Warm words on burning

Natural England has issued a position statement on burning of blanket bogs – the position is basically ‘Don’t!’.

We understand that the serial blanket bog burners in the uplands are less than chuffed by actually being told what they can and can’t do. We can’t see any comment from the Moorland Association on this subject – not even along the lines of ‘If we ease off burning protected blanket bogs just for conservation reasons it will cost us a few grouse in the shooting season’.

The position statement makes it clear, almost for the first time (unless you read this blog regularly), that these changes to previous damaging practices, which have been allowed and tolerated by Defra and Natural England for ages, are being imposed because of pressure from the European Commission. The UK is trying to avoid heavy infraction proceedings from Europe by cobbling together some voluntary agreements with individual landowners. One of the first of these was shown to be unlawful by a legal challenge by myself and then NE had to repeat aspects of their ecological assessment of the plan and reversed their previous position.

Isn’t it odd that the European Commission, a private individual (me), a group of local campaigners in Hebden Bridge, other individuals like the wonderful Bob Berzins and some wildlife NGOS (the RSPB kicked off the complaint to the EU in October 2012! and FoE’s Guy Shrubsole is playing a major part these days) are gradually forcing the statutory nature conservation agency in England, and the government department whose job it is to protect the environment, to pull out their digits and do their jobs? Odd, but not unprecedented. And Chris Packham, Ruth Tingay and I hope that Wild Justice will be playing a part in this type of issue in future.

But, back to the position statement. It’s not bad.

It could do with a bit of editing though:

‘Natural England has been feeble in stopping is working with landowners and land managers damaging protected blanket bogs to secure voluntary approaches to the restoration of upland blanket bog, a priority habitat under the EU Habitats Directive, partly through but now we’ve been rumbled we’re moving slowly to stopping rotational burning. Our paymasters at Defra have lots of mates in grouse shooting and they haven’t been very keen to upset them. Natural England recognises the importantce of the contribution of landowners and land managers to causing this problem – in fact it’s almost all down to you guys – but it’s got to stop now.restoration of blanket bog and welcomes the progress made in entering new Long Term Management Plans,
The UK government is responding very slowly to infraction proceedings from the EU requiring measures to halt deterioration of blanket bog condition as a result of regular burning for the so-called sport of driven grouse shooting (which has a whole bunch of other undesirable and damaging issues associated with it). While Burning on blanket bogs damages them – that’s the problem. However, as a sop to the mates of our paymasters in Defra in exceptional circumstances it may be appropriate we’re going to allow occasional to carry out a one-off burns to continue just to try to keep the moorland owners a bit quieter than they would be otherwise. for the purposes of restoration.
Natural England here sets out the position it will take where a request is made to carry out a burn on blanket bog: We will continue to work with landowners and land managers to agree Long Term Management Plans, or equivalent, that contain broader management activities to achieve restoration or other outcomes across the land holding. in light of the infraction, burning for so-called restoration will only be considered on an exceptional basis. We know this will be unpopular with some of our noisiest, least public-spirited, richest and aggressive stakeholders but we would like to welcome them to the twenty-first century.’

Or something along those lines. Of course, a no-deal Brexit in a few weeks time will remove all leverage of infraction proceedings and then we will have to rely on the guts of Natural England (when does Tony Juniper arrive?) and the conservation zeal of Defra (we can rely on Therese Coffey) to protect blanket bogs. The ecological need will be just the same, but the levers of power will be very different. Still, everybody’s getting bored with Brexit so never mind.

Back again to this position statement. Given the political position we should thank NE for putting this out now – it will make it more difficult to backtrack on blanket bog protection but it could have been worded much more strongly so that NE amd Defra’s intentions were made clearer as being based on the science not just because the straight-banana men in the EU were forcing us to do this.

There are still some issues. Foremost is that there is no evidence at all to my mind that so-called restoration burning is ever necessary for blanket bogs. However did this habitat scrape by for thousands of years before men in tweed with matches came on the scene about 150 years ago? And nobody had heard of restoration burning a few years ago, it is a complete myth and it shows the power of double-speak – it’s straight out of Orwell. You can almost hear the conversation between a few moorland owners, one of them will have said this, ‘Burning blanket bogs damages them but we want to carry on doing it, so let’s call it restoration burning then it sounds nice. If we use this phrase for long enough and with our patrician tones and air of confidence, and we instruct our ‘keepers to use the phrase too, then those oiks in Natural England will start using the phrase as well – certainly our friends in NE. We’ll get a few ministers to mention it now and again and we’ll be made. Even though it isn’t a reality, it will seem like reality. That’s what we’ll do.‘. And that’s what has happened.

So, however much the moorland managers squeal, the fact is that any single concession to allowing burning of blanket bogs is unjustifiable. That’s my position statement.

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15 Replies to “Warm words on burning”

  1. Allowing the occasional burn is an easy way to suppress any chance of tree growth, as is this fetishising of “blanket bog”. Peat moors are great carbon sinks until they go on fire ; on hillsides where they dry out, they will, sooner or later. Mixed woodland across most of our uplands will survive climate fluctuations, hold far more water than peat and gradually release it to lower land in droughts.

