This post is about the announcement, long-awaited announcement, overdue announcement, that DEFRA made on Friday about burning on blanket bogs. I’ll tell you what I think in the hope that it influences what you think. I’ve read the announcement, and thought about it, and that probably helps.
1. The announcement is good news
The announcement is good news – it regulates the environmental harm caused by burning of vegetation on peat soils, mostly upland peat soils. What is the harm? The harm is manifold: blanket bog is a priority habitat under EU legislation adopted by the UK and burning it damages it. Stopping damage to a habitat, as the words above say, ‘protected habitat’, is a good thing. Moreover, burning blanket bog habitats leads to increased carbon emissions, water discolouration, increased flood risk in times of heavy rain and other disruption of ecological services. All of these impacts affect people’s pockets. George Eustice’s quote recognises these impacts.
Interestingly, the announcement does not hint at the fact that most of the damage done to blanket bogs is done by upland land managers pursuing the niche hobby of shooting Red Grouse for fun – it’s almost as though we were all up in the hills carrying out this damage.
The organisation which deserves most credit for this advance is the RSPB which in its dogged advocacy, largely behind the scenes, has painstakingly pressed and prodded successive Conservative Secretaries of State at DEFRA to get this fixed, Back in 2012, yes 2012, the RSPB complained to the EU Commission and the Commission took up this complaint (slowly) and by the time Michael Gove was at DEFRA something had to give. Things would have moved quicker, no doubt, and probably more decisively, had some of you not voted for Brexit, but even with that handicap, things have continued to move.
Friends of the Earth and the Climate Change Committee have latterly played important roles too. This blog has done its little bit. On the ground local campaigners such as those at Hebden Bridge have been important too, and individuals such as Bob Berzins and a range of Moorland Monitors, as well as very forcefully Ban Bloodsports on Yorkshire’s Moors, have played important roles more recently. As these things always are, it has been a team effort, but, in my view, the RSPB has played the crucial and pivotal role when few others were that bothered – well done them! Although, a serious review of whether the RSPB could have got us here much quicker would probably find that they could have done (IMHO). But, without the staid RSPB we would not have got here at all. And we are in a better position today than last Monday thanks to this announcement.
But now the question is, are we in a brilliant position or a slightly less crap position, or somewhere in the middle?
2. What does the announcement actually promise?
The critical words are these, and the only problematical ones are those in red;
The new regulations will prevent the burning of any specified vegetation on areas of deep peat (over 40cm depth) on a Site of Special Scientific Interest that is also a Special Area of Conservation or a Special Protection Area unless a licence has been granted or the land is steep or rocky.
If only the announcement had said;
The new regulations will prevent the burning of any specified vegetation on peat soils.
…but it most certainly doesn’t say that.
There seems no real reason for excluding areas of slightly less deep peat, say 30cm, or 20cm, or 15cm, from these regulations. Is there any scientific reason for this restriction? Does burning on slightly less deep peat not have the harmful impacts identified by DEFRA as the reason for these measures? Not that I am aware.
Presumably we do know where all the peatlands are in England? After all, a Peat Strategy for England is overdue too. We certainly know where all the deep peat areas of blanket bog are – you can simply look them up on a map here. [Actually, it’s fairly simple once you’ve got the hang of it – it does require a bit of application of type and effort].
Those who know the North York Moors will know that there is a lot of peat soil there, and most of the upland area is SSSI, SPA and SAC. But when you go and look at the maps very little of the area is classified as blanket bog despite being on peat soils. Here is a map which actually shows a high proportion of all the blanket bog in the entire area – it’s a tiny proportion;
Heather burning on peat soils in the North York Moors will be little affected by this measure.
All SPAs and SACs are SSSIs too, but not all SSSIs are SACs or SPAs. Do the ecosystem services of peatland out of SACs and SPAs differ from those in them? And what about deep peat soils that are outside even SSSIs?
Since we have a map of blanket bog readily available let’s have a look around to see what the coverage of blanket bog (deep peat) outside SSSIs looks like.
Let’s first go to the Forest of Bowland area. If you drive, or walk, or cycle, along the road between Slaidburn and High Bentham, you have blanket bog, deep peat, on either side of the road for quite a stretch.
But is it SSSI and therefore caught by the DEFRA announcement? Let’s see by overlaying in green the SSSI, thus;
Ahh! Not so much! And that’s because SSSIs were not designed to cover all areas of nature cosnervation interest, they were meant to be representative examples, so they don’t give complete coverage or complete protection. The impact here is that massive areas of
deep peat, no doubt about it, deep peat, will still be burnable under these new measures aiming to save England’s rainforests.
