Smoke in the hills

Boris Johnson wasn’t watching Extinction – the facts last night even though his missus was, if a report, just a single sentence, in The Times today is to be believed. At the very foot of an article about how the UK would meet its net-zero target is the sentence ‘Plans to ban peat-burning appear to have been abandoned‘.

The case for ending rotational burning of heather on peatlands is strong on the grounds of habitat protection and environmental protection.

It was back in January this year that the Committee on Climate Change called for a ban on burning; Page 14

This followed what amounted to a promise by DEFRA Minister Zac Goldsmith MP (then, now DEFRA Minister Lord Goldsmith), in October 2019, that because a voluntary approach had failed, and it surely had failed, government would act to ban burning of heather in peatlands.

Part of the basis for this call, and part of the wider environmental case on grounds of flood rish and water quality came from the excellent EMBER report (see here recently and here and here).

The RSPB started a complaint to the EU back in October 2012 (yes, really) about the unregulated and excessive burning of blanket bogs and this complaint led to infraction proceedings against the UK government by the EU Commission (eg see here) on the grounds that a priority habitat was being damaged.

This is a classic and strong case where a management regime was harming a rare and beautiful habitat but also reducing the ecosystem services that the habitat provides to us all. The case for a ban of burning on peatlands is clear and strong, but inconvenient to a tiny interest group which seems to have the Conservative Government in its pocket (see other news in The Times today).

What with Zac’s words, and the call from the Climate Change Committee one might have hoped that this policy change was in the bag. Such hopes have only been strengthened by the responses in the last few weeks of scores of Conservative MPs, (including the Prime Minister himself and Rebecca Pow, a DEFRA Minister) in response to the Wild Justice/Hen Harrier Action/RSPB e-action, stating something very like this:

Following representations by me and others, Ministers have accepted the need to phase out rotational burning of protected blanket bog to conserve vulnerable habitats.

Now I wouldn’t lose hope that we will see a favourable government announcement very soon on this matter just because of one sentence in The Times but it makes one wonder.

If we don’t see an announcement on this matter then not only will we see smoke in the hills but the air in Westminster and Whitehall will be think with smoke too as Conservative MPs backsides spontaneously combust ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire’!

The opening of the heather burning season in upland England is 1 October.

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10 Replies to “Smoke in the hills”

  1. If all the grouse moor turns to dwarf oak forest with trees at a density of 1 per 25 M^2, each tree holding a ton of carbon, 19780 kM^2 of grouse moor would deliver the capture of 79.1 million tons of carbon in 60 years. The rate of assimilation thereafter would be harder to establish. How much carbon do we need to capture?

    1. I did say previously that you were overly optimistic about Lord Goldsmith, not a politician I'd trust to deliver anything unless it was in tune with the wishes of the Tory Party!

      Nor can I say its a surprise that environmental issues aren't top of this Governments agenda, but then people must have known that when they voted for them!

      1. Matthew - I wasn't overly optimistic about Zac, I was comparing him with all the other candidates for the job whom we might have had. And DEFRA Minister though he is, this is not his area of responsibility. But I'd feel for him if his boss George Eustice (of whom I have also said some fairly nice things) were to make Zac into a liar by not following through on the burning question.

    2. Hi Gerard,
      This is not my area so take this with a pinch of salt, but I believe that a functioning blanket bog would drawdown and store more carbon than woodland - by this I mean a wet, unburnt bog. - Alonso et al. Natural England Research Reports, Number NERR043 (2012) has better details than me!

      1. Indeed ultimately it would, but I don't how long it would take to deposit 1 M of peat underneath a blanket bog and not all grouse moors would ultimately become blanket bog. Let us say for the sake of argument all 19780 km^2 of grouse moor were blanket bog and it deposited 1 M in 60 years, that would be 19780 million tons of carbon in 60 years, assuming a density of about 1 ton per m^3 and that that M^3 was 100 % carbon.

  2. Very worrying. Will you be writing to the minister to ask what is going on? Given the strength of the biodiversity, water and climate cases against burning, if we can't win this argument, what hope for anything else? If it really looks like they're trying to wriggle out of this, then, between us, we need to kick up an enormous fuss.

    We worry about the impact of fires in the Amazon, Indonesia, USA and Australia. Why the hell are we letting people deliberately (and regularly) set fire to bits of the UK?

  3. "now DEFRA Minister Lord Goldsmith"

    Can a Minister Lord be summonsed to the lower house to be questioned (or to answer questions)?

    1. I think s/he has to be questioned in the House of Lords. A Select Committee can also invite members of the HoL to a committee room to answer questions in relation to its terms of reference.

  4. Banning burning is a crucial part of it these uplands also need to be rewetted too as part of a wider plan. Will this be just another broken Tory promise as their pals in DGS don't like it. Let's in the meantime hope for enough drizzle, mizzle and light rain without wind to hamper the efforts of the arsonists in tweed! Like everything else this shower in power don't do for our environment it makes me very angry.


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