Conservation Series

Moorland burning rules to tighten, but 'devil is in the detail'

Legislation will be brought forward to prevent the burning of heather and other vegetation on protected blanket bog habitats, came an announcement from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) on Friday 29th January. But environmental groups are unimpressed by measures they say fall short of what's needed, pointing to multiple possible loopholes.

The UK has 13% of the world's blanket bog (most of it in places we hillwalkers and climbers frequent). Peat is a carbon sink, and restoring Britain's peatlands is a stated priority for the government, which will help achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 as well as protecting valuable habitats, and the biodiversity that they support.

Blanket bog is a precious habitat threatened by mismanagement - has the Government found a path through the mire?  © Dan Bailey
Blanket bog is a precious habitat threatened by mismanagement - has the Government found a path through the mire?
© Dan Bailey

There is consensus that burning vegetation on blanket bog, undertaken for moorland management by the grouse shooting industry, damages peatland formation and the condition of the delicate upland environment, making it more difficult or impossible to return these habitats to their natural state and to restore their hydrology.

The announcement made the claim that England's 'national rainforest' will be protected. However the wording of the announcement suggests that only some areas of blanket bog will actually qualify for protection under the proposal.

"The new regulations will prevent the burning of any specified vegetation on areas of deep peat (over 40cm depth) on a Site of Special Scientific Interest that is also a Special Area of Conservation or a Special Protection Area" says DEFRA, "unless a licence has been granted or the land is steep or rocky."

Conservation groups are sounding doubtful.

The RSPB's director of conservation, Martin Harper said, "2021 is a crucial year for the climate, and with the UK hosting the COP 26, summit our Government desperately needed to show leadership. Any action on this issue is of course welcome but this isn't what was hoped for, promised or needed.

"We still need to see the details of the licencing system but unless it is tightly prescribed then several loopholes allow the continuation of burning on upland peat soils and it is unclear whether we will even see a decrease in burning as a result.

"Burning damages peat soil, it lowers the water table and hinders restoration; leeching carbon into the atmosphere and turning our biggest natural carbon sinks into carbon emitters. In the midst of a climate and nature emergency the Government has fallen short in the ambition needed to tackle this issue and the message it sends to other nations ahead of COP26 is one of mediocrity."

Others sounded a note of cynicism with regard to the administration of the measures:

"There's no doubt that this is good news" said a post on the Ban Driven Grouse Shooting Facebook page. "But as ever the devil will be in the detail and it's clear that the scheme is very far from the blanket ban for blanket bogs that is needed. The exceptions are already flagged and the whole thing will be subject to a licensing scheme run by Natural England. What could possibly go wrong?"

Bog cotton  © john1963
Bog cotton
© john1963, Jun 2013

But Natural England Chair Tony Juniper struck a positive tone:

"This is a hugely welcome announcement which will see better protections for our globally important peatlands" he said.

"Blanket bog is an amazing habitat that provides essential environmental benefits, including carbon storage, a home for wonderful wildlife, clean drinking water and flood mitigation. This is why it is vital we ensure these systems are healthy with peat-forming species, such as Sphagnum mosses, thriving in water-logged conditions.

"We will continue to work with Defra and land managers to help with the successful implementation of these measures, including by providing advice on good upland management and leading a new peatland restoration grant scheme as part of the Nature for Climate programme.

"This will provide funds to carry out restoration work on these precious ecosystems, ensuring their recovery and protection for the benefit of both present and future generations."

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