End burning on Northern England’s protected blanket bogs

Tagged with: Casework status: Open Casework type: Site management Site designations: SAC Site designations: SPA Site designations: SSSI
Eroded peat bog on Holme Moss with heather moors in background, South Pennines, England,

Overview

Bogs need water not fire.

The Government should introduce a ban on burning blanket bog in England to prevent ongoing losses of carbon, increase their resilience to climate change and restore their rare wildlife to good health. This is one of the Natural Climate Solutions essential to confront the climate change and biodiversity crises. It would also help achieve the draft ambition of the proposed England Peat Strategy for 'all of our peatlands to be functioning healthily for the needs of wildlife and people…safeguard(ing) the carbon they store'.

England’s upland blanket bogs are globally rare ecosystems, protected under UK and European law. Blanket bog is vital in the fight against climate breakdown and the Government’s ambition of net-zero emissions by 2050: the habitat’s peat soils lock up billions of tonnes of carbon. Covering hundreds of thousands of hectares, our uplands ought to be a haven for wildlife.

And yet for decades, some moorland owners and tenants have been given legal permissions or consents to damage these sensitive habitats, subjecting them to intensive management practices for the purpose of maximising the number of grouse for shooting. Information from Natural England suggests there are over 400 consents to burn blanket bog on grouse moors in north England’s European protected areas, covering around 950 square kilometres of the (deep) peat soils this precious habitat depends on.

This case began way back in 2012 with the RSPB's concerns over Natural England's actions in relation to an upland grouse shooting estate, Walshaw Moor, in the South Pennines (see here). It expanded to cover the way in which Natural England and the UK Government permits and financially supports the ongoing burning of our globally important upland peatland habitats, particularly blanket bog in protected Special Areas of Conservation in northern England. 

Why blanket bog is so important and why burning needs to end

Blanket bog is found in only a few parts of the world and the UK has a special responsibility at a national, European and global level to restore and conserve it. The blanket bogs and dwarf shrub heath and some of their associated species of the English uplands are protected by the highest European environmental designations under the Habitats Directive and Birds Directive.

Where blanket bog has been damaged by atmospheric pollution (largely historic), drainage and managed burning, the vegetation is often dominated by heather and may resemble dry heath - on many such areas, the layer of underlying peat suggests such areas of vegetation should properly be regarded as degraded blanket bog requiring restoration.

Burning blanket bog dries out the underlying peat soil and damages the ecosystem, releasing climate-changing stored carbon to the atmosphere. Soil carbon is also released into watercourses, degrading drinking water quality and requiring costly treatment. Continuing this outmoded practice of burning peatland habitats in our dangerously warming 21st century is wholly inappropriate. It will make legally binding climate change targets much harder to reach by continuing to add carbon emissions to the UK total, undermining efforts to reach the Government’s goal of net-zero carbon by 2050.

This burnt, degraded blanket bog is also less able to slow the flow of water across the bog surface, leading to heavier floods after torrential rainfall, affecting communities downstream of the moors. Similarly, desiccated and damaged blanket bogs are less able to withstand worsening heatwaves, reducing ecological resilience in the face of periods of drought. Drier habitats are associated with increased wildfire risk and impact, with unknown impacts on local air quality in our northern towns and cities.

Current situation

Having made a formal complaint to the European Commission about Natural England’s damaging actions at Walshaw, the RSPB gathered further evidence from Natural England to better understand what was happening in respect of the management of blanket bog on other upland sites in England also protected under the Habitats Directive and Birds Directive. This information was shared with the European Commission (see our 2014 and 2016 updates in the Downloads section).

We confirmed Natural England had permitted the widespread burning of blanket bog in north England’s protected areas and that the practice of burning was confined to grouse moors. This went against Natural England’s own evidence that burning damages blanket bog and prevents its restoration. The majority of the consents we discovered were Higher Level Stewardship agri-environment agreements, with a value of around £108 million. This is in addition to any payments the shooting estates received by way of Basic Payments under the Common Agricultural Policy.

Based on even more recent information provided to the RSPB by Natural England we now believe Natural England had given consent to burn blanket bog on an area which covers around 950 square kilometres of the (deep) peat soils that should be maintained or restored to healthy blanket bog.

Acting as the environmental watchdog and using the RSPB’s evidence, the European Commission started its own legal action in April 2016. They argued the UK had failed properly to protect the globally important blanket bog in these European protected areas and to take positive measures to make sure it was restored to good health.

