Heather burning is undertaken to create the most favourable conditions for grouse populations. Young grouse like to feed on young shoots and shelter in older growth, so gamekeepers engineer a continual cycle of artificial growth. However few other species can survive the heather monoculture, where biodiversity is so restricted.
Precious varied habitat, including protected peatland and moss species, are destroyed in the fires. Mosses ordinarily play a vital role in retaining water and preventing flooding, but these natural sponges are destroyed to increase heather yield.
Sphagnum moss is a particularly precious type of moss found in the Peak District uplands. It plays a key role in peat formation – which is essential for carbon storage. It also plays a vital role in retaining water – which is essential to reduce flooding. Sphagnum moss is destroyed by irresponsible heather burning, which blazes through the fragile, complex moorland ecosystem.
Peat is burned, eroded and drained on the grouse moors. The level of ecological devastation is scandalous and would be considered outright vandalism if it were anyone other than the gamekeepers doing it. Peat is a vital carbon store, formed over thousands of years. Burning dries it from above; draining saps it from below. Thousands of years of natural processes are undone by gamekeeping practices, and we will all suffer the ecological consequences of rapid carbon release. It is especially irresponsible in a time of climate crisis.
Finally, wildlife is killed in the flames. In the past year, adders, toads and even badger cubs have all been found dead. Insects, butterflies, ground nesting birds, reptiles and mammals all fall victim to the enforced burning regime. This aspect of burning destruction has been under-reported.
In 2018, numerous shooting estates agreed a voluntary ban on peatland burning, in order to stave off a total ban. Yet despite signing this agreement, many went on to continue burning as usual, as documented by Friends of the Earth. Once again, shooting estates prove themselves unable to self-regulate – or to preserve our previous uplands.
The Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust have some useful information and evidence from their Our Moors campaign in the Peak District.
This article from Leeds University offers an academic explanation of how grouse moor burning causes widespread environmental changes.
In this article,George Monbiot critiques the current land management strategies adopted in the UK’s national parks, including heather burning. He explains how our national parks are being run for a tiny shooting minority.
In October 2019, Zac Goldsmith announced that the UK would move towards legislating against peatland burning. This came in recognition that voluntary initiatives to stop burning of fragile peat ecosystems have not worked. We will be watching closely for this legislation – and its enforcement – in 2020.
HOW TO HELP:
- Heather burning season runs from 1st October – 15th April. Be vigilant on the moors during this time and please report any burning you see: Photos, videos and accurate locations are valuable.
- Also, monitor and report burning out of season. Gamekeepers often think they can get away with this – often they do. It is essential that we document their routine breaches of guidance and legislation, to dispel the myth that they are responsible custodians of the moors.
- Look out for nesting birds, reptiles and moorland mammals who are all endangered by spring time burning. Their plight often goes unnoticed. Document any you find killed or injured.
- Monitor and report moss damage: Learn to identify the different mosses, and their locations. Record and report evidence of burnt moss during the heather burning season.
- Monitor and report peat damage: Learn to measure peat depth in relation to heather burning activity and photograph it with a GPS reference. The gamekeepers repeatedly fib about the peat depth they are burning – it’s easy to get the opposing evidence!
- Ask your local MP to hold Zac Goldsmith to account on his promise to legislate against peatland burning.
- Report evidence to Moorland Monitors and Natural England.
- Highlight this atrocious activity to the authorities and media.
- Monitor and report breaches of other legislation and guidance.
- Monitor and report air pollution to your local council.
- Spread the word amongst visitors and residents.
Photos kindly c/o independent monitors including Craig Jones Wildlife Photography.