Regrets, we have a few

Photo: Sarah Hanson

You’ll remember that DEFRA said it was going to do great things on preventing burning of blanket bogs and then it did very little.

Yesterday, Labour Peer, Baroness Jones of Whitchurch, tabled a motion of Regret in the House of Lords to draw attention to the inadequacy of the government’s much delayed and much-caveated Statutory Instrument.

Motions of regret are quite rare, and are non-binding votes by the whole House. Even if the Motion had passed, which this one didn’t, the Statutory Instrument would still have passed, but it would have sent a strong signal to Government that it hasn’t gone far enough in tackling burning. But that didn’t happen although it was pretty close.

This certainly represents a slap on the wrist for DEFRA. You may be interested to read the whole debate from which I will highlight some extracts (the bits I liked best) as it tells you a lot about how Parliament works:

My Lords, I am moving this Motion to Regret over the Government’s so far inadequate response to restoring our historic and precious blanket bog wetlands to their original native state, thereby improving conservation and reaping the huge benefits that could have been brought to achieving our net-zero climate change targets. As such, we contend that the SI should be reconsidered and strengthened, on the grounds that it does not achieve its stated policy objectives.

I thank the RSPB and Wildlife and Countryside Link for their helpful briefings on these issues. Our arguments have been strengthened by the report of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, and today by the report of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, which has reported the SI as requiring elucidation, as well as for defective drafting.

In their 25-year environment plan, published in January 2018, the Government promised “a new ambitious framework for peat restoration in England.” They committed to publishing an England peat strategy later in 2018, and to delivering it, so, we might ask, where is that strategy? It is already nearly four years since the proposal first appeared in the 25-year environment plan, and as we know, even a strategy is no guarantee of action.

This brings me to the specific wording of the SI. I am grateful to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for drawing it to the attention of the House. In particular, the committee points out that much of the detail of how licences to burn will be granted will be set out in guidance, which gives the Secretary of State huge discretion in implementation before the start of the burning season on 1 October.

The committee also points out that the department should have been much clearer about the size of the areas of peatland that will be affected by a ban, on which the SI is hugely constrained. It only applies to upland peat in sites of special scientific interest, special areas of conservation or special protection areas. As Wildlife and Countryside Link has calculated, this equates only to about 109,000 hectares in England out of a total of 355,000 hectares. This is a maximum of 30% of the total of upland peat.

The scope of the ban is further limited by the series of exemptions which would allow burning to continue, for example: for conservation, enhancement or management of the natural environment; to reduce the risk of wildfire; or because the land is rocky or on a slope. The end-result of these exemptions is that, in large swathes of upland blanket bog, burning will take place much as before. We will also miss a golden opportunity to expand the use of blanket bogs to mitigate flood risk and improve water quality. Baroness Jones of Whitchurch, Lab

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, for tabling this regret Motion and moving it so effectively. At the same time, I regret the way important legislation is being rushed through half-baked. Thank goodness that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments is not similarly constrained to two minutes. It has rightly condemned this SI for defective drafting. I also thank the Wildlife and Countryside Link for its invaluable work in helping to draw out the elucidation needed to make sense of this SI.

My contribution will concentrate on the mismatch between the Government’s words and their deeds. I shall leave it to other contributors to query the wisdom of making legislation before thinking through the guidance that will inform it.

I welcome the inclusion of nature-based solutions in tackling the climate emergency as one of the five themes of COP 26. However, it begs the question: why make an SI to protect peatlands that leaves 60% unprotected? Does the Minister accept that the optics of justifying this on the grounds of “jam tomorrow” are poor? Baroness Sheehan, LD

My Lords, I declare my family’s interest in managing an area of blanket bog in Scotland which is now in a peat restoration programme. Duke of Montrose, Con

The noble Lord, Lord Botham, is not participating in this debate, so I call the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth.

The Deputy Speaker, Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall

My Lords, first I want to thank and congratulate my noble friend Lady Jones on ensuring we have this important opportunity to question the Minister on these flawed regulations.

We have already heard that the main problems with this SI, beyond its drafting, are that it is limited in scope to only 40% of upland peat in England and that it is also undermined by loosely worded exemptions, so that the protection for the 40% can be revoked by licence, with little clarity on how exemptions from the prohibition on burning would apply.