Lack of progress by the UK led to the EC escalating its legal action in April 2017. By the end of 2017/early 2018, the UK Government had responded. We understand the Government committed to end burning of blanket bog in the SACs by June 2019 by:

  • Asking Natural England to negotiate with each estate requesting they voluntarily give up their (402) legal consents to burn blanket bog;
  • If this was not successful in ending all burning, Government to introduce a legal ban.

Initially Natural England sought to tackle the 402 consents by agreeing new, long-term (25 year) plans with each estate. We and others criticised these heavily because they:

  • Perpetuated burning under the guise of “restoration burning” (see below)
  • Allowed each estate to pretty much decide where and when they would burn blanket bog and how frequently;
  • In some cases, facilitated the burning of perfectly healthy blanket bog;
  • In other cases, gave permission where there was no pre-existing consent or it had lapsed.

In June 2019, the Government confirmed in a parliamentary answer that Natural England had been able to revoke or modify 180 of the 402 consents to burn blanket bog in the five northern England Special Areas of Conservation. This should signal a move by Government to legislate to bring an end to burning of blanket bogs in these special places.

The "restoration burning" myth

As part of its response to the European Commission’s legal action, the UK Government introduced the concept of "restoration burning": the idea being that in some situations one last burn could help remove dominant heather or grass cover and allow the delicate Sphagnum mosses to thrive. This appeared to the RSPB to be a weakness that might be exploited, allowing burning to continue. Our fears were confirmed when it became apparent that early long-term plans approved by NE had insufficient controls in place to ensure that such a practice could only be tried after everything else had failed.

The RSPB has continued to challenge "restoration burning" as fundamentally flawed and contrary to Natural England’s own 2013 review of the scientific evidence, which concluded that burning undermines blanket bog restoration. We consider burning has no place in the toolkit to help restore degraded blanket bogs to favourable condition.

In February 2019, Natural England issued revised guidance to set out the position it would take when a request was made to burn blanket bog for restoration purposes. A key part of its new approach is that Natural England would no longer consent “restoration burning” through long-term plans or leave landowners to make decisions on where and when burning could take place. Natural England now makes clear that burning is a measure of last resort: it will only be allowed in "exceptional circumstances" once all other measures have been tried and appear not to be working after at least 10 years. Importantly, Natural England will now only grant separate, short term consents (usually up to 3 years) and require evidence to show recovery is not already underway.

These changes are a step in the right direction: but they are only a form of damage limitation as they still accept burning has a role in restoring blanket bogs to good health. Our key concerns with the revised position are:

  • It goes against growing scientific evidence on the damaging impacts of burning on restoration, both Natural England’s own as well as that from other research studies. Natural England accepts the evidence against burning has continued to get stronger and that there is no evidence restoration burning works. As well as its 2013 review, this includes internal advice from April 2018 as well as recently published scientific papers co-authored by its own scientists;
  • It accepts burning can take place on blanket bogs with up to 12 % cover of Sphagnum mosses. These bogs should be viewed as recovering, and other non-damaging measures used to help that recovery;
  • The use of "exceptional circumstances" has strong (and worrying) echoes of the misused “special circumstances” system under the Heather and Grass Burning Code of Practice 2007 which led to Natural England granting the hundreds of burning consents in the first place;
  • It allows additional “exceptions” without any obvious rationale e.g. "exceptional site-specific circumstances".

 

Map

Why is it worth fighting for?

England's northern uplands are very special places – the North and South Pennines, the North York Moors, Bowland Fells, the Lake District High Fells. They are home to an amazing array of wildlife, which depends on the subtle mix of upland 'moorland' habitats that ecologists define as blanket bog, wet heath and dry heath. Healthy blanket bog is home to delicate peat-forming Sphagnum mosses, cotton-grasses and sundews, and a diverse range of breeding birds, including breeding dunlin and golden plover.

These habitats and species have been given special protection under European and UK wildlife legislation. They have variously been designated as Special Protection Areas (SPA) under the European Birds Directive, Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) under the European Habitats Directive, and as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. All of these designations are intended to ensure the habitats and species are maintained in, and where necessary restored so that they are healthy and thriving (the technical term is "favourable condition"), now and in to the future.

