Investigation reveals widespread burning on grouse moors despite government ban for protected peatlands

Yesterday, the investigatory branch of Greenpeace, Unearthed, published the findings of its research into the extent of burning on English grouse moors after the Westminster Government introduced new rules to protect blanket bog.

[Grouse moor burning in the North Pennines AONB, photo by Steve Morgan]

Here’s a summary of the findings:

  • The investigation identified 251 peatland burning incidents – instances of at least one fire – between 1 October 2021 and 15 April 2022, the first burning season since the new legislation was introduced. Burns took place on moors owned by rich landowners ranging from the Queen and the emir of Dubai to software millionaires and retail tycoons. 
  • One in five of these burns (51 out of 251) was on land protected by multiple conservation designations,  and which Natural England’s latest available map identifies as deep peat. Unearthed understands that no licenses were issued for burning on deep peat during the past season, so all of these instances warrant investigation as potential breaches of the ban. 
  • However, while Natural England’s database is the best official data available, it is based on modelling and does not conclusively prove the presence of deep peat. So Unearthed carried out spot checks on three moors where the map indicated potential breaches of the ban: while tests on the Emir of Dubai’s Bollihope estate found that all burning was in fact on shallow peat – and therefore legal – we found that the fire above Grimwith reservoir, on land known as Appletreewick moor, was on deep peat. Tests carried out by the BBC at Bowes moor in the Yorkshire Dales also identified burning on deep peat. Unearthed sent registered letters to the owner of the land at Appletreewick moor, and the owner of the land at Bowes moor for comment, but neither responded. 
  • More than 40 of the burning incidents identified in Unearthed’s analysis were on land mapped as blanket bog by Natural England’s data – the habitat the government says the legislation is most designed to protect. The fire at Appletreewick moor was one of them. 

Unearthed has shared details of all the potentially illegal burns it identified with Natural England’s enforcement team; the regulator is reviewing the evidence and identifying potential sites to investigate.

For the full story, this article on Unearthed‘s website is well worth a read. The BBC was also involved in the follow-up to ground-truth some sites to determine peat depth and has published an article here.

If you’re one of those who contributed data to the RSPB’s call for sightings of upland burning in recent months, well done, you have made a difference.

13 thoughts on “Investigation reveals widespread burning on grouse moors despite government ban for protected peatlands”

  1. Par for the course it would appear. When Grouse Moor owners find any new laws or rules cumbersome they simply don their medival garb and ignore them.
    This is why anything less than legislation with built in policing and accountability is largely cosmetic.
    Co-operate with them at your peril.

  2. We have recently come back from Scotland and earlier in the year we were in Nidderdale. In both areas we saw and recorded recent burns on what appeared to be deep peat. But what really struck us was how much burning had taken place right next to main foot or bridle paths.
    Maybe it was just coincidence but we both remarked that it seemed that landowners were sticking two fingers up. Certainly nobody is trying to hide it.

    1. Yes, Nidderdale can be bad. I remember one day seeing several burns from my house and went on a drive around the Dale to get a better look and I was gobsmacked because, from Middlesmoor down to Ilkley, there were burns all over the area. It looked like a war zone. I am not exaggerating!

    2. Yes indeed. Some estates have also tried to claim that it’s disturbance from ramblers that’s responsible for ‘disappearing’ hen harriers. What a disgusting bunch.

  3. The owners of driven grouse moors do not give a damn about the laws of the country, and never will until they are forced to.

  4. Please can I say that in the area where I live I have noticed that there has been much less burning this season than previous ones as the keepers have started cutting. This is because of what has been asked of them. I don’t know where this area would be if it was left to nature as the sounds of birdsong at the moment and all the chicks on the ground is unbelievable. Where would the waders that nest on the open cut/burnt areas go If this was to cease?
    My personal opinion is that if there is science as there is with blanket bog that burning is harmful then fine do something about it and to be fair to the keepers they have but as for burning on shallow peat leave well alone for the species it benefits.
    I know keepers aren’t all good but I’m afraid in this instance I’m on their side as they do good! Why can’t people tell the truth instead of speaking with their mind, humans are so like sheep!!

