DEFRA statement on grouse moor burning

DEFRA has published the following statement today:

England’s ‘national rainforests’ to be protected by new rules

Legislation will be brought forward to prevent the burning of heather and other vegetation on protected blanket bog habitats.

The government has today announced plans to bring forward legislation to prevent the burning of heather and other vegetation on protected blanket bog habitats.

The new regulations will prevent the burning of any specified vegetation on areas of deep peat (over 40cm depth) on a Site of Special Scientific Interest that is also a Special Area of Conservation or a Special Protection Area unless a licence has been granted or the land is steep or rocky.

‘Rotational’ burning is used as a management tool on moorland and blanket bog. Land managers use controlled burning on patches of heather during winter months typically on a 8-12 year rotation.

[Setting fire to a grouse moor. Photo by Ruth Tingay]

There is a consensus that burning of vegetation on blanket bog is damaging to peatland formation and habitat condition. It makes it more difficult or impossible to restore these habitats to their natural state and to restore their hydrology.

Restoring England’s peatlands is a priority for the government. It will help achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 as well as protecting our valuable habitats, and the biodiversity those habitats support.

Blanket bog, a type of peatland, is a delicate habitat of international importance, with the UK having 13% of the world’s blanket bog.

The government recognises that if moorland is unmanaged, there is a risk of wildfire which is most damaging of all and that these risks have grown due to climate change. Therefore, the government intends to work with land owners and managers to develop local wildfire control plans.

There will be specific circumstances where the ban does not apply, such as on steep land or where scree makes up half the land area. In addition, the Secretary of State may also issue licences for the burning of heather on blanket bog for the purposes of wildfire prevention, for a conservation purpose or where land is inaccessible to cutting or mowing machinery. These licences may cover several years so that they can be aligned with coherent management plans for sites.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said:

Our peatlands have great potential as a natural store of carbon, as well as protecting habitats, providing a haven for rare wildlife and being a natural provider of water regulation.

We want to work with land owners to restore the natural hydrology of many of these sites through our new agricultural policy to support our ambitions for the environment. The burning of heather on these sites makes it more difficult to restore their natural hydrology which is why we are taking this step today.

Natural England Chair Tony Juniper said:

This is a hugely welcome announcement which will see better protections for our globally important peatlands. Blanket bog is an amazing habitat that provides essential environmental benefits, including carbon storage, a home for wonderful wildlife, clean drinking water and flood mitigation. This is why it is vital we ensure these systems are healthy with peat-forming species, such as Sphagnum mosses, thriving in water-logged conditions.

We will continue to work with Defra and land managers to help with the successful implementation of these measures, including by providing advice on good upland management and leading a new peatland restoration grant scheme as part of the Nature for Climate programme.

This will provide funds to carry out restoration work on these precious ecosystems, ensuring their recovery and protection for the benefit of both present and future generations.

Today’s move marks a key step for meeting the Government’s nature and climate change mitigation and adaptation targets, and part of the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan commitment to bring 75% of SSSIs into favourable condition.

The Government will be setting out further measures to protect England’s peatlands this year as part of a package of measures to protect England’s landscapes and nature-based solutions. The government’s £640m Nature for Climate Fund also includes funding to kick-start a programme of peatland restoration over the next 5 years.

The statutory instrument will be laid before Parliament for its approval before it comes into force.

ENDS

This is definitely progress, but although it might look good superficially, as with any Government statement the content should not be taken at face value and deserves a great deal of scrutiny.

Some of the caveats in these proposed regulations require special attention, e.g. issuing a licence to burn on blanket bog ‘for the purposes of wildfire prevention‘ sounds particularly dodgy, as does, ‘These licences may cover several years so that they can be aligned with coherent management plans for sites‘.

UPDATE 29th January 2021: Calls intensify to end muirburn on Scottish grouse moors (here)

UPDATE 29th January 2021: Reaction from RSPB’s Martin Harper (here)

UPDATE 1st February 2021: Reaction from Mark Avery (here)

UPDATE 5th February 2021: Which English grouse moors will escape DEFRA’s so-called moorland ‘burning ban’? (here)

16 thoughts on “DEFRA statement on grouse moor burning”

  1. “…for a conservation purpose” has got dodgy written all over it, especially when one considers that the Tory Government is fond of telling us that a driven grouse moor (and the management of) IS conservation.

  2. “The government recognises that if moorland is unmanaged, there is a risk of wildfire which is most damaging of all and that these risks have grown due to climate change. Therefore, the government intends to work with land owners and managers to develop local wildfire control plans.”

    The wildfire card. How many wildfires are started by muirburn out of control? Young plantations are a serious wildfire risks but no-one suggests not planting trees. We need to re-wet the uplands rather than create firebreaks which will lead to a return of rotational burning i.e. business as usual. We need to stop burning the uplands for the benefit of a niche sport carried out by a privileged few.

  3. So that’s a measure of protection for SSSIs which are also SACs or SPAs. One wonders how much moorland might actually be covered right now, and if any more might be listed in its current degraded state.

      1. Thank you, RP. That was worth reading, twice. Next, I suppose will be questions about drainage, which I believe hinders peat development.

  4. What on earth are they on about with this: “There will be specific circumstances where the ban does not apply, such as on steep land or where scree makes up half the land area.”

