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13th August 2019

The Moorland Association today called for the government to ‘hit the pause button’ on making decisions over the impact of heather burning on grouse moorland following the publication of a new scientific report, which has found previous research to be ‘flawed’ and ‘unreliable.’

Scientists from Lancaster and York Universities have published a critical analysis of a key five-year study which claimed that upland moor burning has ‘clear negative effects on aquatic invertebrates, river water quality, peat hydrology, peat chemistry, peat structure and peat surface temperatures’.

The study, called the EMBER project which had been undertaken by Leeds University and was published in 2014, was widely regarded as the most definitive research produced about burning impacts on blanket bog ecosystems.

However, a new report casts major doubts on the EMBER Project, its findings and conclusions. A peer-reviewed critique by scientists Dr Mark Ashby, of the Lancaster Environment Centre at Lancaster University and Dr Andreas Heinemeyer, of the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York, identified and discussed ‘significant overlooked flaws’ in the project design. Read the full critique published in the Journal of Applied Ecology

They suggested that the findings of the project were currently unreliable and conclusions should be treated with caution by policy-makers who ‘need to re-examine the strengths and limitations of the prescribed burning evidence base’. Because the EMBER study design and statistical analysis confounded management with site, the results ‘cannot solely be attributed to burning management’.

Amanda Anderson, Director of the Moorland Association, said: “This is a very interesting analysis with potentially far reaching consequences. We strongly urge Defra to take account of these latest findings and to hit the pause button on upcoming legislation. If such large flaws were overlooked in this high-profile study, then it is likely that the wider evidence base contains similar flaws.”

“We all want to help improve and safeguard peatlands for the good of the environment, but it appears EMBER wrongly assumed that the study sites were similar in every respect except for burning management.  This was not true. Each site differed in key variables like rainfall, temperature, vegetation and altitude – all known to affect the functioning of blanket bogs. As a result, careful controlled burning has been blamed for a host of environmental ills, like drying out the peat, causing flooding and carbon loss, reducing mosses, colouring drinking water, when in reality there are many other factors at play.”

“We are nearing the end of a government consultation on banning heather burning over deep peat, a move which is partly based on the now apparently flawed findings of the EMBER Project and possibly others. As practitioners we know that careful burning of heather has multiple positive impacts in different scenarios such as mitigating wildfire risk and severity, maintaining active blanket bog function, creating diversity for wildlife and facilitating moss inoculation. If there was ever a time to hit the pause button, this is it. It would be in no-one’s interests for decisions to be made on the basis of research which has been called into question.”


Did You Know?

75% of of the world’s remaining heather moorland is found in Britain – but this area declined alarmingly over the latter part of the last century. The Moorland Association was set up in 1986 to coordinate the efforts of moorland owners and managers to halt this loss, particularly in England and Wales.

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