Moorland Association and Scottish Land and Estates implore their members to cease heather burning

It’s difficult to hide a fire on open moorland – this is the recent controversial fire at Deer Hill – seen from about five miles away.

Both Moorland Association and Scottish Land and Estates have asked their members to cease heather burning at this time in order not to fill peoples’ lungs with smoke at the time when coronavirus is affecting the nation’s health, and so as not to impose on the resources of the emergency services.

Well, actually, Scottish Land and Estates asked their members yesterday to cease burning and their website is very clear about this – well done to them (and I don’t often say that!)!

In contrast, despite it being high-profile incidents in England which have prompted major concern from the emergency services and National Park authorities, the Moorland Association’s website does not (as of 17:30 today) yet carry any such advice or instruction. Rather ironically, the Moorland Association’s webpage has a 2-week-old story about wild fires as its ‘latest news’!

Luckily for all Guardian-reading moorland owners and gamekeepers, Amanda is quoted in the Guardian thus;

Following the increased risks of wildfire and Covid-19 restrictions we have supported the suspension of heather burning and have advised our members to use cutting instead.

Controlled burning is an important tool in managing our moorlands when used in the right place at the right time. This is not the right time.

A climate emergency is never the right time to burn on peat soils and increase the emission of greenhouse gases, and the breeding season of many moorland birds is a pretty bad time too and the emergence from hibernation of Common Lizards and Adders on moorland is a bad time to do it too. In fact, when is the right time? The right time is probably never.

Let’s see how Amanda’s non-Guardian-reading members get on – it’s very difficult to hide heather burning as there is very rarely smoke without fire.

Grouse moor managers burn heather to create artificially favourable conditions for Red Grouse with the aim being to shoot these birds after the Inglorious 12th August. And nobody could argue that shooting Red Grouse is anything other than a niche hobby – it’s hardly essential or economically important.

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19 Replies to “Moorland Association and Scottish Land and Estates implore their members to cease heather burning”

  1. Guardian-reading grouse moor owners. Yeah, right.

    Wonder if the Telegraph bothered to mention it? And you can't help feeling, can you that they are mostly motivated by the bad PR.

    In passing, can I recommend to anyone wanting an interesting and worthwhile activity (some of them even suitable for children). Contribute to our knowledge and possibly to wildlife protection, in a way we can all do. Some great nature-protection projects, and quite fascinating. The rainfall rescue project was on BBC news website this morning, and it's now 68% complete!

  2. Even in "normal" years burning is allowed in England until the ludicrously late date of 15th April. Apparently this is in part because BTO upland bird nesting data (which was at the time and may still be hugely biased towards Scotland) suggests most birds are not nesting until late April on moorland. Actually, and I'll be polite, this is wrong, very wrong, some grouse, most Mallard, some Lapwing, Golden Plover and other waders, Stonechats, Ring Ousels, Short -eared Owls, Hen Harriers and certainly Peregrines are nesting or have occupied territories at this time. Even if the date was moved to the much more acceptable 1st March some/most Adders ( specially protected) and Common Lizards are already out of hibernation.
    Burning should be banned for all sorts of very good reasons and all cutting cease by March 15th at the latest. There are things other than grouse that live on moorland.

    1. First of all - thank you for all the wonderful contributions you make to this blog and others.

      When shooting estates could cut the heather instead of burning, and wildlife experts are highlighting the potential or likely breaches of the law caused by this practice, it amazes me that shooting estates seem to be able to get away with burning.

      I tried to report a potential nest disturbance incident last year but the police wouldn’t even accept my concerns as a complaint!

      As you know, there is supposedly a lot of legislation providing protection to birds, wildlife and plants yet burning, in my opinion, seems to be allowed to operate pretty much unregulated.

