Heather burning - Defra takes control

By Andrew Gilruth, GWCT Head of Communications

Two years after the General Licence fiasco, Defra has announced that it has taken control of heather burning too – another complex issue that some have repeatedly oversimplified. The RSPB, which has championed extensive restrictions, has been clear that the announcement is “not what was promised” because heather burning will continue:

  • on shallow peat (less than 40cm)
  • if it will help restore blanket bog vegetation
  • where heather cannot be cut
  • to reduce wildfire risk
  • for conservation

Okay, but what has Defra said it will do?

It will bring in a Statutory Instrument to end rotational burning on deep peat (over 40cm) in Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation; known collectively as European Protected Sites. Please note that not all Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) are European Protected Sites.

This is something it has been signalled as a possibility for a long time (since January 2018), and we also expect Defra to publish its Peat Strategy very soon, again long delayed. The GWCT initial statement of response to the announcement can be read here (and we await more detail).

How will the new regulation work?

  1. Only covers deep peat (>40cm) on European Protected Sites (not all peat, nor all places). Previous consents for heather burning on these sites will be removed.
  2. Steep or rocky land is excluded. This may be where land is inaccessible to cutting or mowing machinery. In relation to this we also know that fires often burn up a slope (see here for an explanation), which may mean that the top and bottom of slope areas (or the areas just beyond off the sensitive slope areas) might be key locations for fuel management.
  3. Defra acknowledges that wildfire is the most damaging of all fire types and that the risk has grown due to climate change. Another wildfire risk factor is the increase in fuel loads where the cessation of heather management has resulted in tall, rank and dense heather. This can create not only a higher fuel load per unit area but also greater areas of that higher fuel load overall. As a result, burning will be licensed as a tool to help prevent and mitigate wildfire. The Government will work with land managers to develop local wildfire control plans.
  4. Licences for the burning of heather on blanket bog for the purposes of conservation may be issued.
  5. These licences may cover several years and be aligned with management plans.

Wildfire – is this point a new recognition?

Yes. Defra has acknowledged that wildfire is the biggest risk of all. It is very welcome news. The GWCT and others have been working hard to make sure wildfire risk is better understood. Our Peatland Report (published July 2020) brought in evidence from America to show the folly of no-burn management strategies in fire-prone ecosystems.

Burning licences for conservation?

The GWCT stated in our report (p13) “The concept of restoration burning on blanket bog has been created to help reduce heather dominance and restore peat-forming plants. It seems clear from the trade-offs that we will need more than this: we will need wildfire prevention and mitigation burning, upland wader habitat creation burning as well as burning for grouse.”

It seems the intention is to give licences to burn to restore blanket bog; we hope this will include curlew and golden plover conservation, and maybe other conservation aspects too. This is an area we will pursue with Defra.

Understanding how to best use the knowledge that controlled burning can support Sphagnum recovery and thus blanket bogs (e.g. 2021 GWCT research here) requires more work. As will other information not covered by Natural England’s evidence review, which only considered studies up to 2013. Further research is needed to establish a more consistent picture of whether heather burning results in net carbon capture or loss over a full cycle of burning and plant re-growth.

What research is the GWCT doing to help fill knowledge gaps?

The GWCT has embarked on long-term heather burning and cutting trials to complement the one on Natural England’s National Nature Reserve at Moorhouse and further work being done by York University. This work is being done because:

  • Carbon: the evidence on net carbon loss as a result of managed fire is widely challenged. Policy is often being based on studies conducted over too short time scales too record the positive effects of carbon being locked up in the re-growing vegetation, carbon being stored through the restoration of moss cover or stabilised carbon (as bio-char).
  • Greenhouse Gases (GHG): recent research (including work by the University of York) has shown that methane emissions are reduced after low-intensity fires, in relation to bio-char impacts on soil microbes and oxidation of methane within a shallow, drier surface layer (such as under heather vegetation) compared to saturated bogs or alternative mowing.
  • Biodiversity: research suggests managed burning also helps enhance biodiversity through supporting a diversity of rare birds, plants and invertebrates.
  • Water: multiple government reviews have found no good evidence that burning and flooding are linked.
  • Wildfire: restricting managed fires may increase the risk of wildfires through the removal of firebreaks and increasing the burnable fuel loads.

We very much hope government will get involved in all these trials and ensure the findings are built into future management policy for the uplands. With so much evidence still being gathered, it is vital that any new regulation includes a mechanism to ensure it evolves to follow the science.

Until further work is complete, we believe there should be more willingness to use adaptive management to get to better solutions for the management of deep peat, given all accept there are evidence gaps, especially around understanding the longer-term cycles of carbon and peat formation.

Please donate to help us continue our vital work during this difficult time


Burning for conservation purposes

at 20:24 on 02/02/2021 by JACK ORCHEL

Thank you for your helpful overview of the complex issues associated with heather burning. Sensitive management of moorland habitats must continue. It is a prerequisite for maintenance of diverse upland bird communities.

Government regulations risks a lag in time.

at 11:42 on 02/02/2021 by H Nigel Pickering

My concern, partially mitigated by the multi-year management plan proposal, is that regulation of nature, be it species or habitat, tends to be lagged in time (usually by a year) and that local reaction to local conditions is hugely faster. Compare this with local deer management groups in the UK who can react to local disease outbreaks or an upsurge in poaching very quickly whereas in the USA the regulation state by state of deer means that management of numbers is lagged by a whole year as the reproductive rate varies. In similar vein heather burning is VERY locally weather dependent [it happens in the uplands so the weather is both extremely local and variable] and 'keepers and land managers MUST be permitted to adjust so that a three or better still five year target proportion is attained.

Heather burning

at 11:19 on 02/02/2021 by James Savile

Whilst I am a member of the GWCT and pay a monthly sub, I can’t help but continue to donate when reading accounts such as this one about Heather burning. Keep up the good work and keep occupying the Science High Ground!

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