I would like to use my limited time to ask the Minister a few questions. First, given that 86% of our upland peat is currently classed as being in poor condition, how will Defra measure the impact of these regulations in correcting this problem for these globally rare ecosystems? Secondly, does the Minister agree with the RSPB that the only long-term way to reduce the risk of wildfires is to re-wet and restore peat to its natural “boggy” state? If so, how will burning heather help that process? Thirdly, how will the department measure whether these regulations reduce burning—the stated policy intent—and will he ensure that data is published to Parliament on an annual basis on that progress? Finally, will he resist vested interests who resist a ban on rotational burning, and agree with the 60% of the British public who want a burning ban on all of England’s peatland? Lord Knight of Weymouth, Lab, a former DEFRA minister

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, about where she wants to get to, but I think that her regret Motion is like driving down the wrong side of a motorway.

I have lived on blanket bog, or beside blanket bog, for many years in my life, and the best biodiversity was found on the managed peatlands. the Earl of Caithness, Con

The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has written a pretty damning report on the SI that has been presented. I think it is another example of how regrettable it is, with the way that parliamentary business is being organised at the moment, that there has not been the opportunity or the time available for the Government and the Joint Committee to discuss it and negotiate properly in the way in which it always happened in the past. We are told by the Government that they do not agree with it; the department says that it does not agree with it. That is not satisfactory—they should be having a discussion, getting together and sorting it out before it comes here. It is very unsatisfactory for us to have a statutory instrument where the JCSI is basically saying, “Don’t pass it”. Lord Greaves, LD

At this point, I must acknowledge the Government’s regulations which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, has explained, do go a little way to reduce peat burning—but why is the scope of the regulatory controls so very limited? Can the Minister tell the House whether the Government have come under pressure from the grouse-shooting industry or, indeed, from landowners, to limit the controls over peat burning? I hope the Minister will respond to that question. Baroness Meacher

My Lords, I am sorry that I am unable to support my noble friend Lady Jones. The Government have been caught in the middle between those who want all rotational burning stopped and those who believe that no additional restrictions are necessary or supported by the most recent research, and I think they have produced a not unreasonable compromise. Baroness Mallalieu, Lab and former President of Countryside Alliance

My Lords, I declare my interest as president of the Moorland Association and as the owner of moorland in County Durham. I shall address the issue of emissions. There is good scientific reason to think that the SI to restrict burning might actually increase net CO2 emissions—some noble Lords may vote this evening to regret that possibility—and here is why: cool heather burning generates only a very small percentage of the emissions from heather moorland, as we have heard, and it enhances the sequestration of carbon. Recent scientific research by the University of York has revealed that, if you cut heather, it releases high levels of CO2 as it rots. By contrast, burning turns some of it into inner charcoal, which does not rot but remains in the ground for many decades. More importantly, heather burning prevents the shading out of sphagnum mosses, which are by far the largest sequestrators of carbon in blanket bogs. This has been demonstrated by experiments, but it is also obvious to anybody who has spent time examining the vegetation on moorland. Viscout Ridley, Con

My Lords, the Uplands Partnership, which comprises leading countryside organisations, has produced Peatland Protection the Science: four key reports that collate the latest scientific findings. Lord Mancroft, Con, former President Countryside Alliance

There is strong public support, around 60%, for a comprehensive ban, because the public recognise the importance and value of upland peat. They wish to see its potential as a nature-based solution to climate change realised, and they support a comprehensive burning ban to deliver that. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that this legislation is reworked and that he comes back to your Lordships’ House with a new statutory instrument with a comprehensive ban? Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick

My Lords, I declare that I do not have an interest because, sadly, I do not own a grouse moor. It seems to me that the Motion is prompted more by an antipathy towards grouse shooting than by care for biodiversity. Nearly two years ago a university friend of mine, who is a parish priest in a rather challenging part of Bradford, asked me to join him on the Pennine Way. We walked for three days from Marsden Moor to Malham across a lot of peat moorland. We saw golden plover and redshanks and, at some stages, fabulous numbers of curlew and lapwing. Where we saw them, there were no crows, because if there were any crows then there were no curlew or lapwing. That is because where there is predator control, on keepered moors, wildlife flourishes. If noble Lords do not believe me, they should go to see for themselves.

The same applies to heather burning. Controlled heather burning lets invertebrates and, indeed, plants flourish. It was a very dry spring. When we were walking, there had just been the most terrible fire at Marsden; seven square kilometres had been destroyed on Marsden Moor. Ilkley Moor nearby was burning and was being devastated as we walked. Lord Robathon, Con

I refer noble Lords to my entry in the register. As Environment Minister, I was often berated by upland managers who complained that they were being prevented from rewetting their moorland—but then, their mantra was “The wetter the better”—and there was much frustration with Toggle showing location of Column 519 Natural England at the time about how long it took to get permission to block grips and drains. Therefore, I do not recognise this idea that upland managers are somehow trying to dry out their moorland. Lord Benyon, Con, former DEFRA minister and former GWCT trustee

We are all critical of Brazil’s burning of the Amazon, but we are doing something similar to one of our most precious habitats of global importance. As other noble Lords have said, nearly all our upland peat bog has been damaged or destroyed by a combination of burning, overgrazing, drainage and pollution. The Climate Change Committee concludes that climate change will increase the rate of degradation and carbon loss from peat bogs and that only by restoring them to good condition now will we be able to benefit from their ecosystem services in the future.

Can the Minister say whether the proposed regulations follow the Climate Change Committee’s advice and, if not, why not? Some noble Lords have argued that burning is actually good for carbon storage. There is, indeed, dispute about the precise effects. I do not have time to go into the literature but let me quote Professor Peter Smith of Aberdeen University, arguably the UK’s leading expert on soil carbon. He states:

“While there might be some merit in the suggestions that peatland burning could lead to a longer term carbon storage, we know that peatland burning does lead to additional carbon release now. At a time when we should be focused on restoring peatlands to help meet our net zero by 2050 climate change targets, allowing peatland burning does not seem very compatible from a climate change perspective.” Lord Krebs, FRS

My Lords, I am afraid that we are in danger of armchair meddling in an ancient tradition that is of benefit to our countryside. This is part of a continued onslaught on rural Britain and its management. It is not as if we are not living in a green and pleasant land. As my noble friend Lord Ridley says, many initiatives are taking place to maintain the ecosystem that is upland moorland. Lord Marland, Con

My Lords, I refer noble Lords to my entry in the register. I am also a member of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust and the APPG.

Burning benefits many rare species. The mosaic of high and low vegetation that it creates, with mosses, grasses, rushes and flowers thriving alongside heather, is a much richer habitat than wall-to-wall heather. Curlew and golden plover benefit especially from this form of habitat management. So do red grouse, Britain’s most unique bird and a huge conservation success story in only those areas where grouse shooting occurs. The Earl of Shrewsbury, Con

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the UKCEH and a lowland farmer. No one is trying to burn peat. Lord Cameron of Dillington, former Chair of the CLA

My Lords, the regret Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, is factually wrong. I am surprised that she was allowed to table it because the statutory instrument does not relate to peat burning; it relates to the rotational burning of heather and grass. This is not a trivial point. The Motion talks about “peatland burning” and “peat burning”. It seems to be a deliberate attempt to mislead the House. I trust that your Lordships will reject such an inaccurate and loaded Motion. Viscout Trenchard, Con

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for this Motion, but I begin my two minutes by regretting that it is only a Motion to Regret. This House should be acting like an old-fashioned movie schoolmaster—that is, theatrically tearing up the Government’s homework, throwing it back in their face and saying, “Do it again, and do a proper job this time”.

This statutory instrument is a tiny nod to the public desire to end the disastrous management of land for driven grouse shooting. It is clear that, behind closed doors, the Government are still sitting around in comfortable armchairs, whisky glasses in hand, guffawing loudly and toasting their shooting mates—which, of course, means toasting themselves.

Our Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee describes this regulation as confusing and “difficult to assess”. That is obviously deliberate. This is a disgraceful abdication of government responsibility and the obfuscation demonstrates that the Government know it. Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle, Green Party

My Lords, I declare my interest as a council member of the RSPB as well as my other environmental interests. These regulations have been a rather long time in coming forward. Without seeming to be too mealy-mouthed, quite frankly, they are disappointing, to say the least. I welcome them as far as they go, but they needed to be more wide-ranging. As my noble friend Lord Benyon said, the real answer to this is to ensure that the wetlands are restored to their wet state. Wetting will reduce heather growth and increase sphagnum growth. Increased wetting will also reduce the effect of wildfires. My disappointment with these restrictions is that they extend to a very limited number of areas only and even then there are potential exclusions from the banning of burning. Blanket bogs are an incredible natural ecosystem, as I think we all agree. They must be restored to their natural state. I fear we cannot do this with such a limited designation. If this ban is justifiable on SSSIs because it is beneficial, why not elsewhere?

Several noble Lords have mentioned that burning helps with the breeding success of wildlife, notably waders. However, I believe that such success is more a result of active predator control in those areas, as my noble friend Lord Robathan, observed. When it is done legally I have no great objection to it, but what I have a huge objection to is the totally illegal persecution of birds of prey which is more akin to the Victorian era, but those practices are still prevalent in pockets of our uplands. I add that those practices besmirch the reputation of the many gamekeepers who do not flout the law and manage the countryside well.

Finally, I say to those who use the burning of our precious peatlands in order to maximise the number of red grouse to shoot that I have visited uplands in Norway where such burning does not occur and which sustain healthy populations of willow grouse, which, as many noble Lords will know, is the same species as the red grouse. However, this debate should not be a dispute between those for and against grouse shooting. We need more concerted efforts to restore our blanket bogs. I do not take any pleasure in saying that if the noble Baroness pushes her Motion to a vote, I will join her in regretting that these regulations are inadequate and confusing. We should be doing far more. Baron Randall of Uxbridge

My Lords, I join my noble friend the Duke of Montrose in suggesting that it is difficult to welcome regulations when so much of the detail is in the guidance, of which we have not had sight. It would have been helpful if the guidance could have been published at the same time as the regulations so we could see how they applied.

My starting point is the fact that it takes 200 years to create a peat bog. It is obviously a cause of celebration that the UK has 13% of the world’s blanket bog and that 40% of England’s deep peat reserve is made up of blanket bog. North Yorkshire has made its contribution to creating a new peat bog when we had the Pickering “slow the flow” pilot scheme, which included, among other measures, creating dams and mini bunds, planting trees to soak up water where appropriate and creating a peat bog.

I think the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, has raised some valid points but part of the reason that I will not be supporting her Motion today is that a lot of her concerns will be addressed in the guidance, one would hope. Baroness McIntosh of Pickering

I sit on the Secondary Legislation and Scrutiny Committee and have been involved in discussions there. The Explanatory Memorandum accompanying the SI is confusing, with inconsistencies in figures for just how much of the moorland is affected by the instrument and how much of the peatbog is covered.

However confusing the SI is, one thing is clear: blanket bog is a valuable resource for carbon storage and sequestration. As referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, the UK’s blanket bog represents 13% of the world’s resource and therefore needs protecting. There are currently consents to burn over 142,000 hectares, which is 90% of the SSSI designated deep peat and 40% of upland deep peat. Licences to burn cover peat only to a depth of 40 centimetres. This is not deep peat. This is a cool burn. Since 2017, 47% of consents have been removed. Of those that remain, 50% are in perpetuity. Can the Minister tell the House, in numbers not percentages, just how many consents to burn have been granted in perpetuity and how the Government plan to deal with these licences?

Defra has not helped itself with its answers to the Secondary Legislation and Scrutiny Committee questions. There was an element of arrogance that has not moved the arguments forward, in particular in relation to the blurring between what constitutes guidance and what is legislation. Today the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments published its report; it also had difficulty Toggle showing location of Column 526in getting elucidation from Defra on access to the map referred to in the instrument. I regret that I found the comments by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, unnecessarily offensive.

I am concerned that the peat strategy, first trailed in the 25-year environment plan, has yet to be published, and we are dealing with these important environmental issues on an ad hoc basis. It was expected that the peat strategy would be published in early 2021. We are a quarter of the way through the year—I would describe that as early, but there is no sign of this document. Will the Government continue to deal with peat on a piecemeal basis? A proper overarching strategy is needed —and it is needed now.

My noble friend Lord Bradshaw referred to peat for horticultural use. Given the debate, the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, and the concerns of the Secondary Legislation and Scrutiny Committee and the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, I strongly suggest to the Minister that he withdraw this SI, publish the peat strategy without delay, and encourage Defra to rewrite this SI to reflect that strategy. Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville

I was asked when the peat strategy will be published. We will publish it soon. Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, DEFRA Minister

I do not detect any of the required urgency in what the Minister has had to say today, and I do not accept that sight of the guidance will give any of the answers that we are looking for, because they are predicated on the basis of the restricted land area and the loose exemptions for which our Motion to Regret is critical. So, I do not think that seeing the guidance is the answer.

