Conservation Series

RSPB Asks Public to Report Burning on Peatlands

The RSPB is asking members of the public to log incidents of burning on peatland using their new app, which allows people to report information on moorland fires while out and about. The evidence collected through the app will help make the case for better protection of Britain's globally important blanket bog, they say.

Burning at Strathy Point  © RSPB Scotland
Burning at Strathy Point
© RSPB Scotland

Between October and April, vegetation is systematically burnt in many upland areas in the UK, in order to encourage the growth of young heather shoots and grass to provide grazing for red grouse, deer and livestock. A practice carried out by shooting estates, deer managers and sometimes crofters and farmers, such rotational burning often results in damage to peatland.

Evidence shows that regular burning has numerous harmful environmental impacts, and has actually caused peatlands to become a source of emissions when they ought to be a carbon store.

"Burns are designed to cause significant long-term changes to peatland plant life, and these changes have led to the degradation and loss of our precious upland peatlands and severely damaged the wildlife and communities that depend on it" said Pat Thompson, Senior Policy Officer for RSPB UK.

"This damage also has other consequences including reducing water quality through the release of soil carbon, increased risks of flooding for communities downstream of the moors and reducing the landscape's ability to deal with drought."

Peatlands account for 12% of the UK's land area and contain more carbon than the forests of Britain, France and Germany combined – an estimated 3.2 billion tonnes. In England, it is estimated that damaged upland peat bogs release the same amount of CO2 annually into the atmosphere as 140,000 cars.

"Whilst some action has been taken by the Scottish and Westminster Government to limit when and where burning takes place, we are concerned that current and often voluntary restrictions are not being followed" said Pat Thompson.

"We also believe that they do not go far enough to meet our climate and nature ambitions."

Scotland's Muirburn Code says that burning on peatlands should not take place, but the RSPB is concerned that such burning does, in fact, continue.

"As we move towards new legislation it is important that the debate is supported by evidence" Andrew Midgley, Senior Land Use Policy Officer for RSPB Scotland said, "and we think that 'citizen science' could have a useful role to play in collecting data."

"That is why we are asking members of the public to help us record evidence of recent burns. This will help us provide information to the Scottish and Westminster Governments so that decision making is informed by real life practice."

We are facing a twin crisis for climate and nature, say the RSPB, and at present Britain's degraded, burnt peatlands are contributing to those problems. For example, it is estimated that degraded peatlands in Scotland contribute about 13% of total Scottish greenhouse gas emissions.

"If we are to save nature and the climate we need to protect, invest in and restore our peatlands and end the practice of burning on them" said Andrew Midgley.

Here's where the app comes in. To anonymously report a burn, members of the public can visit the RSPB Burning website or download the My Survey123 app, available on iOS and Android. Once the app is downloaded you can head to the RSPB website and follow the steps to sign up to the Upland Burning Survey Form.

To report a burn you need to provide the location, the date, and information on whether it's active or recent. 

The data collected through the app will be passed to the relevant authorities in England and Scotland in order to help them identify and tackle unsustainable - and in places illegal - moorland burning, and to help bolster the case for tougher legislation.

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