fold increase in burning on peatland in
England from the 1940s to the present time with burning increasing at a rate of 11% per annum between 2001 to 2011 in Great Britain.

Dr Thompson added:To give an idea of the scale of this issue, grouse moors in the northern uplands extend to something in the region of 2226 square kilometers. Many of these grouse moors lie within Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas, a statutory designation that describes their huge importance for wildlife on a European level. The designation restricts a range of activities in these places, and so special consent must be obtained from Natural England in order to carry out burning.

Information from Natural England suggests there are over 400 consents to burn blanket bog on grouse moors in north England’s European protected areas, covering around 950 square kilometers of the deep peat soils this precious habitat depends on. This simply must stop.

Peat burning is also not welcome in many local communities, and the call for a ban has recently been echoed by Mayors, local councils and residents in the North of England:

Jamie Driscoll, Mayor of the North of Tyne Combined Authority, said:Burning upland peat habitats is a destructive process. It results in greenhouse gas emissions, brings flood risks, and is damaging to wildlife. I fully support the RSPB’s campaign calling on the government to implement an immediate end to this practice.

Andy Burnham, Mayor of Manchester, said:Upland fires in 2018 and more recently in the dry spring this year have created significant issues in upland areas of Greater Manchester – both from an environmental and public safety perspective. We are acutely aware of the environmental impact that upland fires, whatever their cause, can have on the environment.

Recent work by Natural England, which will inform Defra’s forthcoming national peat strategy, highlighted that the 2019 Winter Hill fire alone released c. 90,000 tonnes of Carbon equivalent (tCO2e)

Councillor Scott Patient, Lead – Climate Change and Resilience, Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council said:In Calderdale, we know that moorland fires have a broad range of ecological and public health impacts including degrading peatlands, releasing harmful gasses into the atmosphere and surrounding valleys, putting added pressure on our fire services (themselves stretched throughout the pandemic) and decreasing biodiversity whilst possibly contributing to flooding in communities downstream. We hope to see legislation introduced promptly to end the use of burning in the management of grouse moors. Beyond this, we will continue to work in strong strategic partnerships with small and larger landowners to further develop a complete and sustainable catchment plan to help best protect our residents and natural environment

Cllr Rob Walker, Colne Valley Ward Councillor, Kirklees Cabinet Portfolio: Environment and Culture, said:Whilst Kirklees Council do not own any moorland used for grouse shooting I am concerned about the damage done to biodiversity and the regeneration of healthy peat bogs by the practice of burning heather to promote the commercial rearing of grouse. I believe in working with land managers to promote more sustainable techniques that will enrich our countryside.

Dongria Kondh Co-ordinator, Treesponsibility, and Hebden Bridge resident said:The peatlands here on the moors above Hebden Bridge form part of the biggest carbon sinks in Britain, they are precious to our community, to wider society and for nature. They cannot be restored to full health while the burning continues. Reports that Environment Minister George Eustice is attempting to backtrack on his predecessor’s commitment to ban managed burning on peat bogs are deeply worrying. In January, this year the UK parliament’s Climate Change Committee called for an immediate cessation of rotational burning, and ignoring their report would seriously undermine the government’s credibility as hosts of the COP26 Climate conference next year. A ban needs to be implemented now.”


There’s also some interesting commentary from Mark Avery on this topic this morning (see here)

The temporary ban on muirburn in Scotland, implemented during the Coronavirus lockdown after Andy Wightman MSP drew the Scottish Parliament’s attention to the ongoing burning of grouse moors despite there being a respiratory virus pandemic (here) has now finished and grouse moor managers are now free to set the moors alight again.

13 thoughts on “Call to ban peatland burning on grouse moors as burning season opens”

  1. What is preventing the banning of this disgusting practice that causes so much harm…is it threats or brown envelopes ?

    1. Don’t know, but there are also Health implications with muirburn. As a large proportion of these are also near centres of population, it isn’t only flooding that is a problem. Many residents of the areas will have been miners or mill workers, and also have conditions such as Asthma, Bronchitis, pneumonia and even Lung cancer; none of which will be in any way improved by the smoke and carbon particles invading their homes.

      1. Gordon
        It was a stunning clear blue sky day in the Peak District yesterday with amazing visibility across Yorkshire and to Lincoln cathedral until someone started a controlled heather burn, this resulted in filtered sun across a whole valley running down into Sheffield and Chesterfield as the smoke settled over these densely populated areas where people are suffering from respiratory diseases not least Covid 19. This is a particular problem on cold frosty days in winter when the smoke from the fires settles out over the urban areas in late afternoon as the temperature drops. If you can smell smoke then you are breathing it.

  2. This is a great idea but if they cannot stop people killing raptors or any other living creature to maintain the number of Grouse for slaughter how are they going to stop the people from lighting fires ?
    All they have to do is start one and scarper PDQ .
    The only way to tackle this is going to be public pressure on Bloodthirsty Boris the prime minister who openly states the foxhunting ban was wrong and so it goes on.
    Money talks sadly so good luck with that one.

