Horror for wildlife on a burnt Scottish grouse moor

The environmentally damaging consequences of setting fire to upland heather moorlands as part of the routine ‘management’ for grouse shooting are well documented, with some of these fires leading to increased carbon emissions, increased flood risk, increased air pollution and threats to other ecosystem services.

With the intensification of grouse moor management in some areas of Scotland comes an increase in the extent and intensity of rotational heather burning. These fires have even been lit on areas of deep peat (forbidden by the voluntary Muirburn Code, which many land managers seem to simply ignore) causing damage to protected blanket bog habitat – in fact 40% of the area of land burned for grouse moor management in Scotland is on deep peat (see here).

In November 2020, in response to the Werritty Review on grouse moor management, then Environment Minister Mairi Gougeon announced there would be a statutory ban on burning on peatland except under licence for strictly limited purposes such as habitat restoration. She also said that the Government would revisit the definition of ‘peatland’ and consider whether a tighter and stricter definition was required.

This was an excellent result and we are now all waiting to see the election results in May in the hope that the new Scottish Government can get on with these and other commitments it made, notably the introduction of a licensing scheme for grouse shooting.

Meanwhile, the horror of grouse moor burning continues apace. These photographs were taken four days ago on a grouse shooting estate in the Angus Glens on 1st April 2021.

I would encourage Scottish readers to send a copy of the photo of the lizard with its singed tail and the photo of the devastated moorland habitat to your local political candidate and ask them whether they support this kind of environmental Armageddon.

29 thoughts on “Horror for wildlife on a burnt Scottish grouse moor”

  1. Wheatears, Skylarks, Curlews and Meadow Pipits are beginning to breed. Wait for the shooter supporter to pop up telling us how magnificent the uplands are for wildlife.

  2. In conducting a controlled ‘cool burn’ of a lizards tail, upland land managers (us ‘lokel-yocals’ who don’t fancy a proper job) are actually encouraging the healthy re-growth of said tail, for the benefit of the lizard. You see, without this vital conservation work it’s tail would grow long and rank and pose a risk of spontaneous combustion to itself with an inherant associated wild-fire risk. Do you Anti’s not ken anything at all about the wee beasties that live in the countryside? (although tbh I don’t know much about them myself…)

    1. As someone who grew up in the country, and in the past has eaten what he has shot (rabbits mostly) and is quite comfortable with the idea of putting food on the table, could you talk us through how muirburn actually enhances biodiversity, whilst obliterating all wee beasties ; insects, reptiles, smaller mammals, as well as existing plant life etc? I am struggling to figure how this ranks as conservation – could you enlighten us please?

      Clearly all of this upland wild life coped on the moors of the UK for millennia before the Victorians discovered muirburn, and other “conservation” strategies (bog draining, predator annihilation, mountain hare culls) increased grouse populations. I rather suspect other wildlife populations would be fluctuating quite naturally without gamekeepers’ interventions. When you talk of vital conservation work, really you mean grouse faming; nothing more nothing less.

      Be honest, muirburn is for one purpose – to grow as much heather as possible, to feed as many grouse as possible that are encourage to breed in un-naturally high numbers. It creates playing fields of heather of heather for the privileged few to enjoy their sport.

    2. I assume the burning risks the loss of essential minerals, K in particular, if rain falls on the fresh ash. For there would be little clay in most upland soils to hold on to it. And much of the N would have gone up in the smoke.

      With their interest in Conservation, I wonder whether perhaps the BASC might look into it.

      1. Then there are symbiotic* fungi to consider. Do they survive the burning?

        *They co-operate with the plant roots, trading minerals for carbs, so in thin, poor, acid soils are going to be significant to plants.

  3. It’s not just the tip of its tail but the tip of an iceberg. Lizards can move fast, unlike many amphibians and insects.
    If I lived in Scotland I would want a very firm commitment from my MSP to do all in their power to promote the cessation of this Victorian cruelty and complete mismanagement. And I would also be watching how they vote very closely.
    Since we love Scotland so much, I’ll be hoping that many more greens get in.

    1. Hello Paul,

      I live in Scotland and am a member of the Scottish Greens, great result for hares from Alison Johnstone from last year. Last week we found an Adder, Common Lizard and dozens of Common Toads on moorland near Strathspey, lucky for them the land was all owned by the Hoch Polvsen family and managed by the “Wildland” group. Amphibians and reptiles and raptors all benefit from this land management approach and their estates deserve our appreciation.

  4. This is just heartbreaking…..why are these primitive and cruel people still being allowed to carry on their despicable practices. In the 21st century FFS. What is so special about them one wonders. ?

  5. Over the years I’ve found cooked Lizards, not often they are usually burnt to a crisp, cooked and burnt Adders, Frogs/Toads, a Slow Worm, Mallard nests, once a Teal nest, early Golden Plover nests and the odd early grouse nest along with countless scorched a dead pupae of Emperor and Northern Eggar moths. A head keeper I used to know ( no longer with us) used to stop burning on the entire estate when they burnt over the fist Mallard nest, some I think didn’t. I’ve also known and known of keepers who deliberately burnt where Harriers or SEOs were displaying and another who used to burn close to a Peregrine site when it was occupied. Another once burnt two whole cliff faces when Peregrines were prospecting. That is in addition to all the deaths of Amphibians, reptiles, insects, small mammals and birds nests or chosen sites lost in the ecological carnage that id routine burning. The cool burn is often a myth and even so burning is still destructive of plants and mosses, many plants that are noted on moorland of plant atlases of the Victorian period have been eliminated by burning. The whole thing is an ecological disaster however the proponents dress it and now we also have climate change to consider. It should be banned in all but very exceptional cases and our moorlands rewetted and/or rewilded.