      The UK Government’s Guidance on heather and grass burning
      “When burning heather or grass you must … not disturb or destroy wild birds and their nests, or other protected animals, plants and habitats”

      Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981
      S1, “Protection of wild birds, their nests and eggs.
      (1) Subject to the provisions of this Part, if any person intentionally—
      kills, injures or takes any wild bird;
(aa) takes, damages or destroys the nest of a wild bird included in Schedule ZA1;
      (b) takes, damages or destroys the nest of any wild bird while that nest is in use or being built; or
      (c) takes or destroys an egg of any wild bird,
      he shall be guilty of an offence.

      Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981
      S9, Protection of certain wild animals.
      Subject to the provisions of this Part, if any person intentionally kills, injures or takes any wild animal included in Schedule 5, he shall be guilty of an offence.(4)
      (4) Subject to the provisions of this Part, a person is guilty of an offence if intentionally or recklessly
      he damages or destroys any structure or place which any wild animal specified in Schedule 5 uses for shelter or protection;
      he disturbs any such animal while it is occupying a structure or place which it uses for shelter or protection; or
      he obstructs access to any structure or place which any such animal uses for shelter or protection.
      Schedule 5
      Adder (in respect of section 9(5) only) Vipera berus

      Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981
      S13, Protection of wild plants.
      (1) Subject to the provisions of this Part, if any person—
      (a) intentionally picks, uproots or destroys any wild plant included in Schedule 8; or
      (b) not being an authorised person, intentionally uproots any wild plant not included in that Schedule, he shall be guilty of an offence.
      (3) Notwithstanding anything in subsection (1), a person shall not be guilty of an offence by reason of any act made unlawful by that subsection if he shows that the act was an incidental result of a lawful operation and could not reasonably have been avoided.

      SCHEDULE 8
      Plants which are Protected

      UK Government’s Guidance on heather and grass burning
      “When burning heather or grass you must … not disturb or destroy wild birds and their nests, or other protected animals, plants and habitats”

  3. Leaving aside the current distressing circumstances, which justify a temporary cessation in heather burning, can you remind me why the RSPB signed up to a policy of muirburn at Langholm?

    The unequivocal objective to restore it as a viable driven grouse moor, which all the project partners supported, was surely intended to benefit other species besides red grouse.

    1. Lazywell - hello! Welcome back. The unequivocal aim of the management regime at Langholm was to restore grouse shooting in the presence of raptors. Bizarrely, GWCT say it failed and RSPB say it succeeded.

    2. Times change Lazywell, sometimes extremely quickly and suddenly, it would be almost inconceivable for it to happen now.

  4. Burning is of course a major issue. The following is technically off topic, but I’m worried that this spring could bring a free for all against protected species on moorland as gamekeepers (legitimately) can go where they choose on estates, and raptor workers, birders and other members of the public who so regularly spot evidence of crime or suspicious activity are kept away. See press reports today of police measures to - probably rightly - keep leisure visitors away from the Peak District and elsewhere. Presumably this applies to RSPB investigative staff? Or is crime prevention not as essential an activity as, say, travelling to one’s ‘essential’ job in an off licence?

    1. I mentioned that a few posts ago too. I've certainly seen an upswing in dead badgers dumped by the roadside round here in the last couple of weeks. Whether that represents more badgers being killed and left for the trucks to smoosh the evidence into the tarmac, or whether the fewer number of trucks means the corpses are just more visible and not destroyed as quickly, is anybody's guess though.

      1. How do you know these dead badgers were dumped and were not actually road kill have you any proof or are you just making unsubstantiated comments

        1. Traffic is greatly reduced at the moment my friend. So you'd expect a lot less road kill badgers wouldn't you?

    2. Indeed all field work has stopped, by RSPB, Natural England, all amateur raptor workers, who are the backbone of monitoring work in our uplands are unable to visit unless in the unlikely scenario of living in walking distance. Keepers will not have stopped despite their jobs hardly being vital or essential in these trying times. Many of us remember what happened in foot and mouth during 2001 when most raptor populations suffered an inexplicable decline. We are justifiably fearful.

