Heather burning, water quality and greenhouse gas emissions

Heather burning on commercial grouse moor. Glenfeshie. Scotland. April 2007.
Heather burning on commercial grouse moor. Glenfeshie. Scotland. April 2007. http://scotlandbigpicture.com/

The Committee on Climate Change made a written submission to the Environmental Audit Committee inquiry into soil health in January this year. In it they wrote:

The English uplands are dominated by blanket bog and heathland habitats, which tend to have highly organic and peaty soils. When in good condition, peat bogs actively soak up carbon, accumulating between 3 and 7 tonnes per hectare per year.  Peatlands also play a vital role in the provision of drinking water to millions of people, as they form the headwaters for some of England’s major water supply catchments.


The area of burned moorland has increased significantly in recent decades across much of northern England. A comparison of aerial photography from the 1970s and 2000 of over 200 km2 of the English uplands found that the extent of new burns had doubled (from 15% to 30%) over this period. A recent study found that the annual number of burns between 2001 and 2011 increased by 11% per year, with an accelerating trend in more recent years.’


There is increasingly strong evidence that managed burning reduces peat accumulation, causes declines in carbon storage, and increases dissolved organic carbon (DOC) levels in watercourses.  Levels of DOC in UK upland water bodies have doubled over the last 30 years. Some of this observed increase in DOC is likely to be due to reductions in sulphur deposition (more commonly known as acid rain) since the 1990s. However, there is evidence that managed burning is the primary cause of DOC export in parts of the English uplands.

…the on-going declines in soil carbon, increases in the area of some high erosion
risk crops (e.g. maize) and the degraded condition of upland peats suggests that current policy interventions will not deliver the 2030 aspiration for all soils to be sustainably managed.

15 Replies to “Heather burning, water quality and greenhouse gas emissions”

  1. Are any representatives from the Committee for Climate Change going to give evidence at the pre-debate hearing?

    1. Northern Diver – no. But I don’t know whether theya re sending in written evidence – a cut and paste job wouldn’t be difficult, I’d have thought!

  2. Thanks Mark

    I note the above with great interest and concern.

    I think Defra really need to explain to the public exactly what it thinks the true costs and benefits of driven grouse shooting actually are when the findings in the ‘Environmental Audit Committee – Inquiry into Soil Health’ report is taken into account.

    Why does Defra think that driven grouse shooting is relevant in the 21st century?

    As much as I like raptors (and I like raptors a lot) the primary issue I have with grouse moor management are carbon emissions, carbon storage, water quality and downstream flooding.

    I wrote to my MP regarding your petition and put the above points to him last week.

    1. old crow – I think Defra needs to explain that too – as do any MPs who speak in favour of driven grouse shooting.

  3. This written Submission from the Committee for Climate Change really needs to be seen in Parliament before the Debate to Ban Driven Grouse Shooting ! It’s easy to save the report as a PDF ,but I don’t think Parliament accept PDF format if I’m not mistaken !

  4. I know you are doing a lot of work here, but are you aware of the research group at Leeds University: EMBER (Effects of Moorland Burning on the Ecohydrology of River basins)


    Do you know if they are submitting evidence in respect to wider environmental impacts? It would be hard to find a team more qualified in terms of water quality and soil chemistry.

  5. Is anything in the report(s) surprising? According to the John Muir Trust peat samples have shown that fire occurred naturally about every 150 to 200 years on the hills. How bad the fires might actually have been is another issue, but certainly regular burning has never been a natural element of any British ecosystem – there were only ever going to be a handful of species that benefitted in anyway from muirburn, we’re not the South African fynbos or parts of Australia where natural fire was frequent. Just not a good thing to do.

    The latest ‘reason’ they are giving for rotational burning of heather is as a fire prevention exercise! I.e by stopping the build up of old flammable heather they are preventing really bad fires by reduction of fuel load. Well the fire risk was increased in the first place by creation of grouse moors wasn’t it? I think ecological restoration would be a better tactic. Careful tree planting with fire breaks, allowing spaghnum moss to come back, trying to retain water on the moor etc. Once a certain stage is passed fire risk would start dropping quickly surely. At the moment they seem to be getting away pretty unchallenged with these fire prevention claims which is annoying – especially as things must be getting pretty desperate for them.

    And the end result of all this – I was watching a programme on BBC iplayer about a year in the life of the Cairngorms this morning. Of course featured grouse moors, but what an incredible soft soaping it was given, part of the landscape for centuries, important to Highland economy blah, blah, blah. The film of the grouse moor was bleak, the only willdife filmed while they were on the actual moor was – red grouse. I could not see a single bird in the sky in any of the panoramic views we were offered. Absolutely sod all.

    Very, very best of luck at the hearing Mark – hell of a big step forward.

    1. Two weeks ago I drove through the Cairngorms on the way to and back from the Orkneys. I also didn’t see any birds (in the air or otherwise) or other wildlife. I don’t remember even seeing any road kill.

  6. Like Old Crow, I contacted my MP (for York) to establish his position. I focused on the flooding in York in December 2015 and so it will be interesting to see how he responds – if he responds at all.

  7. Over the last few days the grouse moors south of Inverness along the A9 have been ablaze. Some of them have been really rather large. Depressing!

  8. An interesting discussion is definitely worth comment.
    There’s no doubt that that you need to write more about this subject matter, it might not
    be a taboo matter but typically folks don’t speak about these subjects.
    To the next! Kinnd regards!!

  9. Just came across the very informative website. Nobody in government is talking about the massive carbon footprint and global impact of the smoke – atmospheric pollution. We could be emitting millions of tones from heather and grass burning. An estimated 700,000 tonnes of CO2 was lost from a 5000ha wildfire in Sutherland last year alone. This pollution drifts across the world and contributes to extensive heat hazes in hotter regions covering millions of hectares, effectively preventing rain fall and exasperating desertification, with wars and famine resulting from the ecological collapse.
    We can only cool the planet with water . Water can only come from healthy carbon rich soils. This is 95% of the heat dynamics of the Earth. Reducing CO2 emissions is a side show unless we can restore natural processes. All land burning in Britain must be stopped now. Keep the carbon in the soil.

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