Moorland burning ‘biggest threat’ to England’s most important places for wildlife

Press release from RSPB (8th December 2020)

New analysis shows that burning of moorlands is the biggest threat to England’s most important places for wildlife

  • New analysis of Government data by the RSPB shows that the burning of moorlands is the biggest identified threat to England’s Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).
  • The analysis also shows that no reason has been identified for half of England’s SSSIs that are in poor condition.
  • These findings have been hidden in the data published by Natural England, which is only based on a small subset of the SSSIs that are in poor condition.

A new analysis of Government data by the RSPB shows that the burning of moorlands is the biggest identified threat to England’s most important places for wildlife, known as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).

[Grouse moor managers set their moors alight every year, like this one in northern England, at huge environmental cost. Photo by Ruth Tingay]

The other major finding in the analysis is that Natural England has not identified any reason for half of all the English SSSIs that are in poor condition. This means that we do not know why 316,167 hectares of England’s SSSIs are in poor condition, an area roughly the size of Gloucestershire.

Without this information, it will be impossible for Government and Natural England to put in place the actions needed to achieve the target to restore 75% of SSSIs to good condition.

Whilst burning is the largest known cause of SSSIs in poor condition, the analysis also identifies overgrazing and water pollution (especially from agriculture) as being important contributors to the parlous state of these sites.

Moorlands are burned to create habitat for grouse for shooting and also to make them more productive for grazing. This causes long-lasting damage to highly sensitive peatland habitats and the loss of threatened species. It also results in the release of carbon to the atmosphere (adding to climate change), reduces the quality of drinking water (increasing water bills), increases water run-off (exacerbating the risk of flooding) and adds to air pollution.

Natural England publishes the reasons why SSSIs are in poor condition on their website. However, this data is incomplete and misleading. 61% of SSSIs in England are in poor condition. Natural England’s published data only includes the reasons for the poor condition of 8% of SSSIs. It excludes the reasons why 53% of sites are in poor condition because Natural England considers that these are ‘recovering’.

The RSPB’s head of site policy, Kate Jennings said “Many of these ‘recovering’ sites are not recovering at all. Natural England put many SSSIs into this category a decade ago because it assumed that entering into a plan or agreement with the landowner would automatically lead to the restoration of the site, without considering whether the plan was being funded, implemented or proving effective.

A decade on, the evidence clearly shows that this was a mistake. The little SSSI monitoring that Natural England has carried out in recent years shows that ‘unfavourable recovering’ sites are being downgraded to ‘unfavourable no-change’ or ‘unfavourable declining’. This is despite large amounts of public money being spent on agreements which were never going to drive recovery, including some which allow moorland burning to continue and so perpetuate damage to these precious places.

SSSIs are the best remaining places for England’s wildlife. Studies show that without SSSIs our wildlife would have suffered much worse over the past 50 years. They only cover 6% of England but, if restored, these sites can drive nature’s recovery, contributing to the 30% of land the Government has pledged for nature.

Alongside their role conserving wildlife, protected sites deliver benefits to society of around £1 billion, 9 times the amount of public money spent on them. This includes improving water and air quality, reducing flood risk and storing carbon. They also offer us all a place to access nature, benefiting our mental and physical health.

Natural England’s budget has been slashed by around two thirds over the last decade. As a result, spending on SSSI monitoring fell from nearly £2 million at the start of the decade to £700,000 in 2019 and more than 70% of SSSIs have not been monitored in the last 6 years.

Kate Jennings concludes, “A ban on peatland burning would be a ‘quick win’ in helping to achieve the Government’s target to restore 75% of SSSIs to favourable condition by 2042 (see Note 3), and is also an essential step towards tackling the climate crisis. This is a critical next step in protecting and restoring our internationally important upland peatlands. The Government has repeatedly promised a ban but has not yet done so.

It is also essential that SSSIs are regularly monitored, so that we know what state they are in, what is causing damage to their wildlife and what actions need to be taken. Without this, achieving the Government’s target will be impossible.”.

Case Study – Bowes Moor SSSI, Durham

Bowes Moor SSSI is an extensive tract of moorland in south-west Durham. It has been given international protection for its fragile peatland habitats and diverse moorland bird communities, which include some of our rarest birds of prey – merlin and short-eared owl.