      1. I have a horrible feeling that beavers on many parts of the Tay are currently 'disappearing' too. I was speaking to someone involved in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park a few weeks ago and the good news is that most of the lochs in it are now showing evidence of beaver activity. Probably mainly dispersing young males looking for territory and females, but hopefully the latter will follow on soon. Bloody terrible when your core population is situated in the heart of enemy territory - mind you it would have been even worse if it was the Tweed - so really good news they're becoming established elsewhere. I hope that after the current crisis subsides there's more resolution to really fight for conservation and against ignorance and greed rather than trying to accommodate it because life is far too short and precious to do anything else. The thought of what's probably happening in the countryside right now with the general absence of potential witnesses to any wrongdoing is sickening.

        1. The covert releasers would have been far better served releasing them in and around the upper Clyde around Hamilton and Motherwell. The wildlife is safer there than in the countryside. Even releasing them on the Irvine around the Loudoun Valley and Kilmarnock would have seen them safer. covert releasers

          1. I honestly don't believe this spread is the result of covert releases, in this case I'm pretty sure it's down to the natural spread as population increases and expands. Scotgov has made it abundantly clear that if it believes beavers have been illegally released somewhere they'll be removed. They were very keen to show they meant this when they removed the beavers up at Beauly that had been there, secretly, for years and weren't causing any problems. Keeping the rural mafia happy is obviously the priority. Scotgov desperately needs to be challenged on this and translocating beavers to where they'll definitely be a boon to conservation and flood reduction needs to be allowed, at present it isn't, but shooting them can be.

            I would imagine translocating beavers illegally isn't an easy affair, and anyone doing so have a good chance of doing it for nowt, because if the beavers look as if they've been assisted Scotgov will kill/trap them. At least beaver are creeping towards the north side of Glasgow and there could be two not just one populations less than fifteen miles away from Falkirk which obviously cheers me up. You're absolutely right, Scotland's central belt is considerably safer for many species than the 'wilder' part of Scotland where 'sporting' estates dominate, that's a disgrace.

          2. Translocating beaver, I'm told anyway, is fairly easy once you've caught your beaver. A rental van and the ability to drive within the speed limits is all you really need. Catching the beaver, particularly if you want to do it from a non-UK source is the tricky part. Transporting it across the North Sea from Germany requires nothing more complex than a bung to a fishing trawler though. That is what I've heard, anyway. I am in no way involved with any illegal wildlife trade myself, and have heard about all this only at third or fourth hand remove. I obviously would not advocate anyone doing it. You wouldn't steal a car, after all.

    3. Richard, I am sure the RSPB will have a few of their field staff working in the Forest of Bowland this year, although disappointingly this essential work will be restricted to moorland owned by United Utilities. The question that requiring clarification, is any activity undertaken by moorland gamekeepers, particularly at this time of year essential? I would argue probably not, especially as heather burning one of the most significant time consuming activities undertaken by gamekeepers has now been stopped.

    4. Richard, I am confident the RSPB will have a limited presence this year in the Forest of Bowland undertaking their essential work protecting Schedule 1 raptors, although these activities will be restricted to moorland owned by United Utilities. The important question on most people’s mind can the gamekeepers now justify their presence on moorland using the excuse of undertaking essential work at this time? In view of recent events bringing an end to heather burning, a significant labour intensive activity, there is no longer any misunderstanding, gamekeeper duties can not be described as essential.

  5. I must say I just find the permitted continuation of heather burning incredible. This terrible Government still appears to take no action to stop it. At a time when rain water run off and consequent flooding from Moorlands is never far from the headlines and all of us have to reduce our carbon emissions, why should these privileged grouse moor owners be allowed to continue with their disastrous ecologically damaging practices.
    The whole situation “stinks” of old fashioned privilege. Driven grouse shooting and moorland mismanagement should be stopped in its tracks tomorrow.


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