Despite the ability of peatlands to sequester and store huge amounts of carbon, the UK’s peatlands are currently a net source of emissions.
Peatlands account for 12% of the UK’s land area and contain more carbon than the forests of the UK, France and Germany combined – an estimated 3,200 million tonnes. The UK’s upland blanket bogs are globally rare ecosystems, protected under UK and international law. However much of this peat is in poor condition, with dry soils releasing emissions and failing to support wetland species. This is mainly due to drainage and burning, primarily the result of intensive management for agriculture and grouse moors.
Whilst our upland peatland should be a net carbon sink, it is instead a source of emissions – with 75% of this a direct result of burning. Only one in 10 of our upland peat bogs are classed as being in a healthy state.
Why burning peatlands must end
Across the uplands of northern England, large areas of peatland habitats have been routinely and deliberately burnt, largely to support a single industry – grouse shooting.
The reason they are burnt on shooting estates is to encourage the growth of young heather on which the red grouse feed. But burning blanket bog dries out the underlying peat soil and damages the internationally important ecosystem, impacting on water quality and flows and releasing the stored climate-changing carbon into the atmosphere.
Soil carbon is also released into watercourses, degrading drinking water quality and requiring costly treatment. Burnt bog is also less able to slow the flow of water across the bog’s 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.
Continuing this outmoded practice of burning peatland habitats in a climate and ecological emergency 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. Healthy blanket bog should be wet underfoot all year round – bogs need water not fire.
The Scale of the Problem
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.
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Last Updated: Monday 26 April 2021