This post exposes the worthlessness of Defra’s/NE’s formal agreements with grouse moor managers in the matter of burning of vegetation of blanket bogs.
Grouse moor managers want to burn our uplands to blazes in order to maximise the habitat quality for Red Grouse – the shooting of which can be sold at high prices to recreational shooters.
Burning of blanket bogs (a priority habitat for the European Union) harms them, and thanks to a formal complaint over 6 years ago by the RSPB (well done RSPB!) the European Commission is breathing down the necks of Defra threatening infraction proceedings against them (Defra/the Westminster government) unless they put their house in order and stop grouse moor managers from damaging this precious habitat for their own (the grouse moor owners’) selfish financial interests.
Rather than using regulation to end this ecologically damaging practice, Defra has chosen to pretend to deal with it by attempting to sign individual agreements with each grouse moor in turn. Earlier this year I successfully challenged the legality of one of these agreements and forced NE to think again.
The scale of the problem of burning:
A study published in 2012 showed that 24% of moorland deep peat was burned at that time – that provides a good benchmark for the scale of the problem.
The measures that NE is agreeing with landowners need demonstrably to reduce that percentage to a much lower level, ideally to remove burning altogether. The UK IUCN Committee promotes the ‘cessation of managed burning on peat bog systems’ and criticises ‘the mistaken view that burning is beneficial for both the ecology and the carbon store of a bog’.
What is actually happening?:
Two moorland plans already agreed between landowners and NE allow burning of blanket bog where the heather coverage is as low as 20% and the Sphagnum moss cover is as high as 50% – most upland ecologists are gobsmacked at this and say that burning is neither necessary nor desirable under these circumstances (in fact it is unnecessary (unless you want more grouse for shooting) and undesirable). They also say that this will allow burning to continue on most blanket bogs in England – the very thing that Defra/NE are supposed to be stopping in order to a) protect designated habitat (which is what we pay them to do) and b) get the European Commission off their own backs.
The Heather and Grass Burning Code (signed up to by the Moorland Association, Defra, Natural England and others) states that on heather moorland, a less sensitive habitat than blanket bog, managers should ‘Aim only to burn areas with a 50% or greater cover of heather‘ and yet NE is agreeing burning on blanket bogs with as little as 20% heather cover. Doesn’t add up does it?
That same code states that blanket bogs ‘should not be burned other than in line with a management plan agreed with Natural England‘ which is pretty much worthless if NE caves in and allows burning of blanket bog that goes against the recommendations of technical experts (including their own).
You can find what NE has agreed in the moorland plans for Wemmergill (page 36 ) and Walshaw (Fig 12, page 17) moors.
How much blanket bog will be up for burning under these agreements?:
I have seen a document (an NE Evidence Note) which isn’t yet published, but surely will be soon, entitled ‘Identifying when managed burning may be a useful tool to support the restoration of blanket bog in England‘. Many other people have seen it, and are working to it, too, so I don’t think we can call this a leaked document – it’s just that NE hasn’t got around to publishing it yet.
When they do, we should all, including the European Commission, have a look at this graph…
It’s not the most interesting of graphs perhaps, and I didn’t find it the easiest to understand, but I think I have got there now.
Let me explain it to you – always the best way to see whether I have understood it.
The Y-axis is ‘% of samples’ where the samples were a large number of randomly selected blanket bog measurements in upland England. The X-axis is ‘minimum % cover threshold’ which is plotted for four lines – three different species of moorland vegetation (Calluna (Heather), Molinia (Purple Moor-grass) and Eriophorum (Cotton Grass)) and for the four species added together (I’ll come back to that at the bottom of this post because it threw me for a while).
So, the line in which we are most interested is that for Calluna which is the red/brown line. Let’s look at that, starting at the right hand side of the graph where it says >95%. That shows that for those blanket bog sites with >95% heather cover they only make up around 1% of the sample (not very much, just like we would expect). If we then move to the left to where it says >90% the Calluna line is a bit higher – it has to be, because everything that has >95% is still included but so are those sites with 90-95% heather cover too. And so, as we move back to the left, the line always goes up until we get to the end of the graphed line at >50% heather cover which makes up just over 15% of all sites.
So, for the purposes of this blog post, the interesting thing to know would be at what level the heather line would be if the graph were drawn as far back to the left as >20% heather cover because that is what the Wemmergilll and Walshaw moorland plan agreements allow. Well, the graph doesn’t go back that far so we are left guessing, but we aren’t left guessing very much.
We know that the graph must keep rising in value (at >0% it has to rise to 100% of the sites because they all must have between 0 and 100% heather on them) and that >20% is a long way further left. I’d guess that well over half of all sites and quite possibly three-quarters of sites have heather cover as low as 20% and which, it looks like NE would be happy to authorise burning. That’s hardly going to reduce the level of damage to blanket bogs is it?
NE could calculate how much of the blanket bog resource has >20% of heather cover and if they did I would bet that it would be a figure that is very high. And it I were the European Commission I would ask Defra for that graph and an explanation of how the measures they are pursuing will reduce damage to priority blanket bog habitat.
So this analysis shows that the level of heather cover for which NE is allowing burning of blanket bog is so low that it is inconceivable that using that threshold will lead to a reduction in the amount of burning of blanket bog. If I am wrong then NE will soon be able to provide the full version of the graph above that covers all values of percentage cover of heather between 0% and 100%.
Technical note for those who are interested: in the graph above I was puzzled for a while by the fact that the blue line is simply the sum of the three lines below it. I was thinking ‘that can’t be right, because the three lines represent different sites so you can’t add them together like that’ – but of course you can. Because on this graph they are all for >50% cover that means that they are indeed for different sites. But if you carried the lines back to >20% then you could have sites which are >20% cover of all three species which would make it much more difficult to calculate the blue line. That has probably just confused you – sorry! But if you are on top of this stufff then i hope you might thik I’m right.