While the public are implored not to start wildfires, the practise of burning heather for grouse moor management takes place on a huge scale, and is often carried out on peat bogs, a vital carbon store. Ending 'muirburn' could boost both biodiversity and the fight against climate change, say environmental campaigners. As Scotland prepares to host the UN Climate Change Conference, it's time to set an example, says Max Wiszniewski of REVIVE, the coalition for grouse moor reform.
This year the United Nations Climate Change Conference, better known as COP26, will be coming to Scotland, and the UK will be expected to set an example to our world. The actions that countries take now, with just nine years left to make an impact, will decide what the future looks like for our families in years to come. If Scotland, the host nation of the conference, can't be expected to make bold yet vital decisions, then who else can do it for us? We need to set an example across every sector, and crucial to this will be how we manage and reform our land, too much of which is dominated by monoculture.
Grouse moors are one of the most controversial land uses in upland Britain, and particularly so in Scotland, where they cover vast areas. Here the land is closely managed, year-round, with the purpose of increasing the yield of red grouse for the four-month shooting season (12 August – 10 December). Issues such as raptor persecution, the pollution caused by the spreading of outdoor medication and the use of lead shot, and the wholesale killing of 'non-target species' give grouse shooting a bad name in many circles.
Burned areas are often described as monocultures compared to what should be far more diverse landscapes, and this management activity takes place on a massive scale
But arguably the most serious impact of the industry comes from the continued practice of muirburn, or the burning of heather moorland, which takes place across vast swathes of Scotland (and in parts of England such as the Pennines).
If you have been on a grouse moor you may have seen patches or strips of burnt heather. Between October 1st and April 15th local people witness hundreds of contained fires across their uplands and often complain of about the effect it has on them. These fires may (on the whole) be contained but accidents do happen, which is why 2020 emergency Coronavirus legislation (since lifted) put a temporary stop to muirburn to lessen pressure on emergency fire services in cases where it may have gone out of control.
But why do moorland managers do it, and how does it help to maximise grouse numbers? The recently burnt patches allow new heather shoots to grow, offering young grouse more food, while the unburnt patches give the grouse cover from predators. These burned areas are often described as monocultures compared to what should be far more diverse landscapes, and this management activity takes place on a massive scale.
This video, shot in 2019, shows a typical muirburn. Scenes like this are repeated all over Scotland through every burning season:
According to a recent report, A Better Way, commissioned by REVIVE, the coalition for grouse moor reform, and written by expert in sustainable land management Dr Helen Armstrong, about 4% of Scotland's entire landmass is regularly strip burned to support grouse shooting. The same report suggests that 40% of the burned area overlies deep peat, as currently defined at 50cm. Some like the RSPB argue for environmental reasons that the definition of deep peat should be revised to include peat at a depth of 25cm. If that is the case, the affected area could be far greater.
When damaged, peat bogs emit carbon into the atmosphere, and this is what burning on grouse moors threatens every year during the six-month burning season
Scotland's peat is an incredibly valuable resource for carbon sequestration. A study by the University of Leeds looked at grouse moors in the Pennines, where patterns of burning similar to Scotland's take place. When comparing areas which were regularly burned with areas that were never burned, they found a reduction in nutrients in the soil and concluded that the peat was significantly more likely to dry out, leading to the release of carbon. In fact, in the worst case the peat itself can catch fire, resulting in major loss of carbon.
This is a huge problem because Scotland's peat is an internationally essential resource, storing about 25 times more carbon than all the trees and plants in the entire United Kingdom. In other words, if the carbon from all of Scotland's peat was emitted that would be equivalent to over 140 years of Scotland's annual climate emissions. When damaged, peat bogs emit those huge stores of carbon into the atmosphere, and this is what burning on grouse moors threatens every year during the six-month burning season – for a purpose as unnecessary as maximising grouse numbers for sport shooting.
There is the Muirburn Code which advises moorland managers not to carry out burning in areas of peat. But this is only advice, and it does not legally have to be followed and there is almost no enforcement of what is supposed to be best practice. However, the good news is that this could be about to change.
The Scottish Government has now agreed to licence all muirburn, which should be implemented in the coming year or so with a potential ban on peatland burning. This means that land managers would have to apply for a licence to conduct muirburn anywhere in Scotland, not just on grouse moors, and there should certainly be a presumption against it unless there is an exceptional biodiversity case for continuing. As Dr Helen Armstrong writes in A Better Way "there will rarely, if ever, be a biodiversity case for burning on upland bogs." But the very fact that it takes place on such a huge land area will make it almost impossible to police, to make sure that peatlands are protected.