In a 2011 report Natural England used Bowes Moor SSSI as an example of a site that was on track to being fully restored. Almost 10 years on, Natural England’s data now shows that its condition has deteriorated. Parts of the site have been downgraded from ‘unfavourable recovering’ to ‘unfavourable no-change’ due to grouse moor management. The reasons state “Vehicle access damage was evident on the wetter areas of bog, related to the positions of the grit stations and traps (for grouse). Burning has also occurred in the sensitive no burn areas, across a watercourse and on blanket bog where there is an almost continuous cover of sphagnum with frequent bog pools”. This has led to “the exposure of bare peat in places”, resulting in irreversible damage to the habitat and locked up carbon being lost to the atmosphere.


12 thoughts on “Moorland burning ‘biggest threat’ to England’s most important places for wildlife”

  1. What is wrong with this government that they can ignore such compelling evidence?!
    It is time to acknowledge and act in light of the overwhelming evidence.

  2. It’s an incredibly sad day when a person understands that one of the biggest obstancles to protecting and developing our environment and ecology are Governmental Organdsations charged with protecting it. It appears that so top heavy are our Governing systems with field “sport” sympathisers that seem to think it is their right to recalibrate and refuse to enforce laws they do not agree with and which hampers their “sport.” It all began with Thatcher whose diktats changed how these bodies functioned as they began to identify and pursue clandestinely the goals of “sportsmen” and large land owners above the health of the land and all in it. The names — NatureScot and Natural England — give an impression that appears designed to leave no doubt as to what interests they prioritise. For me, that is now very doubtful due to their current direction and lack of action in maintaining a very vulnerable resource.

    1. ‘It all began with Thatcher whose diktats changed how these bodies functioned as they began to identify and pursue clandestinely the goals of “sportsmen” and large land owners above the health of the land and all in it.”

      I do not think it did. It was the Blair Government which forced English Nature to incorporate into its guiding principles the primacy of economic progress: “Regulators should recognise that a key element of their activity will be to allow, or even encourage, economic progress and only to intervene when there is a clear case for protection.” – Reducing administrative burdens, Philip Hampton, March 2005, adopted by the Labour Government.

  3. Based on this RSPB analysis.
    This raises the following questions-

    “How many of the landowners managing these SSSI which are in poor condition, are in receipt of public money through the various stewardship schemes, and what is cost of these schemes to the taxpayer?”

    ” What accountability is there to ensure that any public funding is being spent effectively to improve the condition of the SSSI’s?”

    “What scrutiny is taking place to ensure that each SSSI has realistic targets in relation to the improvement of its condition, and what mechanism is there to withdraw public funding if it becomes clear that these targets are not being reached due to poor land management?”

    ” If there is no effective monitoring, has the stewardship scheme degenerated into a cash cow for landowners who are in receipt of public funding, but are then failing to deliver any tangible benefits?”

    Taxpayers should feel very angry if public money is not being spent effectively.

  4. This is why the government’s talk of ‘leading the fight against climate change’ is a complete farce, because they’re perfectly content for our largest carbon stores to go up in smoke every year, purely to satisfy the desires of landed interests and large scale commercial game shooting. I’ll also add that there has been some absolutely disgraceful behaviour by certain elements of the scientific community, who have clear conflicts of interest in regards to who funds their work and the terms of reference they’re operating under (cherry picking any ‘positives’ of moorland burning and ignoring/playing down the objective downsides). Other scientists and ecologists have quite rightly exposed this, too.

    Moorland burning has completely decimated large areas of our uplands, where scrub and wet woodland would otherwise thrive alongside blanket bog, heather and other upland vegetation. Shooting organisations know this, but they also realise that a healthy, biodiverse landscape, that both sequesters carbon and reduces the effects of flooding, is completely at odds with their desire to produce huge densities of red grouse to be shot.

  5. I like your image of the rule breaking in action. Did you report this estate for failure to adhere to the muirburn code?

    This just typifies the attitude that “rules dont apply us”!

  6. Notice the tractor in the picture? Well it has already cut around an area to burn! So it could actually complete the job and cut the lot!! This would then meet the needs of the SSSI and actually produce more Red Grouse and other wildlife!

    1. The tractor would not be able to cut these areas. Look closely, thin soils, screes/boulders. It would break the flail. Burning these habitats is a clear breach of the code. Hopefully the the requirement for a licence to burn will require a plan.
      The plan should require a survey to establish the extent of the burnable land… This should scope out peatland, screes, flushes, burns ides, steep slopes, summit heath, scrub, juniper, woodland etc. The area that could be legally burnt will be dramatically reduced.

      The government might still have access to the setinell satellite which gives very regular high resolution photographic coverage. This data would allow rapid automated checking for muirburn. The satellite data could be checked against the base line survey. And any inappropriate burning could be flagged for inspection. It would be as impactful as sat tag’s.

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