A Sheffield court has convicted a grouse moor for allowing heather to be burnt without a licence in one of England’s most important places for nature.

The case, which the Crown Prosecution Service said “is the first case of its kind”, followed areas of land on the Midhope Moors, in Upper Midhope, near Sheffield, being illegally burnt in October 2022. The owner of the grouse moor entered ‘guilty’ pleas to six counts of illegal burning at Sheffield Magistrates’ Court on 10 May.

“The actions damaged an area of land that is already at risk and undermined the regulatory system in place to protect areas of special scientific interest,” Senior Crown Prosecutor Maqsood Khan said in a statement following the conviction.

The Midhope Moors are situated within the Dark Peak Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and the South Pennine Moors Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and Special Protection Area (SPA), which are landscapes designated as internationally important for the conservation of breeding birds and sensitive habitats. One of those habitats is peatland which stores vast amounts of carbon and provides an important home for wildlife and plant-life.

A ban on burning on deep peat within protected sites without a licence was brought by the UK government in 2021 following an acknowledgement of the consensus that “burning is damaging to peatland formation” and “makes it more difficult or impossible to restore these habitats to their natural state”.

When peatlands are damaged by intensive practices such as burning they can also convert from carbons stores into carbon emitters, as well as contributing to pollution of water and increased flood risk in communities downstream.

“Land agents acting for [the Midhope Moors] made an application to legally burn areas of vegetation so they were clearly aware that they needed one. When the licence was refused, they simply went ahead and did it anyway,” the CPS added.

“Such actions will have had a “significant environmental impact” and were “reckless”, Judge Gould said when sentencing the grouse moor for six offences in contravention of the Heather and Grass etc Burning (England) Regulations 2021. A fine of £1,800 was imposed, with additional costs of £125 and a surcharge of £720.

The outcome sets a precedent for other grouse moors which seek to flout the burning regulations, with the CPS indicating that it will pursue similar prosecutions where necessary.