Burning peatlands

Grouse moor management involves burning heather on peatlands to provide younger, fresher vegetation to be eaten by game birds. But this destructive practice has dire consequences. Peat moorlands are vital carbon stores, locking away 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon – making them the UK’s biggest natural terrestrial carbon stores. Because many grouse moors are located on blanket peat soils, this worsens the problem.

When peat is burned, it dries out and loses its ability to lock in carbon, turning these habitats from carbon stores into carbon emitters. This contributes to climate change, a crisis we cannot ignore. To make matters worse, burning is a leading reason for the decline in upland Sites of Special Scientific Interest and other internationally important nature sites.

Recognising the environmental damage caused by burning on peatlands, the Westminster Government introduced the Heather & Grass etc Burning (England) Regulations 2021. These rules ban burning on deep peat within protected areas, except under exceptional circumstances. The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs has acknowledged that “burning is damaging to peatland formation” and “makes it more difficult or impossible to restore these habitats to their natural state”. However, shallow peatlands in northern England still faces legal burning, despite the urgent need to restore it to its healthier state for climate action.

The government’s independent climate advisor, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), insists on banning all rotational burning on peatlands to achieve net zero. The CCC warns that burning, regardless of depth, “is highly damaging to the peat, and to the range of environmental benefits that well-functioning peat can deliver.” Voluntary measures by landowners have proven ineffective, leaving no choice but to ban this damaging practice nationwide.

Burning on peat moorland not only disrupts carbon storage but also damages essential ecosystem services. Clean water provision, flood mitigation, wildfire resilience and biodiversity enhancement all suffer as a result. We must act now to protect these valuable ecosystems before it’s too late.

(Image credit: Steve Morgan / Greenpeace)