Healthy blanket bogs, with water underfoot year-round, are more resilient to a warming climate and help us tackle other challenges. Blanket bog is vital in the fight against climate breakdown: the habitat’s peat soils lock up billions of tonnes of carbon. In turn this prevents air and water pollution, as well as helping reduce the risk of flooding downstream. Wet bogs also increase resilience to the risk and impact of wildfire.

Take action for local wildlife

A view of the loch at Abernethy

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Bell heather Erica cinerea, heathland restoration, Farnham Heath RSPB reserve, Surrey, England

Our position

Bogs need water not fire.

Blanket bog should not be burned or drained – our bogs have a vital role to play in the fight against climate change. The Government must make good its commitment to end burning peatland habitats in the uplands and to scale up restoration such that degraded bogs are brought under positive management. This Natural Climate Solution would improve the status of our upland peatlands, protecting vital carbon stocks, improving raw water quality (reducing costs for consumers), mitigating flood risk and conserving upland biodiversity.

The Government plans to bring forward an England Peat Strategy as part of its 25-year plan for the environment. This should be published and retain its draft ambition for 'all of our peatlands to be functioning healthily for the needs of wildlife and people…safeguard(ing) the carbon they store.'

The Climate Change Committee's guidance to Government on how to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 highlighted the vital role protecting and restoring peatlands has to play in combatting climate change. UK peatlands (in the uplands and lowlands) store an estimated 3,200 million tonnes (Mt) of carbon. If we act now to restore these peatlands, an estimated 4-11 Mt of carbon emissions could be saved each year in the UK. Emissions from blanket bog in England are estimated as 0.35Mt of carbon per year (equivalent to 140,000 cars per year): 75% of these emissions are the result of burning.

This is why burning of blanket bogs and their peat soils must end, along with drainage and other damaging practices. The Government must honour its commitment to reduce all emissions and also implement a significant programme of investment to restore these peatlands, sequester carbon, clean water, reduce the risk of wildfire and secure vital habitats for wildlife.

Among other things, this programme should ensure:

  • All 402 consents to burn c. 95,000ha of blanket bog in northern England’s Special Areas of Conservation end before October 2019;
  • So-called "restoration burning" is never permitted again and existing consents are reviewed and revoked;
  • A legal change (in force by October 2019) that guarantees the end to burning of the peat soils so essential to restoring and maintaining healthy blanket bog.

If we can achieve all of this, the future of our most important and protected blanket bogs should be secured and we could be confident they can play their part in reducing the impacts of climate change.

Walshaw Moor 

This case began in 2012 with the RSPB's concerns over Natural England's actions in relation to an upland grouse shooting estate, Walshaw Moor, in the South Pennines. A summary of our position on that original case can be found here.

