Ahead of the forthcoming COP26, the Wildlife Trusts have expressed concern about the delay in the publication of the England Peat Strategy. They feel: “Burning should be banned everywhere and this precious habitat should be rewetted to stop moorland fires raging and to help rare and unusual wildlife like curlew, carnivorous plants and beautiful dragonflies to return.”
We say that a delay on the publication of the strategy is understandable if it helps avoid a sweeping ban on burning, which would prevent us using managed, ‘cool’ burning for the proven delivery of these self-same public benefits (see our biodiversity and conservation on grouse moors).
Nobody wants endless delays to important reports, but this delay may sensibly reflect that our scientific understanding has improved since the research that underpinned the early no-burn positions from over 10 years ago. Recent studies have demonstrated the value of managed burning to peatland restoration, reducing wildfire risk and impacts, carbon sequestration, and moorland habitat and wildlife conservation. We have written about this evolving scientific background extensively (Peatlands 2020). The most recently published GWCT research provides further evidence that prescribed burning at appropriate time intervals can help peat-forming vegetation by reducing competition from heather and mitigate wildfire risk by reducing the amount of fuel available (Peatland vegetation response to prescribed burns).
Furthermore, the focus on upland peatlands overlooks the contribution that agricultural use of lowland peat makes to emissions. It has been estimated that about half of the CO2 emitted by all UK farming is from degraded and shrinking peat soils under arable cultivation. As in the uplands, the challenge here is how to create solutions that protect carbon and the other services our peatlands provide: our food production in the lowlands and our habitats, wildlife and rural economy in the uplands. Maintaining cool managed fires and investment by grouse moor managers is a large part of the upland solution.
Lowland solutions are less well developed, with some, such as paludiculture, unlikely to be more than niche; others are more likely to only raise a smile than ever be workable, such as using Sphagnum moss to produce nappies. However, the Lowland Agricultural Peat Task Force set up under the chair of Robert Caudwell will be considering all these. We hope that some sense will prevail and that the focus will be on retaining what we have left through the adoption of sustainable crop rotations that enhance soil health whilst underpinning agricultural productivity.
In conclusion, we hope the Peat Strategy, when published, will acknowledge the ever-moving scientific background to our understanding of the peatland ecosystems and encourage adaptive, co-created management strategies that protect carbon and our other peatland benefits.