The RSPB has called for a ban on burning in the uplands. Again. Why is that? Hopefully the following will go some way to explain…
There are many reasons to loathe the grouse shooting industry: it’s built entirely around the shooting of wild birds (Red Grouse) and the trapping/snaring of vast (unrecorded so no-one knows just how vast) numbers of native predators (from mountain hares and foxes to mustelids and corvids); it’s underpinned by wildlife crime that is provably crushing populations of raptors on grouse moors (especially Hen Harriers and Golden Eagles – see for example RSPB | Raptor Persecution Figures from February this year); and it depends on the regular burning of blanket bogs and peatland to promote the growth of young heather (the grouse feed on young heather shoots and this damaging practice has been taking place for more than 150 years now).
Few organisations seem willing to tackle the destruction of grouse – that would mean taking an ethical and moral stance against shooting that many shy away from. It’s the same with the destruction of predators: while it’s technically ‘legal’ to kill enormous numbers of wild animals, again, few organisations are prepared to take a stand. Raptor persecution is more straightforward: it’s illegal and the issue has become better-known via the work of the RSPB Investigations Unit and Raptor Persecution UK, but it remains (at least in the eyes of the shooting industry) ‘contentious’ simply because few crimes are witnessed and can therefore be denied in the absence of hard evidence.
Burning, though, is a little harder to miss.
The so-called ‘burning season’ starts on October 1st, and gamekeepers will be out torching precious habitat right through to the spring.
Shooting lobbyists like the GWCT claim this is the ‘cold and wet’ period (ie it’s ‘safe’ to burn as fires won’t spread), but it’s not too difficult to check on the mean temperatures and rainfall stats for eg Hebden Bridge (in the Calder Valley) to discover that October averages 10.2C/50.4F and rainfall barely differs from the August mean (which is when grouse shooting starts) at 93mm vs 89mm. Hardly cold nor especially wet. In October the average temperature in Pickering, eighty miles to the north west of Hebden and on the edge of shooting’s playground of the North York Moors National Park, is almost the same as it is in May, and the rainfall figures for October are only marginally higher than in August! The ‘cold and wet’ months in both areas are December, January and February, but of course cold and wet vegetation doesn’t burn as well as it does in the milder months of October or March.
Which brings us back to early autumn and early spring. Columns of smoke will rise in the air, mistakes will be made leading to fires encroaching nature reserves and fire services being tied up, and images of barbecued reptiles will surface as they do every year. All just to give unnaturally high numbers of Red Grouse young heather shoots to feed on. And most of it taking place on SSSis, in ‘national parks’, and otherwise ‘protected’ habitats.
Taking on the industry’s bad smoking habits would seem like an easy win. It benefits no-one but the industry after all. As more and more of us understand the urgency of the climate emergency (the UK government approved a motion to declare an environment and climate emergency in mid-2019) releasing greenhouse gases and threatening carbon stores in peatland soils just so a few people can shoot grouse becomes ever more nonsensical. It’s equally nonsensical in the midst of a global pandemic that affects the respiratory system to set unnecessary fires which drop soot on local residents. Seventy per cent of the UK’s drinking water comes from the uplands and water treatment costs rise as utilities are forced to filter run-off. Burning the uplands increases flood risk downstream as desiccated bogs don’t slow water flow or hold water as they should. And of course it risks damaging the scarce blanket bog habitat that comprises many upland areas: Natural England revealed recently that almost three quarters of peatlands in England are already damaged or degraded, with burning being a key driver.
More and more councils in upland areas blighted by grouse shooting are recognising the damage that burning causes. In the last week Sheffield Council has joined York, Wakefield, Calderdale (the Calder Valley is repeatedly flooded by water pouring off the moors above it), the Mayor of Doncaster, and (just yesterday) Kirklees Council in saying that grouse moor burning should end.
This new press-release from the RSPB is timed to coincide with the start of 2020’s pyromania ‘season’ of course. To their credit the RSPB has been working hard to limit grouse moor burning since taking a complaint to the EU about burning on Walshaw Moor in 2012. In 2015 a new study led by the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science revealed the extent of moorland burning across Britain’s upland areas, saying that “burning was detected in 55 per cent of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and 63 per cent of Special Protection Areas (SPAs) assessed in the study, and significantly more burning took place within them than on comparable moorlands outside“. In 2018 they tried again, calling on the Government to honour its commitment to end the damaging practice of setting fire to England’s upland peat bogs, and pointing out that “the majority of upland peat bogs are in a poor state, with only an estimated 4% of them in England in a healthy condition“.