Should land managers be able to obtain a muirburn licence for a purpose as unnecessary as making sure there are a few more grouse to shoot for sport? Not when the risks are so high. However many environmentalists worry that a licence will be granted under the guise of another purpose. Loopholes must be avoided.
The act of ending this environmentally damaging practice alone would be a significant win in Scotland's battle against the climate crisis but there are even more potential wins to be gained. Moorland burning for grouse shooting stops the development of more diverse ecosystems and natural regeneration of forest and this can change too.
While management as grouse moors keeps large areas of Scotland in an impoverished state, diversifying away from this monoculture will help our contribution to two of our biggest crises – that of the climate and the catastrophic loss of biodiversity
Grouse moors are relatively low in rarer species compared to open, native conifer or more diverse woodland and shrub habitats. According to A Better Way:
"A mixed landscape of patches of open areas set within a matrix of woodland and shrubby vegetation provides a wide range of habitats that supports a diverse flora and fauna. Additionally, allowing trees and shrubs to colonise the uplands would create habitat types that have almost entirely disappeared from Scotland due to human impacts: montane shrub, treeline woodland and bog woodland. Rare species such as black grouse, capercaillie and wild cat would benefit. Taller vegetation would also provide more cover and food for small mammals and birds, supporting in turn more predatory species. Golden eagles, once thought to need large areas of open land over which to hunt, are now known to do well in landscapes composed of a mosaic of wooded and open habitats."
In other words, while continued management as grouse moors keeps large areas of Scotland in an impoverished state, diversifying away from this monoculture will help our contribution to two of our biggest crises – that of the climate and the catastrophic loss of biodiversity. In an uncertain world with an uncertain future, fostering diversity is the best approach to ensure resilience in the years to come.
Some may argue that to achieve this necessary transformation away from muirburn and driven grouse shooting we will need to make economic sacrifices. But instead of sacrifices, we have a huge opportunity.
Despite the fact that land managed for grouse shooting in Scotland uses up an area around half the size of Wales, it contributes just £23 million a year to the economy. This might sound like a lot, but it actually amounts to just 0.02% of Scotland's economy. To put this another way if Scotland's economy was the size of Ben Nevis, grouse shooting's contribution would be the size of a bottle of Irn Bru. Wildlife tourism alone, shooting animals with a camera instead of a gun, contributes about five times more to Scotland's economy and is a burgeoning industry with a need to expand. The more land where our wildlife is protected, the more pressure will be taken from current tourist hotspots in Scotland, expanding into new areas.
Moreover, forestry and its associated industries have many times the economic return for a land area that is not too much greater than grouse moors, and there is huge room for expansion. Currently forestry makes up about 18% of Scotland's land and yet we import timber from Europe. New homes and opportunities for rural Scotland could come from a large expansion of both native woodland and commercial forestry combined. Muirburn and grouse moor management, as discussed, actively restricts the reforesting of Scotland.
The act of ending muirburn on grouse moors and transitioning away from driven grouse shooting gives Scotland this major opportunity going forward – today's gamekeepers could be tomorrow's rangers.
The Scottish Government has committed to making Scotland a 'Green New Deal' nation and as part of that they've already announced that a quarter of a billion pounds will be invested in peatland restoration. Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham called it a 'game changer'. This would be truer if it was accompanied by an end to muirburn on grouse moors. But a 'Green New Deal' (GND) is about so much more than fixing or tweaking our broken landscapes.
Just 432 families (0.008% of Scotland's population) own over half of Scotland's private land. A GND for rural Scotland is about providing tens of thousands more jobs, repopulating barren landscapes, and improving our economy while benefiting our wildlife and most importantly the environment.
With the political will this is all completely doable. Scotland's people need these opportunities but the status quo, where huge shooting estates are owned by a few people at the expense of the many, is holding rural Scotland back, keeping isolated communities in a fragile state rather than repairing them. The urgency of the climate crisis and our current dependency on large estate owners (many of whom actually do important environmental work) requires an expansion of land reform as well as grouse moor reform.
We know the road we need to travel. With regard to grouse moors we need to end all the unsustainable management activities which take place to ensure there are more grouse available for sport shooting. These are largely but not exclusively environmental. If (particularly driven) grouse shooting cannot exist with these necessary changes so be it, but this circle of destruction has to end – sooner rather than later.
Momentum is on the side of grouse moor reform. When it happens, it will be to the benefit of all our people, our wildlife and in these times of climate crisis, the environment.
Max Wiszniewski is Campaign Manager for REVIVE, the coalition for grouse moor reform. REVIVE are one of the key stakeholders in the Scottish Government's licensing consultation, and over 18,000 people have already signed up to REVIVE to end the circle of destruction.