Hundreds of fires are to be set on carbon-rich peatlands in Northern England’s uplands over the next six-and-a-half months as the heather burning season opens today.

The majority of fires are expected to take place in the North York Moors, Peak District and Yorkshire Dales national parks, as well as the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Burning is performed by moorland estates to provide younger, fresher heather to be eaten by red grouse, which are fired on for sport in driven shoots, and leaves much of the landscape scarred.

These moorlands are full of peat, the biggest natural carbon store on UK land. When healthy they also help maintain water quality, support biodiversity and protect local communities from floods and wildfires.

Recognising the environmental damage caused by burning, the UK government introduced a ban on burning on deep peatlands (peat of 40cm or greater in depth) within protected landscapes. The Secretary of State for Environment acknowledged that “burning is damaging to peatland formation” and “makes it more difficult or impossible to restore these habitats to their natural state.”

However, the government stopped short of passing a complete ban and burning is still permitted on shallow peatland sites. This is despite all peatlands needing to be protected and restored to their healthier, deeper state to help tackle climate change and reverse biodiversity loss.

In May, the first prosecution under the new legislation was delivered against a grouse moor at Upper Midhope, Stocksbridge, near Sheffield, which admitted to having allowed vegetation to be burnt without a licence in a protected landscape.

Commenting following the prosecution the Crown Prosecution Service said “The company was clearly reckless as to the impact of their actions in burning this land.

“Land agents acting for them 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.”

Wild Moors is urging the government to extend current provisions to completely ban grouse moor burning on all peatlands. Its call is supported by the government’s independent climate advisor, the Climate Change Committee, which insists on banning all burning on peatlands to achieve carbon net zero.

Image: Steve Morgan / Greenpeace UK