      1. Perhaps, but in Scotland the 2017 version of ‘The Muirburn Code’ includes on p.7:

        • Fires burning uphill on steep slopes are more difficult to control.
        o Burning on a slope greater than 1 in 3 (18o) should only be carried out by experienced
        practitioners using appropriate techniques and equipment.
        o Slopes steeper than 1 in 2 (27o) should be avoided altogether.
        • Burning in gullies should be avoided; they can act like chimneys, drawing air upwards and
        increasing fire intensity. Gullies are also important for biodiversity.
        • Avoid burning into scree slopes to avoid damaging lichen and destabilising the scree.

  5. Firstly a quick comparison of satellite imagery to identify land where heather burning has taken place ( often an indication that land is used as a grouse moor ) and DEFRA’s map indicating land designated as SSSI’s within SAC’s, identifies a lot of grouse moors which will not be subject to these regulations.
    Some of those moors are also areas which feature in the RSPB interactive map identifying areas where raptor persecution incidents have been reported.
    So this announcement is hardly penalising estates suspected of criminal behaviour.

    Secondly, reading the government announcement, the wording would indicate that licences for heather burning will be permitted as follows – ” In addition, the Secretary of State may also issue licences for the burning of heather on blanket bog for the purposes of wildfire prevention, for a conservation purpose or where land is inaccessible to cutting or mowing machinery. ”

    What will be deemed conservation?
    What criteria will be used to decide if land is inaccessible to cutting or mowing machinery? Who will decide?

    So, it would appear this announcement will not end the practice of heather burning on moorland.

    What is perhaps also worrying is that those shooting estates which aren’t on land designated as SSSI’s within a SAC will still be permitted to burn heather, a process that is no doubt less expensive than cutting or mowing. This could give those estates an economic advantage over those estates which are on land which fall within the regulations.
    This hardly creates a “level playing field” for the shooting industry to operate in, and may serve as an incentive not to restore moorland habitat which hasn’t already been designated a SSSI or SAC due to its poor condition through drainage and other historic mismanagement.
    So rather than increasing and restoring areas of blanket bog across the entire upland areas, the regulations might serve only to protect what has already been designated as blanket bog within SSSI’s and SAC’s?
    Is this really what was envisaged?

    How will this lack of creating a level playing field also impact upon raptor persecution?
    If a shooting estate finds itself financially disadvantaged through increased moorland management costs, could it then be persuaded that in order to compensate for this disadvantage it needs to produce a higher density of grouse so that it can offer more shoot days or a greater bag in order to generate more revenue? Could this lead to an even greater intensive management of predators, including the illegal persecution of raptors?

    I am only speculating, and I am sure there will be those who disagree.

    But would it not have made more sense to identify all upland areas with the potential to be restored to blanket bog regardless of the current SSSI or SAC designation, and then applied the regulations to all those areas, so that there was better land management on all moors, and a net increase of blanket bog across the entire upland areas where peat and blanket bog should be a feature?

    Since areas designated SSSI’s or SAC’s are eligible for government subsidies, does this announcement of restrictions on heather burning on land designated as SSSI or SAC serve as a mechanism for “payment for public good”? Is the government by making this announcement, looking after its “friends”, by ensuring tax payers money will still be available to upland estates as we move from the current rural payments scheme?

    Should the government deny any form of tax payer subsidies to those estates which haven’t land designated as SSSI or are within a SAC, so that there is a financial incentive to land owners whose moors aren’t designated SSSI’s to bring those areas with the potential to be so designated back into condition?

    I was hopeful that the government policy on heather burning would be something that would enhance and restore all upland moorland regardless of its current designation, as well as serve as a deterrent to those inclined towards illegal activity. I am not sure this announcement does that??

    I am always skeptical about the governments real intentions when it comes to wildlife, too often “money” is
    operating behind the scenes and is the real motivating factor, so please tell me if you think I am wrong.

  6. These estates will already be getting their license applications to continue burning ,talk about bloody loopholes ,but then what did we expect with this Tory government.

  7. “unless a licence has been granted or the land is steep or rocky.” What a great let-out clause….. This is the usual apesh*t !

  8. Yup, no progress at all really .. just bluster where interpretation will simply underline “business as usual.” What makes me say htis? Historical precedent in so many ways and in so many areas.

  9. So, putting to one side the other limiting factors, who is going to determine whether an area has a depth of over 40cms of deep peat? Will this assessment form part of NE’s periodical review of the management of moorland sites and bring about the listing of areas which qualify so that burning can be monitored? I think that it is reasonable to assume that peat depths will vary considerably, so clearly some form of legal categorisation is essential to ensure that landowners don’t run rings round the new rules by citing shallower areas as their yardstick (sorry!) for the determination of areas which may be burned.

    I acknowledge that this is a complicated topic but I would have thought that peat of a depth of over 40cms would, at some stage in its development, have been peat of less than 40cms depth. How is peat of less than 40cms depth going to increase to peat of over 40 cms depth if vegetation on it is allowed to be burned off?

    Surely, in the interests of:

    – reducing global warming,
    – improving the water-retention qualities of our uplands,
    – reducing rapid run-off which causes flooding,
    – reducing air pollution,
    – improving water quality and
    – reducing costly water cleansing measures,

    it is high-time that burning was banned altogether.

    If management of moorland to produce new green shoots for grouse is so essential, it should be limited to those areas where the heather can be machine-cut – leaving other areas to naturalise. This would ensure a wider diversity of vegetation and maybe give reptiles, which might otherwise be roasted, an improved chance of survival.
    The same rule should be applied to the creation of fire-breaks.

    I fully agree with Alister above when he says ‘We need to stop burning the uplands for the benefit of a niche sport carried out by a privileged few’.

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