Calls to investigate possible illegal burning on Yorkshire grouse moor

Press release from RSPB (13th October 2021)

Outrage as peatlands burn ahead of UK hosting crucial climate talks

  • The RSPB calls on Defra and Natural England to urgently investigate possible illegal peatland burning on a grouse shooting estate in West Yorkshire.
  • The charity has also received other reports of burning over the weekend
  • The active burning of peatland is a major embarrassment in the run up to the UK hosting CoP26.

The RSPB has today called for Defra and Natural England to urgently investigate possible illegal peatland burning on open moorland on Walshaw Moor, a grouse shooting estate, near Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire. The RSPB is also receiving reports of burning from other places from Yorkshire to the Peak District.

[Walshaw Moor, photo by Sarah Hanson]

Recent changes to the law mean that burning without a licence on peatland greater than 40cm in protected areas is illegal. On Walshaw Moor the RSPB has long maintained concerns about how the estate is managed given its location within a legally protected nature site (A Special Protection Area under the UK Habitats Regulations). The charity raised this with the European Commission in 2012 and is still awaiting resolution.

Dr Pat Thompson, Senior Policy Officer from RSPB said, “It’s outrageous that in the run up to the UK hosting CoP26 in Glasgow we are watching our peatlands burn. These are the UK’s equivalent of the rainforests in terms of both their nature and their storage of carbon.

“Each burn on peatland destroys crucial vegetation and exposes the surface of the peat itself. This leads to erosion both as the carbon in the peat is released into the atmosphere or is carried off into our rivers causing pollution. This process also reduces the ability of the peatland to slow the flow of water, which further compounds the problem. It also leads to problems of flooding in local communities further downstream, which we have seen in recent years. We are passing a tipping point in these places, and this practice needs to stop.

”The Westminster Government understands this, as Defra stated last year, ‘burning makes it more difficult or impossible to restore these habitats to their natural state”.  This is why it introduced the new laws this year. And for this reason, we are calling on Defra and Natural England to act urgently.”

Peatlands are burned in the North of England to encourage vigorous growth of heather which grouse can feed on. The RSPB is calling for driven grouse shooting to be licenced in order to better control what it sees as a form of intensive and damaging land management.

Dr Thompson added; “The grouse shooting industry in many places is essentially unsustainable and needs to change. In November, the UK will host CoP26 and we really don’t want the embarrassment of our peatlands on fire while delegates around the world discuss ways in which we can reduce our impact on climate and nature.”

While welcoming the added protection, the RSPB wants this urgently extended to protect other peatlands on shallower soils from burning.

On Thursday this week [14 October] the RSPB is launching a major new campaign to raise awareness of peatland issues in the UK in the run up to CoP26.

Dr Olly Watts, Senior Climate Change Policy Officer at RSPB said, “Our peat is precious, we need to keep it wet and keep it in the ground. Globally it is under threat. Burning here in the UK is one problem, but there are many others, not least because peat is still dug for the horticultural industry. For this reason, we will be asking people to pledge to give up using peat and write to their local elected representative to ask Governments to urgently ban the sales of peat products. We can all do our bit”.

The RSPB has also recently launched a special “app” for people to report burning on peatlands. Visit here to find out more:


Reports of further burning on grouse moors across northern England, mostly in National Parks, were reported in the press yesterday via Unearthed, the investigative journalism arm of Greenpeace (see here).

Meanwhile, Wild Justice is taking a legal challenge against DEFRA’s approach on limiting burning of peatlands because the campaign group doesn’t believe DEFRA has gone anything like as far as it must. An application seeking permission for judicial review of this policy has been submitted to the court and a response is due any day.

To be kept informed of Wild Justice’s campaign, please sign up for the free newsletter HERE

15 thoughts on “Calls to investigate possible illegal burning on Yorkshire grouse moor”

  1. I drove through a grouse moor a few weeks ago. There was more diversity in the flora along the road verges than the managed areas of moor which could best be described as a heather monoculture. On a recent visit to a highland nature reserve, I encountered a Slow Worm – I was told there were Adders in the area too. I was left wondered how muirburn supported their part of the ecosystem, but of course it doesn’t!

