Government urged to ban burning on peatland

By Jenna Hutber

Wednesday 30 October 2019

Our peatlands are a natural carbon sink and are home to some amazing UK wildlife but during the heather burning season hundreds of thousands of tonnes of CO2, stored over millennia, will be released into the atmosphere.

Twenty-six environmental charities, NGOs and associations are calling on the government to end the scandal of burning on peatland, which is vital in the fight against climate change.

This week during Westminster parliament’s first ever debate on nature-based solutions to climate change, MPs called on the government to introduce an end to burning on peatlands and Defra minister for State Zac Goldsmith responded with an announcement that new laws are on the cards.

Now NGOs are calling on the Government to act before Parliament is dissolved for a general election – and if that is not possible, for all parties to commit to a ban in their manifestos.

But the window of opportunity is closing. The government could rapidly introduce a ban and prevent huge amounts of carbon being released, but only if they act now before parliament dissolves ahead of a general election.

The UK’s peatlands store an estimated 3 billion tonnes of carbon. But rather than storing carbon, many of these landscapes are leaking carbon into the atmosphere and water because the land is being drained and burned. Peatlands are drained and burned to create habitat for grouse for shooting and make them more productive for farming.

An estimated 350,000 tonnes of CO2 is being released from England’s upland peatlands into the atmosphere each year, with 75 per cent of these emissions a direct result of burning.

Peatland should be boggy and covered in moss. But a new study published in Nature Geoscience found peatlands across England, Ireland, Scandinavia and continental Europe have reached a level of dryness unprecedented in 2,000 years. Of the 31 peatlands they examined, 40 per cent were drier than they had been for 1,000 years and 24 per cent were direr than they had been for 2,000 years. According to the report, peatlands in Europe alone contain five times more CO2 than forests.

Healthy peatland not only helps to slam the brakes on climate change but also can protect nearby communities from flooding and improve water quality. They are wild, inspiring landscapes,

many of which are protected as National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The beautiful golden plover, with its dramatic gold and black plumage, forms life-long bonds with their partners and often stay together as a pair throughout the year but are struggling to find enough high-quality blanket bog to raise their chicks.

Conservation director for the RSPB Martin Harper said: “Peatlands store massive amounts of carbon, provide a home to charismatic but vulnerable wildlife and can protect our homes from flooding.

“They are our secret weapon against climate change. It is madness that we are destroying these places at a time when we need them the most.

“Our peatlands need water not fire. The government must not let this opportunity to step up as a global leader on nature- based solutions slip through its fingers.”

Ben McCarthy, the National Trust’s Head of Nature Conservation and Restoration Ecology, said: “The National Trust is known for looking after irreplaceable historic buildings and artefacts. The UK’s peatlands, many of which we care for, are the equivalent of these in our natural environment. They have developed over hundreds of years and provide huge value to the nation by storing carbon and providing a home for special wildlife such as golden plovers and curlews. But burning on blanket bogs is, metaphorically and literally, equivalent to taking a match to these precious places.

“So ending this practice is low-hanging fruit in restoring our peatlands to good health and putting the UK on track to net zero emissions. But the government will need to invest much more to restore them to full health, including a stronger Environment Bill and a fully independent environmental watchdog."

Greenpeace, WWF, the RSPB and the National Trust are among the twenty-six charities, NGOs, associations and coalitions who have signed the letter.

Last Updated: Wednesday 30 October 2019

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