Burning on upland peat bogs must stop, says RSPB


The RSPB is calling on the government to honour its commitment to end the damaging practice of setting fire to England's upland peat bogs, especially on grouse moors.

Monday 1 October marked the start of the new burning season, which permits land managers to set fire to areas of moorland (a practice known as rotational burning), including peat bogs, to encourage new heather growth and provide favourable conditions for Red Grouse.

Upland peat bogs, especially blanket bog, provide a valuable array of public benefits, including vital habitat for rare and unusual wildlife, countering climate change by locking up carbon, reducing flood risk, purifying drinking water and slowing the spread of wildfire.

However, the majority of upland peat bogs are in a poor state, with just an estimated 4 per cent of English peat bogs in a healthy condition. They have been affected by a range of damaging activities for many years, including burning.

Extensive rotational burning takes place on grouse moors to benefit Red Grouse, but it causes a great deal of damage to other species and releases huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere (Neil Loverock).

Following pressure from the European Commission to end burning on blanket bogs, Natural England – the agency entrusted with protecting the countryside in England – is attempting to negotiate the end of rotational burning on blanket bogs across more than 100 grouse moors. While some shooting estates have already agreed to stop such rotational burning, a number of these have then been given permission by Natural England to continue to use fire to remove heather as part of a wider programme of work to supposedly restore damaged peat bogs. This so-called 'restoration burning' is a misnomer: Natural England's own evidence shows that burning damages peat bogs by drying them out, destroying their numerous benefits – bogs need water, not fire.

Healthy bogs with peat-forming sphagnum mosses help counter climate change by removing carbon from the atmosphere and locking it up in the peat. However, when peat is damaged, the carbon is released into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change. In England alone, it is estimated that damaged upland peat bogs release the same amount of CO2 into the atmosphere as 140,000 cars annually. Three quarters of this is a direct result of burning the vegetation on peatlands.

Moorland burning takes place at Stanhope Valley, Co Durham (Joan Syke).

Water quality is affected by peat bog condition. Healthy bogs produce clear water, but damaged ones cause run-off water to turn brown. This is a serious problem as around 70 per cent of the water that comes out of the tap in Britain derives from the uplands. As a result, water companies have to spend a lot of money each year removing the peat colour to clean the drinking water for people's homes. This cost is passed on to consumers through water bills.

Burning on peat bogs also reduces the variety of plants, as well as the wildlife that depends on them, benefiting just a handful of fire-tolerant species. In England, burning has changed many peat bogs, replacing their rich mix of bog plants and pools with a monoculture of heather.

Pat Thompson, RSPB Senior Land Use Policy Officer, said: "It's a quarter of a century since stubble burning on fields was banned in the UK over environmental and safety concerns. Now it's time for burning on our precious upland peat bogs to be similarly consigned to history.

"As the burning season gets underway, we will, along with others, be watching to see if government commitments to stop rotational burning actually result in less burning. Our peat bogs are too important for both people and wildlife for us to sit back and let them be damaged any further."