    1. And I’ve found the remnants of rabbit warrens and the holes for other smaller rodents and mammals. Even if they escaped, the protective plant cover around them has been destroyed leaving them completely exposed.

  6. The act of deliberately burning a lizard is criminal, there is no other word for it.

    The keepers know these animals are highly likely to be present. There is no reasonable excuse. It is not possible for SNH to issue a licence to allow lizzards or adders to be burnt alive. SNH knows it happens, they can not condone it so they ammended the sham Muirburn code to try and avoid this by including advice that every area to be burnt must be checked for any signs of life before the fire is lit. If they wanted to prevent the live burning of voles, lizzards, adders and early bird nests they would have to ban muirburn.

    This is advisory, just like the rest of the code, is never followed. The gamekeepers know this protected wildlife is present but they dont care. They never check.

    The level of disregard for protected wildlife can be witnessed in this SGA video classic:-

    (Skip to 2min10secs to minimise the tosh.)

    “If you look into this longer heather, Theres nothing lives in there, theres nae insect or anything really living in there that anything wants, You’ll very seldom see any creatures living in here. You’ll maybe see an odd lizzard or an adder or something like that. So we burn that.”

  7. I have every confidence that the next Scottish Government that is formed will put all it’s strength into preserving the status quo.

  8. So on and on it goes, except that this year it has appeared to be worse than ever. I’ve been unable to think of any other form of public nuisance which has been permitted to go on, unhindered, for so long – especially one which is potentially injurious to health and contrary to the messages and warnings received regarding climate change and global warming. This lot are, quite simply, taking the piss. I hope that overseas delegates attending COP26 later in the year will have noted what has been going on and will raise the matter for debate.

    It is claimed that cutting by machine is not as effective due to rough ground causing accessibility issues. Simple answer – if you can’t cut it, leave it. I don’t believe the tosh in the video regarding there being nothing living underneath the ranker growths of heather. Scope here for a detailed study.

    To paraphrase the question asked elsewhere, however did Mother Nature manage to provide food for Red Grouse before moorland managers arrived on the scene with their tinder boxes?

    1. Older heather is supposed to be good for some lichen species, plus juniper has 70 plus associated insect species, but it’s fire intolerant so it’s a total goner as far as grouse moors are concerned. If 95% of black grouse populations are found on the edges of grouse moors doesn’t that indicate ‘management’ for grouse shooting literally drives them to the margins as their core habitat is wrecked to benefit another grouse species? If black grouse can’t exist without predator control isn’t that an artefact of them being reduced to unviable, unnaturally low populations thanks to shooting for red grouse? As you say how did the red grouse manage before muir burn, clearly a lot of wildlife can’t survive with it.

    1. You are right…they have a phenominal ammount of heather and an astonnishing amount of red grouse- a genuine huge amount.

      But…thats not biodiversity.

      Away and read a book, come back when you have learned some of the basics.

    2. There isn’t a huge amount of wildlife, so your comment is ridiculous. It’s the opposite; many species are either completely wiped out from those areas (stoats, weasels, foxes, raptors and many more) or don’t have the habitat to begin with due to rotational burning; e.g. Juniper is extremely good for for invertebrates and provides cover for mammals but is regularly wiped out by muirburn.

    3. Well Martin, that’s quite an assertion. Can you point me to some peer reviewed research to this back up?

  9. Years ago I remember being out on a walk in the moors in quite a remote area when I meet an elderly lady walking in the opposite direction. We stopped to pass pleasantries and the conversation moved onto the countryside. It transpired she had been an adviser on environmental matters. She told me she had been instrumental in putting in place the environmental protection on the moors in upper Teesdale as part of the planning process for the various reservoirs built in that area during the 1960’s. I will never forget her explanation of the area under the heather as a micro- climate- which supported all manner of life which would not be able to survive in the hostile upland areas without the protection of the canopy of the heather.
    I haven’t forgotten, how she explained how over grazing by sheep and the destruction of mature heather was leading to a decline in some vary rare species.
    She would no doubt have despaired with the current moor management and heather burning program simply to enhance grouse numbers.
    It’s one of those encounters and conversations I have never forgotten.
    When I hear all the claims about how heather burning enhances wildlife, I always think back to that conversation.
    Who is right? – someone whose only concept of conservation is producing an artificially dense population of grouse for a fee paying clientele?
    Or someone who clearly understood the environment right down to the concept of micro climates under the heather?
    I know who I believe!!

    1. Me too. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean that it’s not there. It is by no means unusual to find Wrens in rank heather habitat. They wouldn’t be there if there was no food for them.

    2. Gamekeepers and estate owners hate scrub because it doesn’t factor in to their business model of ensuring there as many game birds to shoot as possible; the fact that scrub in its various forms, from gorse to bramble, provides habitat and food for a whole host of wildlife doesn’t even cross their minds and it’s one of the many reasons why their whole notion of ‘guardianship’ is a complete sham.

      1. Scrub is a word like bog it somehow has a harsh ring about it, and unpleasant connotations if you don’t have any background knowledge. This is really bad, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard hill farmers or gamekeepers state without their efforts the uplands would be ‘invaded’ by scrub, which of course we must keep supporting. Ironically it’s a totally different situation with hedgerows which are only scrub in a continuous linear form and somehow appreciated for their wildlife value then, but not when randomly distributed in a field or on a hillside. A few patches of scrub here and there would add massively to the biodiversity on a moor, the current supposed habitat mosaic of old and young heather is pathetic.

  10. As I recall muirburn was temporarily banned last year because of the Covid crises. Given that we have been in lockdown since the beginning of the year and are presumably still in the Covid crisis does that ban not still apply? Maybe it was a voluntary ban (I can’t remember) and we all know these are a waste of time. Can anyone clear this up.

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