That 2018 release also mentioned a government-led voluntary arrangement that like most (all?) voluntary arrangements with the shooting industry was doomed to failure. As the RSPB wrote:
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 bog across over 100 grouse moors. While some shooting estates have already agreed to stop rotational burning on bogs, 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 actually damages peat bogs by drying them out, thereby robbing the public of their numerous benefits. Bogs need water not fire.RSPB press release 28 September 2018
“Bogs need water not fire.” Hard to argue with that…
But of course the industry has friends in government, including (over the years) grouse shoot owners (people like Richard Beynon) and former shooting lobbyists. Hence the voluntary arrangements, which are recognisably a gentle tap to the back of the hand rather than the changes in legislation that would be normally used to cure persistent lawbreaking and anti-social behaviour. Its voluntary arrangement to reduce burning was of course largely ignored, eventually leading to Zac Goldsmith, then a junior environment minister, to say in 2019 that the government had been working on a law to ban the owners of estates from repeatedly burning heather on their moorlands.
Guy Shrubsole, a leading campaigner with Friends of the Earth, responded to Goldsmith saying that “voluntary measures to stop moorland burning have simply not worked. The government is right to say it will outlaw this outdated and damaging practice. Burning on blanket bog is bad for the climate, bad for communities and bad for nature. Ministers now need to legislate for a comprehensive ban on moorland burning, with no loopholes that could let landowners off the hook.”
So would the industry change… ?
It didn’t. Spring 2020 saw huge numbers of fires being set in the uplands. Activist and monitoring group Ban Bloodsports on Yorkshire’s Moors compiled more than 550 reports of the county’s heather moorland being burnt between October and April. One notorious fire started by gamekeepers destroyed part of the National Trust’s Marsden Moor. West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service even openly called on social media for a stop “to controlled burning on moorland”. Lobbyists often claim that ‘controlled’ (surfcae burning) burning by gamekeepers is very different to the ‘uncontrolled’ fires started by barbecues or amateur arsonists that rage in summer, but the following tweets from earlier this year by eg the Fire Service disprove that theory.
Mounting frustration with shooting’s intransigence led to an article in The Observer declaring in April that “Grouse shooting over as moorland burning is banned” That was perhaps a little too optimistic (this is one resilient, well-financed industry after all) but we said at the time that it was important to acknowledge the steps to ban the burning of heather taken by Yorkshire Water, United Utilities, and the National Trust – large landowners who still allow grouse shooting on their holdings – described in the Observer article.
Scotland banned all moor burning (or muirburn) in April, thanks to the deft actions of Andy Wightman MSP. As the Revive Coalition reported, “Muirburn has been banned by the Scottish Parliament for the duration of the Covid 19 crisis to ease the burden on emergency and public services in case of fire going out of control. As calls for voluntary restraint were ignored, legislation appeared to be necessary. While this ban is only temporary, it shows that when there is the political will to tackle a crisis, common sense can prevail.”
Yes the ban was temporary, and here we are again, back waiting for the fires to be lit and the shooting hobbyists to celebrate yet another middle finger to the rest of us. Spurred on by the shooting industry, the government) appears to be on the point of backtracking on its promises to clamp down on burning. (Ironically, the government has clamped down on burning elsewhere: while the shooting industry can burn protected habitats, householders are banned (rightly) from burning household waste “if it will cause pollution or harm people’s health”.)
Having said that, though, the industry is facing unprecedented (and organised) criticism. As well as the powerful press-release from the RSPB posted below (replete with statements from a range of council leaders and climate organisations), a growing number of blogs have highlighted the absurdity of burning protected habitats (see eg Mark Avery and Raptor Persecution UK). Newspapers headlines from The Independent (“England’s rainforests are burning“) to the Telegraph (“Burning peatlands is the British equivalent of destroying the rainforest“) are using the RSPB’s ‘rainforest’ analogy. Channel 4 News will reportedly air a piece tonight.
Will we all be here again, asking the same questions in 2021? Perhaps, but the apologists for grouse shooting know how deeply they’re swimming against the tide. New lobbyist groups are springing up but have nothing new to say and consist of members of the old lobbyist groups. They’re simply repeating the same dogmas to a dwindling audience of shifty-looking and ‘wilfully blind’ supporters. Change takes time. But no-one outside of the grouse shooting industry now genuinely believes that shooting is environmentally sustainable (we’ve not even mentioned lead shot so far), that it can stop its habitual persecution of birds of prey, or that it deserves to exist in a world that has woken up to the climate emergency, sentience in animals, and the consequences of setting fire to enormous areas of habitat just so a few hobbyists can put holes into wild birds…
The RSPB is today calling on Government to implement an immediate end to the burning of precious peatlands on moors managed for grouse shooting. The call, which comes on the first day of this year’s burning season, is being supported by city mayors, councils, and local communities. A ban is also supported by a wide range of environmental NGOs.
