Heather burning and health

I definitely wasn’t awake at this time so I am grateful to a reader of this blog for pointing me in this direction.

On Radio 5 Up All Night on Thursday 30 March at 2hr 21min 19 secs into the programme, there was a discussion about the smoke from heather burning and its potential health risks.  Barry from Thirsk raised the issue of heather burning in the Yorkshire Dales and pointed out that the smoke from such burns can drift for many many miles, far from the grouse moors on which it occurs.  What might be the health impacts?

The Australian-sounding expert on the programme raised the prospect that in the conditions that would apply to burning in the open air, definitely not clean burning at a high temperature, there will be (might be?) all sorts of nasty chemicals involved including dioxins which are extremely carcinogenic. We’re always being told that heather burning is ‘cool burning’ – whatever that actually means.

Barry wondered what measures the National Parks had taken to assess this risk and potentially reduce it. He has a point. To find out the answer you might want to enquire to the following:


North York Moors National Park general@northyorkmoors.org.uk

Yorkshire Dales National Park info@yorkshiredales.org.uk

Peak District National Park customer.service@peakdistrict.gov.uk

Northumberland National Park enquiries@nnpa.org.uk

Lake District National Park  hq@lakedistrict.gov.uk

Forest of Bowland AONB bowland@lancashire.gov.uk

North Pennines AONB info@northpenninesaonb.org.uk

Nidderdale AONB nidderdaleaonb@harrogate.gov.uk

Natural England

I’m already getting holding replies to my questions.

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9 Replies to “Heather burning and health”

  1. I have had many a day on the fells burning. In those days size was not the question but weather to get out and burn. One area was burnt so that sheep could move from one valley to the next. The effect was an increase in Golden Plover. Work done in the war years by Ernest Blezard showed a decline of Golden Plover due to to much rank heather!Not sure on health as I am still here! Cough cough!

    I wonder if any one has done any work on the contrast of these new small burns/cuts to the larger openings with populations of Golden Plover?

    1. As long as your study includes the western isles, where we have no driven grouse shooting, very little moor burn, and plenty of golden plovers, lapwings, curlews, and hen harriers.

    1. Smoke inhalation - especially the very small soot particles - is of course a growing concern in cities thanks to diesel vehicles etc.. I would have thought it more likely to be a concern to people living near the burning, rather than miles away thanks to dilution.
      I'm not sure about dioxins, however. That would need a source of chlorine in the burn and it's hard to see where that would be. They are actually a "probable carcinogen" I believe, not an extreme one.
      Another activity that must impact wildlife, however, is grouse moors' determination to mow large areas of heather. Has anyone assessed the effects of that?

  2. Well done Barry from Thirsk. The question as you've indicated is have the various landowners undertaken any toxicological risk assessments consequential of their 'traditional' management practice?

    There will be a deposition path which will be traceable using weather data? If charities such as the NT or other public bodies permit this practice then they are at risk from challenge and potential consequence? Hard to prove, but where there's a will there's a way?

    As the scientist said slavery was ended, took a while but ....

  3. Spring burns rely on the vegetation being dry but the soil moist - meaning the fire doesn't set light to the soil, which it obviously can do if that soil is dry peat. late/summer autumn accidental fires as in 1976 literally set light to the soil and apart from the obvious damage can be very difficult to put out - the only real solution is to plough down to the mineral to create a break.

  4. I too have burnt like John, in I think in winter/ spring 91 or 92 when on the estate in question where I knew both keeper and under keeper well, the keeper had died and whilst the replacement was due it was not for sometime so I did a number of days with the then under keeper. Hard work with no tractor flail to mark and act as a burn boundary. I always went home stinking of smoke with a very thick head ( there are those who might say that has not changed since).
    Anecdotally I would say it appears that current small but frequent burns seem less attractive to Golden Plovers. Then there is so much short stuff these days that Goldies have plenty of suitable sites anyway. what is also very clear is that there is little suitable heather for Harriers, Shorties or Merlins compared to 20 or 30 years ago, and that which is there is often in the wrong sorts of places except one or two per moor so birds will gravitate towards them and be more predictable and thus to us cynics/realists more easily killed.
    I can remember a keeper burning a whole whale back in '87/88 because a harrier had nested on it ( successfully). According to locals it burnt continuously for 3 days. In 91 the harriers used it again in short stuff ( it was obviously intrinsically right for them in other ways, that should be explored) you could see her incubating from the adjacent hill at over 1 km, head and shoulders above the heather! That of course was when we had Harriers, Shorties, plenty of Merlins and Peregrines on the moors. Just to demonstrate the low we have fallen to there were 26 breeding female harriers in Bowland in that year.

  5. Driving west over the A66 from Scotch Corner on monday our car [and presumably everyone else's] was stinking of smoke from the muirburn we could see a couple of miles away. If this stuff is dangerous it's affecting a lot of people. Wasn't stubble burning banned for environmental reasons?


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