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.