The Moorland Imbalance (2)

In their little booklet, the GWCT address five areas that they say are commonly-heard criticisms of driven grouse shooting. This week I’ll deal with each of them.

GWCT say that it is claimed that ‘Heather burning contributes to the release of greenhouse gases because it release carbon dioxide‘ and attempt to rebut this by quoting a 2012 study by Natural England (published in 2013) which states ‘So far, research has produced inconsistent evidence, with predictions including both positive and negative effects of burning’. This study (incorrectly labelled as reference 18 when it is reference 19 in the list of references) does say that, but it lists five impacts of heather burning on the carbon cycle (one of strong evidence, and four of moderate evidence) all of which point to increased carbon loss.  The phrase about inconsistent evidence refers to modelling studies not to all studies – at least that’s how I read it (have a look yourself and decide).

 

But anyway, that was back in 2012 – has anything happened since then?

Yes it has.

First, in October 2014, there was the publication of the EMBER study (see here and here) which was the biggest study of various issues around heather burning to date and yet is not referred to in the GWCT booklet (which is quite astounding!).

The study, the Effects of Moorland Burning on the Ecohydrology of Rivers (EMBER – get it?), studies 10 river catchments in the north of England for five years – five of the catchments had lots of heather burning and the other five did not. It was a very substantial study and one which, if it had existed, the Natural England review which predated it by nearly two years, would certainly have mentioned.

One of the authors of the study, Professor Joseph Holden said ‘Altering the hydrology of peatlands so they become drier is known to cause significant losses of carbon from storage in the soil. This is of great concern, as peatlands are the largest natural store for carbon on the land surface of the UK and play a crucial role in climate change. They are the Amazon of the UK.’.

These views and results were also widely reported in the press:

The Independent newspaper: ‘Commercial grouse shooting is ruining the countryside of Northern England and warming the planet as swathes of upland peatlands rich in wildlife are burned to provide the best conditions for red grouse‘.

The Scotsman: ‘Heather burning on Scotland’s grouse moors may be causing serious damage to peatlands, rivers and wildlife

The Times newspaper: ‘The owners of grouse moors who set fire to heather to promote green shoots for young birds to eat are polluting rivers and contributing to climate change‘.

But these matters seem to have passed the ‘scientists’ at GWCT by…

And in addition, the Committee on Climate Change’s 2015 Progress Report states ‘Wetland habitats, including the majority of upland areas with carbon-rich peat soils, are in poor condition. The damaging practice of burning peat to increase grouse yields continues, including on internationally protected sites.‘  I think we can take that as more than a slap on the wrist for moorland management particularly as the committee also recommended that government should ‘Review the effectiveness of agri-environment schemes in controlling damaging practices on internationally-protected peatland sites‘ which may well be why Defra ministers are now talking about removing agricultural subsidies from grouse moors.

These views from an expert committee were covered in the press at the time eg Peatlands burn as gamekeepers create a landscape fit for grouse-shooting  – The Observer, 5 July 2015.

So what GWCT appears to have done here is select a study published in 2013 to suggest that there is a lot to learn on the subject of peat degradation and carbon emissions due to heather burning and then ignored the biggest study on the subject published in 2014 and the expert views of the Climate Change Committee in 2015.

It’s a bit like trying to persuade us that there is doubt about whether the Earth goes round the Sun by quoting the ancient Greeks. Science moves on and although there is always something to argue about, GWCT seems to want to give policy makers, politicians and the public the impression that there is nothing to worry about when there quite clearly is.  I would have expected much better of the GWCT in the past but not now.  It’s shameful and misleading.

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9 Replies to “The Moorland Imbalance (2)”

    1. Jon - those that have read this publication will have spotted the EMBER paper on the impact of prescribed burning on blanket peat hydrology (Holden et al. 2015) is included (p25). Mark is less enthusiastic to mention the paper published by the Royal Society in 2016 (p21). Scientists from around the world have pointed out that the current scientific evidence does NOT support the following claims made in the UK press and we should stop perpetuating them:

      - regular burning increases heather dominance
      - fire kills or significantly damages Sphagnum moss
      - peatlands are particularly sensitive sites with regard to fire
      - the interaction between wildfires and managed burning is clear
      - fire alone can contribute to peatland degradation

      Hence the GWCT position that more evidence is required.

      Best. Andrew

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      1. Andrew - another classicly Gilruthian response. I am thinking of putting them together in a little booklet.

        Don't you worry, we will get to the Holden et al paper (a post-EMBER report publication) tomorrow when this blog discusses what your booklet does and doesn't say about flooding. You treat that paper in a manner that would certainly get into my booklet of 'The Gilruthian Approach to Science'.

