RSPB ‘twisted data’ on heather burning?

Heather BurningBy Andrew Gilruth, GWCT Communications Director

Earlier this year The Times used the headline 'RSPB ‘twisted data’ in campaign against grouse shooting' after we reported here that an international group of scientists published their concerns that some UK organisations were misrepresenting evidence for the damaging effects of fire in moorland management.

They suggested much of this contextualisation of issues, such as burning, stemmed less from the evidence of the environmental effects and more from attitudes towards patterns of land ownership1

The response?

1) The RSPB responded here. It acknowledged, in a subsequent paper of response submitted to the Royal Society, that it was wrong to claim “and the damage it can cause” in relation to heather burning. This claim “exceeded the research findings”2.

2) Without more information the ‘precautionary principle’ should be applied (so stop burning until you understand all the impacts). 

Did the international group of scientists stand their ground?

Yes. The original group of authors (from the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal, Norway and the USA) responded once more in the same Royal Society journal3. They rejected the precautionary principle approach because “given existing uncertainty there is no guarantee that such changes will provide the desired benefits”.

Instead, they advocate what is widely considered to be the best available approach for managing biological systems in the presence of uncertainty: adaptive management4. Some might call this ‘continuous improvement’. This allows us to combine action today with learning for tomorrow. 

Where does that leave us?

There remains contradictory evidence about the actual positive or negative impact of burning when longer timescales are taken into account5,6. More research is needed – much of it over the medium to long term. The following views are STILL NOT verified by the evidence currently available and should not be perpetuated in discussions until they are formally addressed1

  • regular burning increases heather dominance
  • fire kills or significantly damages Sphagnum moss
  • peatlands are particularly sensitive sites with regard to fire
  • managed burning helps protect against wildfire
  • fire alone can contribute to peatland degradation

Are these negative views of heather burning still being perpetuated?

Yes. The latest RSPB magazine rounds off an update on the restoration work its staff have undertaken at Dove Stone by saying: “This is in stark contrast to the unsustainable management of many of our internationally important bogs, which continue to be burned for grouse shooting.” You can read the piece here.

The authors form the University of Leeds have asked us to clarify that they were not defending the RSPB’s position in heather burning. We are delighted to do so. For the avoidance of doubt the reference to their paper in paragraph four was removed on 17/10/16.

Get your FREE guide to grouse shooting and moorland management

GrouseguideWhat's inside your FREE guide

✓ Grouse shooting
✓ Conservation on grouse moors
✓ Heather burning
✓ Moorland drainage
✓ Disease control
✓ Upland predator control
✓ Hen harriers and red grouse
✓ Mountain hares and red grouse
✓ Alternative moorland use
✓ Commonly heard criticisms of driven grouse shooting

Get your FREE guide to grouse shooting and moorland management >


1. Davies GM, Kettridge N, Stoof CR, Gray A, Ascoli D, Fernandes PM et al. The role of fire in UK peatland and moorland management: the need for informed, unbiased debate. Philos Trans R Soc London B Biol Sci 2016; 371.

2. Douglas DJT, Buchanan GM, Thompson P, Wilson JD. The role of fire in UK upland management: the need for informed challenge to conventional wisdoms: a comment on Davies et al. (2016). Philos Trans R Soc B Biol Sci 2016; 371: 20160433.

3. Davies GM, Kettridge N, Stoof CR, Gray A, Marrs R, Ascoli D et al. The peatland vegetation burning debate: keep scientific critique in perspective. A response to Brown et al. and Douglas et al. Philos Trans R Soc London B Biol Sci 2016; 371.

4. Westgate MJ, Likens GE, Lindenmayer DB. Adaptive management of biological systems: A review. Biol Conserv 2013; 158: 128–139.

5. Brown L, Holden J, Palmer S. Effects of moorland burning on the ecohydrology of river basins. Key findings from the EMBER project. 2014.

6. Clay GD, Worrall F, Aebischer NJ. Carbon stocks and carbon fluxes from a 10-year prescribed burning chronosequence on a UK blanket peat. Soil Use Manag 2015; 31: 39–51.


Heather burning

at 13:18 on 19/10/2016 by Ricky R.

In order to be visable for the single farm payment, Heather must not be above 0.5 of a meter or the subsidy will not be paid to the farmer as EU Regulations state. Therefore farmers must reduce the hight of the Heather to claim the subsidy ( burning it being the only vesible option). RSPB needs to blame EU regulations and not grouse shooting!

Financial incentive

at 13:11 on 18/10/2016 by Anthony Burnand

I agree with Alec Swan, all the different bodies concerned with wildlife and the countryside, must be careful that they are not unduly influenced by the financial incentive of their profession. It is imperative that they listen to one another to ensure that the decline of our native species, and the habitat they depend upon, does not cause a particular species to become endangered. It should be noted that whilst one land owner may have more than his fair share of a nuisance predator species, it could be in trouble across the rest of the UK. Most land owners I talk to love wildlife, and will readily help any species in decline, if the facts are correct. We must not get stuck with our ancestral practices, but monitor them closely, to see if the findings of other groups have any credence. .

Heather burning.

at 11:17 on 18/10/2016 by Alec Swan

Though perhaps late in the day, it's starting to occur to me that those charitable bodies, and the RSPB are certainly amongst them, which have an eye firmly focused on fund raising, are becoming ever more extreme in their claims and apparent beliefs. For the RSPB, indeed anyone, to suggest that those who manage our uplands aren't committed to long term and all encompassing wildlife conservation, does little to support their stance. Time, I'd suggest, for the RSPB and others to work with those who manage these vast tracts, rather than against them. Time for unity, and time to put division behind us.


at 10:25 on 14/10/2016 by Jeff Kibble

The fact that keepered moors outperform their "naturally managed" ones for density of endangered species really sticks in their throat. They are less concerned with conservation than trying to undermine the excellent work by upland keepers and promoting a class war against shoot owners that are funding this work

Make a comment

Cookie Policy

Our website uses cookies to provide you with a better online experience. If you continue to use our site without changing your browser settings, we'll assume you are happy to receive cookies. Please read our cookie policy for more information.

Do not show this message again