Smoke and mirrors from Defra/NE

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.

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11 Replies to “Smoke and mirrors from Defra/NE”

  1. Check that smoke. Who in the right mind would burn when the conditions are not right? What is left is horrible long storks with little bedding burnt resulting in very slow regrowth. Is that again due to more pressure from the owners of the moor not knowing the best time to burn?

  2. Thanks for your explanation Mark sounds good. I will take time off to work through the graph shortly.
    However, have you ever seem such wriggling by NE and Defra to try to circumvent the EU notice to Defra.
    The fact of the matter is that blanket bogs lock up a huge amount of carbon and burning them can only release a good part of that carbon to the atmosphere at the very time we are trying to reduce CO2 emissions to say nothing of the injury and damage to our moorland wildlife, grouse excepted.
    What a hypocrite this Government is. If one did not know them for what they are and what vested interests they support I think one would find it hard to believe their dodging and weaving antics.

    1. Re carbon and burning comment above: Natural England's 2010 report England's Peatlands: Carbon storage and greenhouse gases says burning accounts for three-quarters of the CO2 released from poor condition upland bogs in England...

  3. I'm very grateful to you Mark for exposing this and to you and the RSPB for fighting it.
    Heaven help us when or if we leave the EU. We really are, at least in mentality, a third world country, led by people with an ideology still clinging to feudalistic tendencies.
    What is even more amazing and pretty depressing is that pretty much no one seems to give a shite.

  4. I think the most telling part is the title ‘Identifying when managed burning may be a useful tool to support the restoration of blanket bog in England‘. How could anyone believe that burning could help restore blanket bog? I know science can be a tool both in promoting an preventing almost any issue, but this is ridiculous.
    Can the purpose behind a document with his title be anything other than what you presumably suspect it to be?

  5. Hot off the paper out today. Probably going to generate some controversy I would imagine...

    1. There is also a longer article for those who do not have access to Nature Geoscience here:

  6. Smoke and mirrors indeed. Much one might almost say most blanket bog on grouse moors is not as wet as it should be indeed much of it at surface level could be described as more characteristic of dry heath with considerable heather cover which grows vigorously when burnt because of drainage. WE paid for that drainage paid for with government grants for drainage to "improve" the grazing. Although of course the cynics and realists amongst us know much of this "grazing improvement" was done in the sixties to eighties to improve the ability to grow heather for grouse production. The only justification now for burning on blanket bog is to clear that heather as part of a restoration process which also MUST INVOLVE REWETTING IMMEDIATELY after the burning, raising the immediate water table with lots of grip and peat hag blocking. This burning need only be done where heather is totally dominant to allow the moss and other blanket bog vegetation proper to compete initially, even without the burning the other blanket bog vegetation will return but often more slowly as some of the heather dies due to water logging. On the other hand DEFRA and NE can pretend that this special and not always needed "restoration " burning might need to be routine without rewetting, it is to all intents and purposes a SCAM. A Scam to keep the Tory supporting and donating moorland owners and grouse shooters happy whilst trying to deflect the EU until after Brexit ( another reason for that fiasco not to happen!). We have news for you DEFRA/NE you have been rumbled!

  7. When Natural England state that 'managed burning may be a useful tool in the restoration of Blanket Bog ' this can then result in shooting estates claiming they use burning in this way when in fact all they are doing is burning with the sole purpose of increasing Grouse numbers.The photograph of burning shown comes from an estate that has not entered into the voluntary agreement with N.E not to burn Blanket Bog but we have even seen estates who have signed up to a voluntary ban already completely ignoring it and continuing to burn Blanket Bog.
    If this is DEFRA/N.E's response to the pressure that the European Commission have put them under to put their house in order in regards CO2 emissions from Grouse shooting estates it clearly isn't working.
    For goodness sake Michael Gove pull your finger out and start to legislate against the disaster of driven Grouse shooting. By the way ,it needs banning.

  8. There is also this...

    and the conclusion at section 5 is rather more cautious than the article
    in Nature Geoscience

  9. Good work as usual from Mark. However, I'd like to offer a slightly different angle on this. There are a number of activities, such as Heather burning, driven grouse shooting in general, fox hunting. hunting deer with hounds, using lead shot etc, which in any other context would be considered socially unacceptable, but which bizarrely are given a free pass. It appears to certain activities by favoured groups i.e. groups which have great influence and power in our society, are given a completely free pass. Questioning them in any way is taboo, because they are classed as "legitimate" activities. Therefore their injurious effects are studiously ignored. These activities are virtually always activities in which senior members of the establishment indulge in, or have some strong connection to.

    It's a type of societal corruption, that a harmful activity is ignored, just because it is something done in favour of the most powerful in our society. Take lead shot. In what other context would it be acceptable to go around spraying large quantities of a toxic heavy metal around the countryside and our environment. It's rightly considered an horrific crime if some thugs used their dogs to tear apart a cat. So why isn't it considered horrific to do the same to Foxes? When people's dogs chase and kill livestock, it is described in gory detail and rightly considered horrific. Yet a blind eye is turned when posh people do the same to deer, even though it is illegal. Egg collectors are rightly seen as aberrant individuals, and are prosecuted with vigour. Yet a general blind eye is turned to the illegal persecution of birds of prey by shooting interests, and there is huge denial from the government about the extent and scale of the problem.

    We're no longer living in the 18th Century. Yet why is there still this forelock tugging deference to the activities of the landed gentry, and the upper echelons of the establishment? Yes, as Mark illustrates, you can illustrate the absurdity of Heather burning with science and facts. However, it's not rocket science why it's wrong, so why was it ever considered acceptable?


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