Cambridge University paper does NOT suggest that setting fire to grouse moors is good for the environment!

The grouse-shooting industry has a well-evidenced reputation for misrepresentation, whether that be of crime statistics, science, technology, opinion or policy, in fact anything it can distort in a desperate attempt to portray itself more favourably, it will do.

So it should come as no surprise whatsoever to learn that its latest warped presentation of reality relates to the misinterpretation of a new scientific paper from esteemed academics at the University of Cambridge, a paper which the grouse-shooting industry is claiming, falsely, supports the idiotic notion that repeatedly setting fire to peatland vegetation (muirburn) as part of a grouse moor management plan, is somehow good for tackling the climate emergency.

[The horrific sight of muirburn on a UK grouse moor. Photo copyright RPUK]

The paper was recently published in the eminent scientific journal Nature Geoscience. Unfortunately it sits behind a paywall but you can access the authors’ copy here and the abstract is shown below:

This is a review paper, technically demanding for the non-scientific reader, but the general conclusion is that in some environments (note, peatland was not the focus) fire can be an important tool for increasing carbon storage in soils in some circumstances.

Here’s how spin master general Tim (Kim) Baynes, Director of Moorland at landowners’ lobby group Scottish Land & Estates, misinterpreted the findings of this paper in an article he wrote for The Herald on 13th January:

The usual suspects in the grouse-shooting industry took this dreadful piece of propaganda and splashed it across social media, claiming vindication against the ‘antis’. The funniest line came from The Shooting Times who hilariously used this quote from Strathbraan gamekeeper Ronnie Kippen to ratify the Cambridge University research:

This rather blows a hole in the conservation charities’ lies about controlled muirburn“.

Actually, Ronnie, it does no such thing, as pointed out in this blog by Nick Kempe of ParksWatchScotland and in this blog by Dr David Douglas, Principal Conservation Scientist at the RSPB who says:

The paper is a literature review to understand whether fire-driven loss of carbon from soils through combustion, erosion and leaching could be offset by the ability of fire to stabilize carbon and keep it within the soil. The paper concludes that using fire to promote the stability of soil organic matter may be an important means for increasing carbon storage. But the paper focuses largely on savannah, grassland and forest biomes of little relevance to UK moorlands which are subject to burning. Indeed, the paper states that the way in which fire affects the stability of carbon in soils differs across ecosystems – in other words, the results are not automatically generalisable across ecosystems.

The enthusiasm with which the paper has been used by proponents of burning in the UK to justify its continued use on grouse moors is misguided because the review does not evaluate the framework in moorlands or peatlands more generally. In fact, the authors of the paper state that “in ecosystems with deep organic horizons, such as boreal forests and peatlands, the utility and feasibility of prescribed burning to manage SOM [soil organic matter] losses via greater stabilization is less clear“.

Despite these clear caveats, those who wish to burn vegetation in the UK uplands are using the findings of the paper, misleadingly, as evidence of the benefits of burning“.

For anyone who still thinks Tim (Kim) Baynes and/or Ronnie Kippen’s scientific analyses are convincing, it’s probably best to listen to two of the paper’s authors (Pellegrini & Malhotra) responding to a discussion on Twitter about the grouse-shooting industry’s misrepresentation of their work, as follows:

5 thoughts on “Cambridge University paper does NOT suggest that setting fire to grouse moors is good for the environment!”

  1. The driven grouse shooting industry constantly misconstrues the findings of research to suit its own ends. A classic example was Andrew Gilruth comparing controlled burns in Australia (which constrains completely different biomes) to burning peatlands in the UK for game shooting! They know full well that it’s scientifically illiterate, but they need to keep this sham going. The precautionary principle would dictate that you don’t burn areas which are sensitive to disturbance and can be re-wetted, especially when it’s to promote vegetation which is itself extremely flammable (Heather)!

  2. Clutching again at straws in the wind. Noted an interesting comment over the weekend in the Guardian Country Diary. Amy-Jane Beer, talking about the North York Moors remarked ‘It’s not a place I enjoy much by day – too scoured in the name of management… .

  3. I’m out of my comfort zone here, and I made little progress attempting to read the paper. Though I am grateful for having a copy available. I have the following question, perhaps the answer is in the paper.

    Is the carbon added by fire largely charcoal? There will be dead, cooked roots of course, but charred leaves and twigs seem the most likely major component. There may be few or no worms to include plant matter pulled down from the surface.

    Whereas in unburned areas soil organic matter is going to be mostly the normal cellulose- and lignin-based plant tissue. This will be available to soil microorganisms to feed on and may hold water (eg sphagnum), reducing the effects of summer droughts.

  4. So, if I am understanding and summarising this correctly?
    Some scientists from Cambridge have carried out some studies, and observed that burning in some circumstances might increase carbon storage in certain soils, but the study didn’t really analyse whether this happened on peat or bog associated with the typical habitat usually found on grouse moors?
    There are then other respected scientists, who from their studies conclude that fire and muirburn actually damages peat and the ecosystem associated with peat bog and reduces its ability to capture carbon.

    So unless I am mistaken, it would seem that reviewed as a whole, the evidence would suggest that fire and the burning of heather on the typical habitat found in UK uplands does more damage than good. In fact some scientists conclude that the burning of heather actually degrades peat as it is then exposed to the elements which cause it to dry, degrade and erode.

    But following this Cambridge report there are those in the shooting industry who are claiming the complete opposite? Which in my mind seems a bit of a perverse conclusion?

    I suppose this is a bit like the shooting industry’s claim that intensively managed land for shooting is marvellous for nature and the conservation of native British wildlife, when in fact this intensive management favours game birds at the expense of so much other wildlife.

    It would appear, that as Ruth rightly concludes, these latest claims by some in the shooting industry regarding the Cambridge study, just add more weight to belief that the shooting industry appears to frequently misinterpret the evidence, and as such any claims by the shooting industry should be properly scrutinised to establish fact from fiction.

    But it could be that the shooting industry deliberately misinterprets the science in order to order to bog down and stifle proper debate on their activities?
    What better way to do this than engross the public and the debate in the “Enid Blyton – Book of Science”, knowing that any decisions regarding the future of game shooting will be kicked firmly into the future, and in the meantime shooting will continue as normal!
    A very clever tactic, and one that appears to work very well!
    ( I think it must be a year now since the Scottish government announced its proposals regarding licensing of grouse shooting, and the setting up of working parties to work out the way forward. What is taking so long? Are these working parties still wandering around in the dark clutching their “Enid Blyton books”? )

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