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Can using fire help protect our beautiful heather moors?

13th September 2023


There are many misconceptions about the way moorland is managed to help red grouse and other ground-nesting birds to nest and fledge their chicks successfully.

Controlled burning has been carried out for generations for improving grazing, but the association between heather burning and grouse shooting means that campaigners constantly seek to portray it as damaging to the environment.

Planned controlled burning is one of the tools used to reduce the amount of vegetation growing on the moor, which when dry, creates a fire risk of such intensity the fire service would not be able to put it out.

The practice also rejuvenates the heather and grasses, providing nutritious new shoots, which are eaten by red grouse, mountain hares and livestock. It provides a patchwork of habitats, with vegetation at varied heights attractive to different birds and animals.

Carried out under strict regulation during the colder months of the year, controlled burning removes the older, dense heather which has grown woody, but the damp surface mosses are left unharmed.

Unlike a wildfire, controlled winter burning only removes the tips of the vegetation. It does not affect the ground underneath and does not damage peatland hydrology. The greatest culprit for that is deep drainage.

The most detailed scientific study comparing different approaches to moorland management is now halfway into a seminal 20-year project.

Dr Andreas Heinemeyer and his team at the Stockholm Environment Institute, University of York, are comparing moorland burning with vegetation cutting and with leaving the land unmanaged, to assess the effects of each approach on carbon capture, water storage and biodiversity.

The results show that each of these approaches has its benefits depending on the conditions of the site in question.

Over the 10-year study period, areas that had been subject to a controlled burn absorbed more than twice the carbon compared to mown areas.

The research found that although there are some initial benefits to allowing heather to grow unmanaged, the mass of thirsty plants dries out the peat and increases the risk of severe damage from intense wildfires.

This is the point that campaigners rarely mention – the imperative need to mitigate the risk posed by wildfires, which cause massive devastation and vast carbon emissions.

Unlike controlled burns, wildfires can generate huge temperatures and burn into the soil itself.

Wildfire risk is increasing in the UK, just as it is in the rest of the world.

There were nearly 25,000 wildfires in England in the summer of 2022, almost four times the number recorded over the same period in 2021.

Reducing the fuel load – the accumulation of vegetation likely to feed a wildfire beyond the capacity of our firefighters to tackle– is crucial.

Moorland burning reduces the fuel load in the cooler months of the year. This helps to reduce the severity and allows for the control of the spread of wildfires if they do break out in the spring and summer, thereby protecting landscapes that are loved by the general public, home to wildlife and not to mention being important carbon stores.

Indeed, one of our peatland habitats, blanket bog, stores 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon.

Devastating wildfires at Saddleworth in 2018 and Marsden Moor in 2019 destroyed  2,400 acres and 1,700 acres of moorland respectively. The cost of the fire at Saddleworth is an estimated £8.76m, including the cost of habitat restoration, loss of ecology and the 26,264 tonnes of CO2 emitted.

The Marsden Moor wildfire released 12,500 tonnes of carbon, 2% of which came from the surface vegetation and 98% from the underlying peat. For comparison, a family car emits around 24 tonnes of CO2 during its lifetime.

Marsden Moor and Saddleworth Moor have no system of controlled burning in place. Managers there have relied on preventing people starting a fire (through careless use of barbeques and camp fires), as well as keeping the ground wet. However, it takes just one spark in dry conditions where normally wet mosses have dried up, acting as the perfect fire tinder.

Moorland Association members are working to re-vegetate and re-profile bare patches of peat to mitigate the upland carbon loss which occurs through natural processes. In addition deep drainage encouraged for agriculture in previous decades has been reversed, to fix the hydrology.

Around 60 per cent of the peatland restoration work required on their land has already been completed. We are absolutely at the forefront of peatland protection.

We need to continue this protection through carefully planned vegetation management in the cool, wet winter months to mitigate the intensity of wildfires when, not if, they happen in the future.

Moorland managers currently have unique skills, expertise and equipment to mitigate wildfires, at no cost to the tax payer. Fire fighters are telling government they cannot put summer moorland fires out without losing lives. Is there a balance to be struck here for the environment, nature and people?


Did You Know?

75% of Europe’s remaining upland heather moorland is found in the UK – 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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