That’s just one example, but there are plenty more, here’s another from the Yorkshire Dales where the blanket bog, deep peat, is that buff colour but the only bits that won’t be burnable are those also shaded in green hatching;
…there are plenty of gaps aren’t there?
We have to wonder how many licences Natural England, the friend of the grouse moor manager, will issue to allow them to get round these measures anyway.
And what is going to count as steep and/or rocky? We are talking about hills!
It is clear that the government’s announcement does not protect all peatlands, as we were promised, and because it doesn’t attempt to protect areas of significant peat but <40cm in depth, and it doesn’t even lead to the protection of deep peat outside SSSIs then it’s hardly the great environmental leap forward we weree promised and which we need to implement. But it is something, it’s a fairly big something, and it’s more of a something than we had last week.
3. Should we all be thanking George Eustice for being an environmentalist?
Given that we were all promised no burning on peatlands, this comes nowhere near that, we shouldn’t go overboard in heaping praise on DEFRA. And we were promised it for last year, and this is this year. Too little, too obviously caveated, and late. It’s all a bit shoddy. So, no, we shouldn’t be sending bouquets to DEFRA. This is a hard-won, medium-sized step forward. It took many people a lot of effort even to get this – that is the measure of the hopelessness of our Environment Department.
Many rules have exceptions – that’s not unusual. And it isn’t even bad, of itself. Let’s take the Birds Directive and Wildlife and Countryside Act – all birds are protected by law. But then there follow a whole lot of exceptions, most of them sensible exceptions provided that they are implemented sensibly (through licensing) and enforced (which they aren’t). In this case, the climate, the flood risk and the water quality won’t distinguish between burning across the top of a 50cm column of peat and a 20cm column of peat, nor between a 41cm peat column off an SSSI and one on an SSSI which is also an SPA and SAC. The exceptions are frankly ludicrous and it’s impossible to believe that they are anything other than the result of lobbying by a powerful but unimportant bunch of land-owning cronies of the party of government who really don’t give much of thought to environmental damage.
No, we should not thank George Eustice for this – he has failed yet again to deliver for the environment. In so doing he can hardly damage this government’s credibility because, apart almost solely for Zac Goldsmith (who has been made to look like a liar by this announcement which has not delivered what he promised), this government always caves in to vested interests rather than delivering the real interests of people and wildlife. You can kind of expect that from the Business Secretary, or the Chancellor (it almost goes with their job descriptions) but we have had a succession of Environment Secretaries who fail the environment while having the power to do good. We should hold Eustice to account for failing to do the good he could.
4. What do people say?;
Martin Harper, RSPB – click here. Sorry Martin, that is unutterably feeble. on Twitter Martin says his piece explains why loopholes ‘might undermine its [DEFRA’s] best intentions‘ which is crediting them with best intentions whereas the evidence suggests that there are bad intentions embedded in this policy.
Craig Bennett, Wildlife Trusts – quoted in the Guardian as saying ‘Why does the ban only apply to some of our designated peatlands? It should apply to them all. It will be extremely embarrassing if we are still burning any of our peatlands when the climate conference meets at the end of the year.‘ but the Wildlife Trusts website doesn’t mention the announcement.
Guy Shrubsole of Rewilding Britain says there are ‘some glaring loopholes that need closing‘ which is British understatement gone mad!
Amanda Anderson of the Moorland Association says her members welcome the announcement because they care so much about the climate and biodiversity – if you can really be bothered, click here.
Tom Orde-Powlett, vice chair of the Moorland Association was quoted in the Telegraph that the measures could threaten the viability of driven grouse shooting in England, which is a much more interesting quote than any of the others. I wonder whether he was grinning and had his fingers crossed behind his back when he said that.
Tony Juniper of Natural England says ‘This is a hugely welcome announcement which will see better protections for our globally important peatlands.‘.
5. What next?
We must wait for the much-delayed and still-delayed England Peat Strategy and it will be interesting to see what that actually says.
The good thing about heather burning is that a fire on the hill is pretty obvious, even at night, and the evidence is there afterwards too. If I lived in the English uplands I’d be learning to use the MAGIC map system to understand where the deep peat is in my area, and be going around taking photographs of the habitat even now for future reference. I’d be preparing to inform Natural England, the Environment Agency, DEFRA and maybe even the Police about non-compliant burning on deep peats (there will be some) and all but the Police in that list about burning on so-called shallow peat soils and off SSSIs. The public will have a big role in policing these coming regulations and also describing the scale of the continuing burning that DEFRA has allowed through its flawed system. This is still a burning issue.