Beccy Speight, RSPB Chief Executive Officer, said: “In a climate and ecological emergency, the continued burning of precious peatlands is simply not acceptable and undermines the UK Government’s legal obligations to restore nature. The Government has long promised to end the burning of peat, it has widespread public support, and the Secretary of State, George Eustice, now needs to make good on this pledge.”
Healthy wet blanket peat bogs are home to peat-forming sphagnum mosses, cotton-grasses, and carnivorous plants, which support a diverse range of breeding birds, including breeding dunlin and golden plover. They are also a crucial carbon store. UK peatlands (in the uplands and lowlands) store an estimated 3,200 million tonnes (Mt) of carbon.
However, the RSPB says that one of the most significant pressures on these places is that they are routinely and deliberately burned, largely to support a single industry – grouse shooting.
Pat Thompson, RSPB Senior Policy Officer said: “The burning is done to ensure grouse have reemergent young shoots of heather to eat season after season. This not only directly releases carbon into the atmosphere but degrades the remaining peat – making it poorer for wildlife, less able to slow the flow of water thus increasing flood risk and reducing water quality. All these effects are felt both immediately by communities downstream and by wider society in terms of increased carbon emissions and the cost of treating water.
England’s upland peatlands are also increasingly vulnerable to changes in climate, particularly pro-longed periods of drought which dry out the surface vegetation making them vulnerable to accidental fires in spring and summer.”
Peatland in the English uplands can be legally burnt between 1 October – 15 April. Burning in the uplands is increasing with research finding a seven-fold increase in burning on peatland in England from the 1940s to the present time with burning increasing at a rate of 11% per annum between 2001 to 2011 in Great Britain.
Dr Thompson added: “To give an idea of the scale of this issue, grouse moors in the northern uplands extend to something in the region of 2226 square kilometres. Many of these grouse moors lie within Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas, a statutory designation that describes their huge importance for wildlife on a European level. The designation restricts a range of activities in these places, and so special consent must be obtained from Natural England in order to carry out burning.
Information from Natural England suggests there are over 400 consents to burn blanket bog on grouse moors in north England’s European protected areas, covering around 950 square kilometres of the deep peat soils this precious habitat depends on. This simply must stop.”
Peat burning is also not welcome in many local communities, and the call for a ban has recently been echoed by Mayors, local councils and residents in the North of England:
Jamie Driscoll, Mayor of the North of Tyne Combined Authority, said: “Burning upland peat habitats is a destructive process. It results in greenhouse gas emissions, brings flood risks, and is damaging to wildlife. I fully support the RSPB’s campaign calling on the government to implement an immediate end to this practice.”
Andy Burnham, Mayor of Manchester, said: “Upland fires in 2018 and more recently in the dry spring this year have created significant issues in upland areas of Greater Manchester – both from an environmental and public safety perspective. We are acutely aware of the environmental impact that upland fires, whatever their cause, can have on the environment.
Recent work by Natural England, which will inform Defra’s forthcoming national peat strategy, highlighted that the 2019 Winter Hill fire alone released c. 90,000 tonnes of Carbon equivalent (tCO2e)”
Councillor Scott Patient, Lead – Climate Change and Resilience, Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council said: “In Calderdale, we know that moorland fires have a broad range of ecological and public health impacts including degrading peatlands, releasing harmful gasses into the atmosphere and surrounding valleys, putting added pressure on our fire services (themselves stretched throughout the pandemic) and decreasing biodiversity whilst possibly contributing to flooding in communities downstream. We hope to see legislation introduced promptly to end the use of burning in the management of grouse moors. Beyond this, we will continue to work in strong strategic partnerships with small and larger landowners to further develop a complete and sustainable catchment plan to help best protect our residents and natural environment”
Cllr Rob Walker, Colne Valley Ward Councillor, Kirklees Cabinet Portfolio: Environment and Culture, said: “Whilst Kirklees Council do not own any moorland used for grouse shooting I am concerned about the damage done to biodiversity and the regeneration of healthy peat bogs by the practice of burning heather to promote the commercial rearing of grouse. I believe in working with land managers to promote more sustainable techniques that will enrich our countryside.”
Dongria Kondh Co-ordinator, Treesponsibility, and Hebden Bridge resident said: “The peatlands here on the moors above Hebden Bridge form part of the biggest carbon sinks in Britain, they are precious to our community, to wider society and for nature. They cannot be restored to full health while the burning continues. Reports that Environment Minister George Eustice is attempting to backtrack on his predecessor’s commitment to ban managed burning on peat bogs are deeply worrying. In January, this year the UK parliament’s Climate Change Committee called for an immediate cessation of rotational burning, and ignoring their report would seriously undermine the government’s credibility as hosts of the COP26 Climate conference next year. A ban needs to be implemented now.”RSPB, 01 October 2020