    1. Farmers were banned from stubble burning in 1993.

      So, given associated health risks, implications for flooding, water quality issues not to mention biodiversity barbecues why are the Government prevaricating over Muirburn (all compass points of the UK), rhetorical question ;)

  3. Eventually, if the pressures and expose’s continue, the owners of these Grouse Moors and their supporters, will be forced to offer a trade-off. They always do in these situations but the trick has always been to have the intended legislation structured in such a way that there are a multitude of holes in it for which differing interpretations can be taken which they can slip through. Another way is not to appoint anyone to check whether or not these rules or, in some cases, guidelines are being adhered too, usually citing costs as a barrier.
    The trade-offs which are offered are not sincere and are simply a new way of continuing to maintain the Status Quo as has been show repeatedly over the years.
    Once these new laws and guidelines reach the legislative stage this is where committees are weighted in a manner which ensures nothing too radical (or effective) passes and by this time it appears that all objectivity has been lost as one side is focused only on the financial aspects and continuing the Status Quo and basically ignores the accompanying science the research on which it stands.
    This is seen by many as the point where hegemonic power structures kick in which, by their nature, are out of sight and hard to particularise, but few deny their existence.
    Difficult indeed, more so when the democratic system, in general, has been under sustained attac k for a number of years.

  4. So where I wonder are the voices of the Tees Valley Combined Authority, Scarborough and Whitby , Rydale , East Cleveland and the MPs including the Chancellor whose Constituencies divide the North York Moors . Have they nothing to say ? So too , the National Park Authorities who preside over the extinction of habitats in clouds of carcinogenic particles which infiltrate the valleys and dwellings of those they represent .

  5. It is great that the RSPB and others are calling for a ban of burning on peatland. It’s a shame they’ve not defined peatland because that could mean various different things and is very subjective. RSPB burns on some of it’s own reserves including near and on peat. I’m not sure how this press release fits with that and wonder what people think about RSPB burning for conservation reasons on their reserves whilst calling for a ban on burning elsewhere?

  6. Why don’t you write all the facts, not just the one’s that you agree with , if the moor wasn’t managed it would become a white moor devoid of nesting waders like dunlin,curlew,sandpiper,golden plover,lapwing,snipe,to mention a few i am not a grouse shooter I am a bird watcher and wildlife enthusiast and I think the stopping of moor management would be detrimental to the whole bird ecosystem.

    1. Brian-
      You are right to a point. The countryside and moorland does need some form of management to ensure that the widest range of species of flora and fauna are able to flourish.

      However, the grouse moors are managed solely to produce a large number of grouse- numbers that would be unsustainable if other species were allowed to share that habitat.

      I spend a lot of time up on moors. There is a vast difference between a well managed moor and a moor where the focus has been solely to produce a high population density of grouse.

      Only this week it was noted that one large area of moor where a grouse shoot was about to take place, appeared devoid of all life- there was an eerie silence – no insects, no birds (even grouse numbers were scant), no evidence of small mammals- nothing – it was like being on the moon.

      The waders you mention are present on some grouse moors – not because there is a deliberate intention to help those species, but because they just happen to benefit from the intense removal of potential predator species in order to produce high numbers of grouse.
      But what I have also noticed is that many of these wader species are often congregated at the edges of the moor, where the habitat is slightly more diverse than the monoculture of burned heather patches and grit trays in the centre of the moor.
      (I wonder if anyone else has made similar observations??)

      Ask your self the question- “what more could be achieved if conservation was focused on proper conservation principles, and not simply to produce an abundance of game birds??”

      Don’t also forget the industrialisation and intensification of farming has driven many species of birds off land used for agriculture, so the only place we will now see these birds is when they try and eek out an existence on moorland margins.
      We have failed wildlife in so many ways- hence the currently talked about Extinction Crisis.

      If you delve into the RSPB or many of the other conservation NGO’s websites- there is wealth of proper scientifically researched information to back up the calls they are making about the how countryside and its ecosystems need to be properly managed to ensure the birds you enjoy watching are able to thrive.

    2. Hi, Sandpiper are found on streams so knock that spp. off the list; all the other species (broadly) require wetter areas with higher invertebrate spp within the heather moor and not monoculture heather although some benefit ie GP from recently burned patches and Lapwing on occasion from areas of short heather ; as the other respondent noted and RSPB and others have, predator control helps these ground nesting species which are susceptible particularly to corvid predation. This is acknowledged; these spp are in catastrophic decline IMO due to acid rain and climate change affecting invertebrate populations but this is untestable due to lack of back data but also due to intensification of in bye and nearly all upland pasture this past 30 years or so. This does not allow keepers to systematically destroy bird of prey populations which are broadly in inverse relationship to their distribution at a population level; you seem to condone this ; Why ?

  7. Swailing is masked as a benefit to the landscape, however it’s very destructive, only aiding a few plants and essentially one bird the skylark, essentially the practice destroys more plant species and bird habitats, than it benefits, it’s simply done to maintain a habitat for grouse shooting, so overweight conservatives can come along and utterly delude themselves that they’ve an ounce of masculinity by shooting a slow over fed pheasant or grouse, which have been shoed infront of their fat guns, at least we can take comfort in the fact that these arrogant rightwing bigots who practice this will end up
    with a gut full of lead, via there glutinous consuming of the game they kill, aiding their already low IQ’s, despite their plummy hubris…swailing must be abolished with immediate effect,…it’s barbaric and a huge scandal that the conservation groups of this godless land consider it a conservation technique…haven’t they heard of ‘baseline syndrome’…’s an old practice, but totally barbaric and scandalous!

  8. Here we go again – all noise and no action in the past . Time to act NOW esp as we understand tthe implications
    better as each year goes by. Ths MUST be made illgal, but how to do that on private land we have to have some
    very broad legislation imposed upon land-owners……..for the sake of global warming and preseervation of wild life, if nothing else. Perhaps we should consider our wild life when we grant planning permission for endless housing estates being built on agricultural land, at the expense of wild life from insects to foxes to pollen, and thus lining the pockets in £ millions to a few already over-wealthy construction companiy directors. This greed must be stopped!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: