Today, peatland in the English uplands can be legally burnt between 1 October – 15 April. Burning in the uplands is increasing, with recent research finding a seven-fold increase in burning on peatland in England from the 1940s to the present, and burning increased at a rate of 11% per annum between 2001 to 2011 in Great Britain.
To give an idea of the scale - grouse moors in the northern uplands extend up to an estimated 2226 square kilometres – larger than Greater London. Many of these grouse moors lie within Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas, statutory designations intended to protect and restore their internationally important wildlife and habitats, including blanket bog.
In order to protect the vulnerable wildlife, this protection restricts the range of activities in these places, and so special consent must be obtained from Natural England in order to carry out burning. Information from Natural England suggests there is a damaging legacy of over 400 consents to burn blanket bog on grouse moors in north England’s internationally important protected areas, covering around 950 square kilometers of the (deep) peat soils this precious habitat depends on.
The EU has previously found that the UK Government is in breach of the law by allowing burning of these peatlands to take place. The Government agreed to rectify the situation and committed itself to end the damaging practice of burning peatland, and bring these important habitats into favourable condition. Natural England’s voluntary approach to halting burning has failed, with only a minority of estates giving up their consents to burn blanket bog.
If the Government is serious about tackling the climate and ecological crisis, it must make good of its commitment to end burning peatland habitats in the uplands and to scale up restoration such that degraded bogs are brought under positive management. The Government must introduce an immediate ban on the burning of blanket bog in England, to restore the wildlife and prevent further losses of carbon and increase their resilience to climate change.