 Dunlin with summer plumage in grass

Timeline

  • 17 June 2019
    Government confirms in a parliamentary answer that Natural England has only been able to revoke or modify 180 of the 402 consents to burn blanket bog in the five northern England Special Areas of Conservation. This should signal a move to legislate to bring an end to burning of blanket bogs in these special places.
  • June 2019
    RSPB launches its "Carbon in nature rich areas" story map. This highlights that the best places for nature across the UK also hold massive amounts of carbon. This includes England’s upland blanket bogs, inside and outside protected areas.
  • May 2019
    The UK's Climate Change Committee publishes its report on achieving net zero in carbon emissions by 2050. Restoration of our upland and lowland peatlands identified as an important step towards net zero. This reinforces the same Committee's message from November 2018 that the UK needs to reduce land-based carbon emissions, including through peatland restoration.
  • February 2019
    Natural England issues revised position on the use of "restoration burning". While it appears to impose greater constraints, it continues to go against scientific evidence by continuing to accept the damaging practice of burning has a role in restoring blanket bogs.
  • October 2018-April 2019
    New burning season. Various reports of burning on estates that had made voluntary commitment not to burn blanket bog while negotiating with Natural England.
  • 24 June 2018
    Stalybridge Moor fire starts, eventually affecting part of the RSPB’s Dove Stone reserve.
  • April 2018
    IUCN UK Peatland Strategy published (agreed with the four UK governments): among other things it calls for 1 million hectares of UK peatlands to be in good condition by 2020; 50% of the UK’s peatland resource to be in good condition by 2030 and 95% by 2040.
  • Spring 2018
    Mark Avery launches legal challenge against Natural England in relation to new long-term plan for the Walshaw estate. Natural England concedes its appropriate assessment needs to be re-done.
  • February 2018
    Government meets in private with moorland owning interests to set out their proposed way forward. Minutes of meeting obtained by "Who owns England" here.
  • Late 2017/early 2018
    UK Government proposes way forward to the European Commission: commits to end burning on blanket bog in SACs by June 2019. Seeking voluntary relinquishment through negotiation but prepared to put legal ban in place if needed.
  • April 2017
    The European Commission escalates its legal action against the UK Government – giving the Government a last chance to solve the problems before referring it to the European Court.
  • April 2016
    The European Commission begins legal action against the UK Government.
  • June 2015
    In response to additional UK information, the RSPB provides further analysis to the European Commission. This is based on updated and more comprehensive data supplied by Natural England. It is summarised in the April 2016 note available on the "Our Position" section of this web page.
  • 2015
    Natural England develop an Outcomes approach which seeks to demonstrate it is possible to manage upland blanket bog for multiple outcomes (eg carbon storage, water provisioning, nature conservation, grouse shooting and livestock farming)
  • 2014
    Following publication of the evidence review (cited above) Natural England intends to produce revised guidance (including on the restoration of blanket bog and the effects of managed burning on peatlands) for land managers. This has not yet been published.
  • January 2014
    The RSPB submits its commentary on the UK response to the European Commission.
  • May 2013
    Natural England publish a suite of Upland Evidence Reviews, including a review on "The effects of managed burning on upland peatland biodiversity, carbon and water".
  • April-December 2013
    The RSPB requests information from Natural England to better understand the UK Government’s response to the European Commission.
  • April 2013
    The RSPB receives a copy of the UK Government’s response to the European Commission.
  • March 2013
    The UK Government replies to the European Commission’s questions, but does not respond to the RSPB’s complaint directly.
  • November-December 2012
    The European Commission sends a copy of the RSPB’s complaint to the UK Government and asks for its response to the complaint as well as to a series of questions.
  • 15 October 2012
    Having considered all the information, we consider the new management may be in breach of the requirements of the Habitats Directive and Birds Directive to protect the special wildlife of the South Pennine Moors and therefore submitted a formal complaint to the European Commission.
  • April-September 2012
    We seek further information from Natural England. Among other things, the information provided confirms Natural England has dropped its prosecution of the estate. The proposed prosecution was to cover 45 separate alleged offences. Natural England had considered it necessary due to the scale of the damage, the sheer number of breaches and that a successful prosecution would allow Natural England to secure restoration orders from the court to ensure that the significant damage could be restored.
  • 23 March 2012
    Natural England issues a further statement and publishes the new consent it has issued to the estate.
  • 9 March 2012
    Natural England and the estate suddenly announce they have reached a settlement regarding management activities on the moor and resolved their dispute on such matters. We write immediately to Natural England requesting clarification on the settlement and requesting relevant information.
  • January-February 2012
    The public inquiry is held. Natural England and the estate present their respective cases to the independent inspector. The inquiry is scheduled to close at the end of March 2012 and the inspector report to the Secretary of State for her decision.
  • December 2011
    Natural England issue a further notice to modify the estate’s consent – this time seeking to ban all burning on blanket bog. This followed their “concerns that damaging activities [had] intensified over the last year and the restrictions imposed [in March 2010] did not fully address the level of damage being caused.”
  • September 2011
    The Planning Inspectorate sets out the timetable for the public inquiry. We submit a written representation supporting Natural England’s actions, concluding burning should not be permitted on any parts of the SSSI comprising blanket bog. We also concluded that ensuring the blanket bog was in favourable condition was the best solution for breeding dunlin and golden plover, birds for which the SPA was designated.
  • April 2011
    A public inquiry to hear the estate’s appeal is announced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Invitations to express views are sent out. We submit our concerns.
  • December 2010
    The Walshaw Moor Estate Limited appeal against Natural England’s modification of their management consent for the SSSI.
  • March 2010
    Natural England issue a notice seeking to modify the estate’s management consent for the SSSI, in particular the way managed burning is used on blanket bog, wet heath and dry heath habitats.

Download

The Walshaw Effect - Northern England's protected blanket bogs. The RSPB's complaint to the European Commission - update. PDF, 248Kb

RSPB summary - Walshaw Moor (April 2016)