        When you say 'the' paper published in PhilTransRoySoc paper you mean the paper (The role of fire in UK peatland and moorland management: the need for informed, unbiased debate.) that readers of this blog might remember as the GWCTburningbloggate paper which mysteriously found its way into the media and social media before it was actually published, breaking scientific protocols. See here for how evasive GWCT was about their role in this: https://markavery.info/2016/03/14/gwct-burningbloggate-3-evasion-evasion-evasion/

        That paper is not 'the' paper in PhilTransRoySoc as it was followed by not one, but two very strong rebuttals: 'Moorland vegetation burning debates should avoid contextomy and anachronism: a comment on Davies et al. (2016) http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/371/1708/20160432 ' and 'The role of fire in UK upland management: the need for informed challenge to conventional wisdoms: a comment on Davies et al. (2016) http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/371/1708/20160433?utm_source=TrendMD&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=Philosophical_Transactions_B_TrendMD_0'. The journal gave Davies et al. the last word but my judgement is that it wasn't the best word - read for yourself here 'The peatland vegetation burning debate: keep scientific critique in perspective. A response to Brown et al. and Douglas et al. http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/371/1708/20160434'.

        Pick the bones out of that! But let's look at a couple of the examples you give, Andrew. Clearly, 'fire alone can contribute to peatland degradation' (which may or may not be true) is not equivalent to 'fire can, and does, contribute to peatland degradation' and presumably if the authors had meant to say the latter then they would have done. And 'peatlands are particularly sensitive sites with regard to fire' is not the same as 'peatlands are sensitive sites with regard to fire' and presumably if the authors had meant to say the latter then they would have done.

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  1. I understand the main reason why burning is bad for soil carbon on peatlands is that it destroys the plants like sphagnum that are very good at sequestering peat. Heather is less good and, if burned off relatively young, largely useless.
    Peatland should be sequestering carbon at a high rate. If you burn it, it doesn't.

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  2. Way more important than Grouse Shooting, the Natural Capital Committee made peatland restoration one its 5 lead projects, justified primarily (as one might expect) on the grounds that it is the most cost effective way to capture carbon.

    How you would manage heather without burning has come up here before. The Forestry Commission has cut and baled large areas in the New Forest, with the bales used to block drains as a key part of the restoration of the Forest's valley mires. FC management of the open forest costs less per hectare than the current agricultural subsidy - you could manage heather without burning without spending any extra taxpayers money.

    In the North Yorks Moors a further problem with burning has been the spread of bracken - where burns run into bracken beds they spread rapidly to take over what was previously heather. We're always told that peat grows very slowly - so it was quite a shock when trees were removed from the Border Mires and drains blocked how spectacular and instant the growth of sphagnum was - the wood left blocking drains was completely submerged in no time at all.

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  3. I have heard it said by a grouse moor advocate that without the regular controlled burning that the heather would grow old and woody and would create a really serious wildfire risk...is this a genuine problem or just a smoke screen...and if you did get occasional much larger wild-fires how would this play into the carbon capture argument?

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    1. Yes it's one they throw up a lot. The fact that fire is a serious risk must be down to the creation of flammable grouse moors in the first place. If the watercourses going through grouse moors were planted up with trees and where possible beavers were brought in you'd get better water quality and fish stocks, alleviation of flooding downstream, a genuine habitat mosaic and wildlife corridor which would also act as a nice natural fire break. All supposition on my part, but I can't see any problems - except it would hardly be compatible with intensive grouse moor 'management'.

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      1. Cutting firebreaks through heather actually seems to have proven something of a resource for Red Grouse populations on some Council owned moorland (long, 65-85 year range, ex-grouse moor) local to me, an example of low intensity management with an incidental benefit in areas where the massively inflating the numbers of a single species isn't the goal. Still some way to go (with, e.g., extra tree planting ongoing) but these areas also already tend to have most of the features described by Les though, alas, no Beavers yet I'm afraid!

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  4. Wildfire is a risk on heather moorlands because of the intensive management to create the vast heather monoculture. Heather moorland is a high fire-risk habitat.

    Native deciduous broadleaf woodland, on the other hand is a low risk habitat due to high water content and damp understory.

    In fact native deciduous broadleaf woodland provides such a low fire risk habitat that it is used as a fire-belt between tracts of non-native high fire-risk conifer plantations. https://www.forestry.gov.uk/pdf/FCPG022.pdf/$file/FCPG022.pdf

    Therefore, re-wilding to create mixed habitats of upland bog, native woodland and fringe heath, will substantially reduce/ remove the fire-risk on our uplands, increase biodiversity, reduce flood risk (hydrology studies at the Pont Bren showed that tree planting reduces flooding risk...soil infiltration rates 67x faster and surface run off volumes reduced by 78% under trees)

    Heather moorland is a man-made intensively managed environment to the detriment of biodiversity, carbon emissions, water quality and those who live downstream.

    Re-wilding will benefit rural economies through tourism and engage people with the natural world. We could have a wilder Britain we could be proud of.

    Bring back the wild.

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