On this basis, I once again regret that the Minister has not felt able to reconsider his approach to peatland burning and to come back with a more comprehensive programme of action to apply this year. Therefore, I would like to test the opinion of the House on this issue. Baroness Jones of Whitchurch, Lab


10 Replies to “Regrets, we have a few”

  1. Thanks Mark for this it is good to know there are others in Parliament that are prepared to stand up to this very rotten Government and to show them how very poor they are.
    Considering this vote was in the Lords and I am sure many if not most of the Lords, (although I would totally reform the Lords and do away with their Lordships), are Tory shooters, the result as you say was pretty good.

  2. I regret that this government is as it is and that we have barely protected our upland peatlands from the vandalism that is rotational burning. I remember many years ago looking at Victorian era flora of the moorlands of North Yorkshire ( then of course mainly West Yorkshire) I know well. burning has impoverished the biodiversity of the vegetation at least as much as the drainage. I would like to see at least some of our uplands in their way to full natural glory with restored blanket bog areas of open mixed vegetation and patches on the better soils of woodland and scrub. Why because they will be better and far more biologically diverse than the burned drained wastelands much of our uplands have become in the vainglorious pursuit of a few killing more and more Red Grouse or sheep ranching.
    As for Ridley what he said was and is the total tosh expected from a pleasure killer of grouse.

  3. It’s most illuminating to see the tory peers maintaining their most valued tradition of lying through their teeth.

    1. Not sure they do it through their teeth Coop, more with a full voiced roar as if that somehow makes their undoubted duplicity true!

  4. I sense a perfect storm developing, breaking over the UKs contribution to the coming COP conference, a storm of the failure to deliver even a fraction of the rhetoric in reality, the 25 year plan coming home to roost.

    Last night I was watching a programme about the North Yorks Moors and how the traditional practise of moorburning was responsible for the wonderful wildlife (not including Hen Harriers), as the commentator intoned ‘150 year old’. So what happened to all those birds before 150 years ago ?

    Reading the debate, the Government seems to have skewed the issue quite dramatically – surely this is first about carbon and CC but shifting towards biodiversity seems to be being used as an excuse to limit the scope of already inadequate regulations to just a fraction of the peat area – the second time this month that hated conservation designations have been used to bale out shooting !

    And where do all the crows come from to eat the waders ? In the NYM and Exmoor the steep sided valleys that run up to the heather plateau provide some of the most challenging high Pheasant shooting – which is where I’ve had personal experience of the super-stocking of super-commercial shoots. Could there be some connection ?

    1. I sent a complaint about this drivel to the BBC on it’s first showing. I recieved the following reply…

      “Thank you for contacting us about A Wild Year.

      This programme looks at the reality of life on the North York Moors and explains that its 550 square miles of heather moorland owes much of its existence to the fact it has been managed by humans for over a century to provide a habitat for red grouse.

      The programme is clear that humans have looked to boost grouse numbers because grouse shooting is big business for moorland estates. It also notes that burning heather and controlling the grouses’ predators attracts a good deal of controversy.

      The programme did not take a view or offer any opinion on this practice but states that without it the heather moorland would be a very different place.

      We note that you would have liked to see the controversies around this type of land management explored in greater detail, and have shared your views with the programme makers.

      What a shame that the great Toby Jones lowered himself into narrating such nonsense.

  5. It’s astonishing how many Conservative peers can recognise that golden plover, lapwing and curlew are wildlife, but completely fail to recognise that crows, buzzards and hen harriers are wildlife too. None so blind as those who will not see.

  6. Motion of regret sounds like the morning after eating a very hot curry. What DEFRA produced could also be viewed in the same way…

  7. The best stuff I have read in long while is in this paper: How Wetlands Affect Floods, M. Acreman & J. Holden. Wetlands (2013) 33:773–786; DOI 10.1007/s13157-013-0473-2. I think the NERC download is free or you could ask the lovely Alexandra Elbakyan

    It is worth a squint to appreciate the complexity of interactions between water, soil, slope and vegetative cover; how many myths are adopted as fact; the great potential for perverse outcomes from inappropriate interventions.

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