RSPB press release – moorland burning is massive problem

Walshaw Moor Estate. Photo: Sarah Hanson

New analysis shows that burning of moorlands is the biggest threat to England’s most important places for wildlife

  • New analysis of Government data by the RSPB shows that the burning of moorlands is the biggest identified threat to England’s Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).
  • The analysis also shows that no reason has been identified for half of England’s SSSIs that are in poor condition.
  • These findings have been hidden in the data published by Natural England, which is only based on a small subset of the SSSIs that are in poor condition.

A new analysis of Government data by the RSPB shows that the burning of moorlands is the biggest identified threat to England’s most important places for wildlife, known as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).

The other major finding in the analysis is that Natural England has not identified any reason for half of all the English SSSIs that are in poor condition. This means that we do not know why 316,167 hectares of England’s SSSIs are in poor condition, an area roughly the size of Gloucestershire.

Without this information, it will be impossible for Government and Natural England to put in place the actions needed to achieve the target to restore 75% of SSSIs to good condition.

Whilst burning is the largest known cause of SSSIs in poor condition, the analysis also identifies overgrazing and water pollution (especially from agriculture) as being important contributors to the parlous state of these sites.

Moorlands are burned to create habitat for grouse for shooting and also to make them more productive for grazing. This causes long-lasting damage to highly sensitive peatland habitats and the loss of threatened species. It also results in the release of carbon to the atmosphere (adding to climate change), reduces the quality of drinking water (increasing water bills), increases water run-off (exacerbating the risk of flooding) and adds to air pollution.

Natural England publishes the reasons why SSSIs are in poor condition on their website. However, this data is incomplete and misleading. 61% of SSSIs in England are in poor condition. Natural England’s published data only includes the reasons for the poor condition of 8% of SSSIs. It excludes the reasons why 53% of sites are in poor condition because Natural England considers that these are ‘recovering’.

The RSPB’s head of site policy, Kate Jennings said “Many of these ‘recovering’ sites are not recovering at all. Natural England put many SSSIs into this category a decade ago because it assumed that entering into a plan or agreement with the landowner would automatically lead to the restoration of the site, without considering whether the plan was being funded, implemented or proving effective.

A decade on, the evidence clearly shows that this was a mistake. The little SSSI monitoring that Natural England has carried out in recent years shows that ‘unfavourable recovering’ sites are being downgraded to ‘unfavourable no-change’ or ‘unfavourable declining’. This is despite large amounts of public money being spent on agreements which were never going to drive recovery, including some which allow moorland burning to continue and so perpetuate damage to these precious places.

SSSIs are the best remaining places for England’s wildlife. Studies show that without SSSIs our wildlife would have suffered much worse over the past 50 years. They only cover 6% of England but, if restored, these sites can drive nature’s recovery, contributing to the 30% of land the Government has pledged for nature.

Alongside their role conserving wildlife, protected sites deliver benefits to society of around £1 billion, 9 times the amount of public money spent on them. This includes improving water and air quality, reducing flood risk and storing carbon. They also offer us all a place to access nature, benefiting our mental and physical health.

Natural England’s budget has been slashed by around two thirds over the last decade. As a result, spending on SSSI monitoring fell from nearly £2 million at the start of the decade to £700,000 in 2019 and more than 70% of SSSIs have not been monitored in the last 6 years.

Kate Jennings concludes, “A ban on peatland burning would be a ‘quick win’ in helping to achieve the Government’s target to restore 75% of SSSIs to favourable condition by 2042 (see Note 3), and is also an essential step towards tackling the climate crisis. This is a critical next step in protecting and restoring our internationally important upland peatlands. The Government has repeatedly promised a ban but has not yet done so.

It is also essential that SSSIs are regularly monitored, so that we know what state they are in, what is causing damage to their wildlife and what actions need to be taken. Without this, achieving the Government’s target will be impossible.”.

Case Study – Bowes Moor SSSI, Durham

Bowes Moor SSSI is an extensive tract of moorland in south-west Durham. It has been given international protection for its fragile peatland habitats and diverse moorland bird communities, which include some of our rarest birds of prey – merlin and short-eared owl.

In a 2011 report Natural England used Bowes Moor SSSI as an example of a site that was on track to being fully restored. Almost 10 years on, Natural England’s data now shows that its condition has deteriorated. Parts of the site have been downgraded from ‘unfavourable recovering’ to ‘unfavourable no-change’ due to grouse moor management. The reasons state “Vehicle access damage was evident on the wetter areas of bog, related to the positions of the grit stations and traps (for grouse). Burning has also occurred in the sensitive no burn areas, across a watercourse and on blanket bog where there is an almost continuous cover of sphagnum with frequent bog pools”. This has led to “the exposure of bare peat in places”, resulting in irreversible damage to the habitat and locked up carbon being lost to the atmosphere.



1 Reply to “RSPB press release – moorland burning is massive problem”

  1. Very well done RSPB for analysing and making public the fact that burning of our moorlands creates big problems and down grades the quality of the land so much. It’s a good job we have a really good organisation with excellent science capabilities to highlight all this.
    It is therefore really good that the Scottish Government are going to regulate and license driven grouse shooting and therefore hopefully stop all burning by law.
    What the shambles in the form of Defra will do is anyone’s guess but probably nothing, I expect, as they are so integrated with and sympathetic to, the shooters.

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