    1. “I don’t know where this area would be if it was left to nature as the sounds of birdsong at the moment and all the chicks on the ground is unbelievable. Where would the waders that nest on the open cut/burnt areas go If this was to cease?”

      They all seemed to manage well enough before the gun was invented, and before it was felt necessary to burn the land and persecute natural predators just to favour the pointless shooting of Red Grouse.

  5. This is a very interesting comment, both in terms of content and format. We hear that cutting is often impracticable because of the nature of the underlying terrain. It is good to hear that it can work in places which suit this method. No doubt it is a more expensive process and will take longer to prepare by getting the equipment on site. However, if this is what it takes then this is what must happen. It would be useful to know what part of the country is involved here.

  6. I note the Moorland Association on their website have responded to the allegations that there have been breaches of the Heather & Grass Burning Regulations 2021- by the RSPB and Greenpeace.

    Within their statement is the following – “The most up to date science shows that not only does controlled burning not cause any damage to peatland, it may have a positive effect on carbon capture over the medium to long term.”

    Please could someone clarify this point, as my understanding was that whilst careful and controlled burning may not actually burn the peat which underlies the heather, the fact that the heather and sphagnum moss is usually burnt away, exposes the peat underneath to the elements, which frequently causes it to dry out and suffer erosion.

    I also understood that the sphagnum moss which is frequently damaged or destroyed during the burning process also has a detrimental effect, not only on the ability of a moor to be able to hold water, but on peat regeneration which requires the moss to degenerate over time- something which can’t happen when it is burnt away!

    As such, is the statement put out by the Moorland Association misleading?
    And since the Moorland Association have suggested they intend to liaise with DEFRA over this matter, then if their statement is misleading shouldn’t it be exposed as such?

    I suspect many of the Moorland Association members are in receipt of public funding through the various countryside stewardship grants. As such it is vital that this public money is only awarded to those who use that public money for public good. The public good being proper moorland regeneration, rather than simply grouse habitat regeneration!

    1. “Within their statement is the following – “The most up to date science shows that not only does controlled burning not cause any damage to peatland, it may have a positive effect on carbon capture over the medium to long term.”

      Please could someone clarify this point, as my understanding was that whilst careful and controlled burning may not actually burn the peat which underlies the heather, the fact that the heather and sphagnum moss is usually burnt away, exposes the peat underneath to the elements, which frequently causes it to dry out and suffer erosion.”

      Off the top of my head (which means I haven’t gone back to re-read the research, or any followups) there is a single piece of research – funded by shooting interests (possibly the Moorland Association, itself) – in which a very limited area of peat moor was dug and the contents analysed.

      This revealed pieces of carbon (burnt heather) in the peat, deposited over the hundred years or so of burning.

      It was claimed that this amounted to more carbon in the top layers of this particular spot than would be found in a similar cross-section of non-burnt peat moorland.

      But, as you say, there is no correlated time-line between the two chosen sites. That means there is no measurement of how much peat in the burnt section was eroded and lost, and how much CO2 will have been dumped into the atmosphere from the burnt section, compared to the unburnt section.

      I have spoken to the CEO of PlantLife very briefly about moorland burning, and he said that the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust have ‘very weird and wrong scientific ideas’ about the ‘benefits’ of burning. He claimed that Plantlife were working with the GWCT and Defra to end muirburn, but that ‘there are very powerful vested interests’ involved. The impression he gave was that the climate crisis together with public opinion would shift Government policy… eventually.

      I didn’t get any longer to press for more clarification… but he did say that the WWF were ‘the most difficult organisation to work with’ on such issues. And having written to them about this also, I can see his point.

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