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  2. this animation illustrates how Beavers could prevent moorland burning.... and "wild fires" ie arson. https://twitter.com/EmilyFairfax/status/1097195169131024384

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    1. Great stuff, sadly my hotel wifi twon' let me see it as yet. Please have a look at the last submission made to this Scotgov petition on the 03 December 2017. It happened to mention that more beavers in our uplands e.g in places such as current grouse moors, would not only help reduce the effects of floods and droughts downstream, but also the backed up water and soggy woodland beavers create would act as firebreaks. Almost an after thought. Then off course we had the awesome heatwave in 2018 and the bloody terrible Moorland fires. Derek Gow recently posted a tremendous picture from the USA where a beaver created wetland was still bright and green amongst hills where all the vegetation had been burnt. The benefits of targeted tree planting and healthy beaver populations in our uplands where much current economic activity has to be subsidised are bloody enormous, infinitely superior to grouse moors. http://www.parliament.scot/GettingInvolved/Petitions/PE01663

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  3. Excellent post to read after being internet free for nearly three weeks! Friends tell me that there is currently a great deal of burning in the Nidderdale AONB, much of which will be on blanket bog. And so it goes on.

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  4. Not sure I follow your point. Trees don’t grow on wet blanket bog, but they should be too wet to burn much. Drier heather moorland burning damages the peat, but that’s where the trees would be if it wasn’t being burned.

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  5. A bit of movement in the right direction. But why is it only about blanket bogs? Surely burning damages shallow peat as well...and it isn't good for dry heath...it removes deep heather needed for hen harriers and merlin to nest...and (as Steve Webster says) it stops trees and shrubs from growing. We should simply be asking for people to stop setting fire to our uplands.

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  6. The issue in front of the nose of landowners and their gamekeepers, by continuing to burn at this time of year, climate change is very much on their side. The gamekeeper is well aware that ground nesting raptors like Hen Harrier, short-eared owl and peregrine are just three species bringing their breeding cycle forward into March. I have seen with my own eyes the burning damage being caused at this time of year to these these species when settling down in territories on my local grouse moors in the Forest of Bowland. If the human disturbance doesn’t scare off the birds, then the clouds of dense acrid smoke certainly will. A few years ago I had the responsibility of advising Natural England of a burn on one Bowland estate that had been left burning out of control. Before action was taken I witnessed a pair of hen harriers flying from tussock to tussock in an obvious distressed manner. When inspecting the area I located the remains of a burnt out nest which had been partially constructed. Clearly all heather burning must now be stopped before the middle of March, or earlier .

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    1. I agree Terry I would prefer no burning at all with rewetting so that "proper" wet blanket bog was restored but then grouse moor owners don't want that as it grows very poor heather. The drier shallower peat will grow trees in some places except where the soil is very thin over unbroken rock. Without burning habitats would be less open but more mixed and hence more biodiverse.
      As to burning finishing earlier to prevent burning out Hen Harrier, Peregrine and Short-eared Owls, this has been happening for the latter two for years and years and as you say Hen Harriers now sometimes start breeding before the end of the burning season ( 15th April) in England. My own view has always been this is far too late and it should cease on 1st March. I know that the original data used to determine safe burning dates re birds was far too Scotland biased and consequently that April date has always been far too late. Then of course there are those keepers who will use the late burning season to deliberately burn long heather Harriers and SEOs are already showing an interest in and under known Peregrine sites to deter them. Long past time these birds nesting sites were protected all year round IMO.
      Voluntary agreements are also subject to abuse the no burning agreements should be statutory and contravention mean an automatic huge fine for the burner/ burners employer.

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  7. My understanding was that consents under the WCA ran unless withdrawn with compensation due as a result. It looks as if the statement is aimed at future requests and not existing consents.

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  8. I have no direct experience of "restoration burning", however, noticing how various mosses, and other
    lower plants thrive for a period after a burn, I would imagine that if a plan was in place, to restore an area of bog, removal of older Heather cover( which had gained ground through frequent burning),
    prior to re- wetting, would speed up the process?.
    Yesterday as I drove up out of the valley, passing the local Goshawk watchpoint bristling with telescopes, I was pleased to see white smoke rising on a local moor ( not blanket bog I hasten to add),signalling a resumption of burning by the agricultural tenant after a hiatus of something like ten years.
    I look forward to a walk over the area this spring, instead of wading through waist high heather and
    flushing mainly Wrens, it would be nice to return to the days of breeding Lapwing, sometimes Golden
    Plover, and occasional migrating Dotterel.

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  9. Voluntary restraint has about as much credibility in nature conservation, as trickle down theory has in economics. They are both signs of the abandonment of responsibility by those who are meant to protect the vulnerable.

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  10. The problem is that regularly burnt blanket bog, dominated by Heather with low sphagnum cover, is dry and trees will get established. Rewetting is needed in parallel, if not in advance of the stopping of muirburn.

    Mind you, hen harrier do like a bit of scrub.

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  11. Totally agree Paul, and should have said so in my comment. So I will say it now, all moorland burning should end before the beginning of March if we are to ensure Hen Harriers do not go extinct in ,

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  12. I have always thought that driven grouse shooting would be most effectively tackled by taking it apart issue by issue.
    Stop the burning.
    Stop the trapping.
    Stop the flooding.
    Stop the medication.
    Stop the lead.
    Stop the financial support.
    Get some regulation.
    Chip it away step by step. I think burning is a winnable argument.

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