  2. [Ed: Thanks for your comment, B james, but I can’t publish it in its current format as it’s libellous. I’d be happy to publish it if you can make it a more generalised comment (which I think is what you meant anyway) rather than accusations that read as though they’re directed at this particular grouse moor]

  3. When Yorkshire, and other northern peatland areas which are set afire near communities, suffer their high flooding, then the finger should be pointed to those who are responsible by damaging the peat which would help soak up a lot of the rainwaters. Maybe by their local MP, so that they are aware who is helping cause it, all in the name of huge profit.

    Then there are these comments (as shown on the Unearthed website) by a Defra spokesperson who states:

    “We have always been clear of the need to phase out rotational burning of protected blanket bog – which is why we have brought forward legislation to protect these vital habitats from harm whilst ensuring landowners and managers have the tools available to protect and restore them to their natural state.

    “This represents a crucial step in meeting the Government’s nature and climate change targets, including the legally binding commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions.

    However, we can only rise to the challenges of the climate crisis by working together. At COP26 we will bring countries together to encourage them to protect and restore ecosystems to help tackle the urgent threat of global climate change.”

    Why has rotational burning not be phased out much sooner if protection is so vital? A crucial step that needs quickening to get this damaging process stopped. And obviously it is down to the rest of the world to do something first before we do. We are going to be an embarrassment at COP26 with what we are allowing and then having the audacity to tell them to protect and restore. Such hypocrisy.

    It seems to me that they just don’t care.

  4. I hope DEFRA won’t dare to attempt a ‘Not in the public interest’ response here. CO2 release and climate change go against the interests of all of us, and they should be well-aware of that.

  5. I fully support the RSPB’s efforts to monitor this and will be using their app quite a bit I expect. But I had to laugh at Dr Thompson’s worry about embarrassment. I just don’t think anyone in this government has the decency to ever feel embarrassment. And I wonder how many of the delegates from government, civil service and business (London and elswhere) will be heading up for no good reason except for a few days jolly, and will be looking out of the window approvingly at the boys busy burning on the moors they shoot at.

  6. We’re up in Scotland for a couple of weeks and on a trip from Aylth to Pitlochry there were huge fires in the distance, probably Glen Quaich way. How can they have possibly checked an area so large as to ascertain the depth of peat?
    Still we can’t say much, in Lincolnshire we saw a large stubble field alight a couple of weeks ago.

    1. They’ll have already sussed out where to broddle around with their Defra approved measuring sticks so as to produce the desired outcome. Wouldn’t put it past them engineering locations where something hard was struck at less than the statutory depth of 40cms.

    2. Checked? Why should they check…they are above the law and beyond control. They are happy to see voles, adders,slow worms, amphibians and lizards burn alive as they dont think that they serve any purpose in their grouse farming.
      There are laws which protect all of these species from being killed but the Scottish Government and SNH are happy to turn a blind eye. They just shrug their shoulders and pretend it doesnt happen.

  7. Burning going on in the Yorkshire Dales today, near Grassington. Could smell the smoke from well over 2 miles away. Legal?

  8. Why dont we ban Bonfire night, November 5th, thousands of big fires, every year, wagon tyres, furniture, pallets, trees, and all the rest that people want rid of, you cant see the black smoke in the dark, very very bad practice.

    1. I agree, bonfire night is an excuse for all the farms around me to burn a year’s worth of farm waste – mostly plastics.

    2. “You can’t see the black smoke in the dark, very very bad practice”- would that be similar to not being able to see the illegal persecution of birds prey which happens in those dark corners of the countryside where game shooting often takes place, and where no one is ever prosecuted for the crimes which are taking place??????

      But perhaps we should ban Bonfire night, along with driven grouse shooting, the use of traps and snares, the burning of heather, and the release of millions of non native pheasants into the countryside each year.

      All very very bad practice!!!!!!!

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