Victory: Government indicates it will ban moorland burnings

Following an investigation by Friends of the Earth, the UK government has indicated it will ban the practice of burnings on peatland. Peatlands are vital in the fight against climate breakdown, as they store millions of tonnes of carbon and prevent it polluting the atmosphere. Guy Shrubsole and Alasdair Cameron report.
  Published:  29 Oct 2019    |      3 minute read

 

The Government announced last night they would look to ban the practice of  moorland burning on blanket bog, in a victory for Friends of the Earth’s Investigation Unit – and following a decade-long struggle by conservation groups and local communities.

Blanket bogs, a threatened moorland habitat, are one of the UK’s biggest carbon stores, locking up millions of tonnes of climate-altering gases(1). Yet hundreds of thousands of acres of blanket bog are managed intensively for grouse shooting, with landowners systematically burning the heather on them to maximise numbers of game birds. This dries out the peat soils, releasing carbon into the air and worsening flooding downstream(2,3,4). In fact peat degradation in the UK releases more carbon per year than all of the oil refineries in the country(5,6).

An investigation by Friends of the Earth earlier this year uncovered that a previous deal made between the Government’s and grouse moor owners to voluntarily halt burning had failed, and that estates appeared to be burning on blanket bog in contravention of their pledges. Friends of the Earth’s Investigations Unit travelled to grouse moor estates in Yorkshire to obtain footage of burning taking place:

After our investigations were featured on BBC Countryfile and in the Guardian, it seemed that victory was close. Natural England, the government’s green watchdog, were forced to investigate the matter themselves, and Ministers were – we were told – considering a ban. Then, with Michael Gove’s departure as Environment Secretary, things went quiet.

After our investigations were featured on BBC Countryfile and in the Guardian, it seemed that victory was close. Natural England, the government’s green watchdog, were forced to investigate the matter themselves, and Ministers were – we were told – considering a ban. Then, with Michael Gove’s departure as Environment Secretary, things went quiet.

"Several hon. Members talked about the problem of burning peatlands. There is no doubt that they are right; the Government share that view.

"There has been an attempt, through voluntary initiatives, to scale back - to reduce and eventually eliminate – the burning of fragile and important peat ecosystems, but that has not proven 100% successful as had been hoped. We are developing a legislative response to the problem and we will come back to the House in due course with our plans.

"There is no disagreement with the hon. Members who have spoken today about the need to address the issue, but we have to do that through legislation, because the alternative simply has not worked."

Like any campaign, this is a collective victory. Friends of the Earth has only contributed a small part, supplementing the tireless work of the RSPB, veteran wildlife campaigner Mark Avery, and the grassroots "Ban the Burn" campaign led by residents of Hebden Bridge and the Calder Valley, where flooding from grouse moors has intensified in recent years. Our investigations would also have been impossible without the amazing help of a large volunteer network of ”moorland monitors” – local residents and Friends of the Earth supporters who kept an eye out for signs of moorland burning and sent us photos and tip-offs.

There’s still more to be done. We obviously won’t be satisfied until Ministers actually implement their promised ban and bring legislation before Parliament. We suspect that grouse moor owners may still exploit any loophole they can to continue their moorland burning practices (for example, on shallow peat, even if burning on blanket bog is outlawed). And the problems with grouse moors go far beyond burning – they are also ecological dead zones, cleared of wildlife by gamekeepers who still illegally persecute protected birds of prey.

But yesterday’s announcement of a ban on moorland burning is also worth savouring. It means that proper protection of our country’s single largest carbon store is one step closer – a vital part of ending the climate emergency. And it shows, once again, that persistent campaigning can and does work.

References

[1] IUCN UK Committee, Peatland Programme, ‘Peatlands and Climate Change’ , December 2009.

[2] RSPB press release, ‘No moor burning on upland peat bogs’ , 28September 2018.

[3] De Zylva, P. "Why peat is good for the climate and nature: a guide", 21 February 2019.

[4] Brown, L. E, Holden, J. and Palmer, S. M. (2014), Effects of moorland burning on the ecohydrology of river basins. Key findings from the EMBER project. University of Leeds. Full report 2-page summary .

[5] Committee on Climate Change, "Land use: Reducing emissions and preparing for climate change" , November 2018, p.46.

[6] DECC & BIS, "Industrial decarbonisation and energy efficiency roadmaps to 2050: Oil refining", March 2015. “In 2012, oil refining emitted 16.3 million tonnes of CO2”.