New report should herald a transformational moment in our view of prescribed burning


By Henrietta Appleton, GWCT Policy Officer (England)

3 minute read

I was struck by a quote from HL Mencken that was used by Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle in a report stage debate on the Genetic Technology Bill(1) – “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong” – as it seemed to me to summarise the problem with a lot of environmental policy at the moment. Policy decisions are seen in binary – right or wrong, ban it or promote it. Yet our ecosystem involves a multitude of interacting processes that result in a dynamic environment.

Policy decisions made on the basis of simple answers from evidence “at a point in time” or over short (3-5 year) time scales are therefore more than likely going to be ineffective or wrong (or both). Consequently, it is not a surprise that on-going research led by Associate Professor Andreas Heinemeyer at York University into upland management systems is beginning to show that the results of earlier research based on pre- and immediately post-burning evidence are too simplified; and even wrong when it comes to judging the carbon consequences of managed burning.

This is because the earlier research failed to acknowledge the processes that takes place over a complete management cycle. Clearly carbon is released at the point of burning but it is reabsorbed over time. This graph from the York University report demonstrates the importance of viewing carbon balances over time:


It also suggests that there is a carbon benefit to burn management over cutting as it demonstrates the additional gain from the charcoal formed during a low-intensity controlled burn. Consequently, the burnt plots become a carbon sink after 5-7 years whereas the mown plots take a bit longer (7-9 years).

The study is also monitoring the effects of management on other ecosystem services – not just carbon. The results to date suggest that the management options of burning and cutting also increase biodiversity, through maintaining structural diversity, and maintain higher water levels compared to the unmanaged sites.

With the increasing threat of weather patterns that are supportive of the devastating wildfires seen at Saddleworth Moor in 2018 and across the country in July 2022, the risk of wildfire must become a significant driver to land management decisions in our semi-natural habitats – and in particular our peatlands. This research reinforces concerns that rewilding or reduced management would increase the wildfire risk as a result of a higher, dry fuel load combined with the effect of the peat drying out as the water table lowers over time due to increased evapotranspiration from the vegetative cover.

Significantly for policy, the experiment is demonstrating that there is “no one size fits all” in terms of upland management and that therefore all available options for land management must remain on the table. In some cases, cutting will be more appropriate (subject perhaps to a wildfire risk assessment on drier sites if the brash is to be left) and in others prescribed burning.

But what is perhaps clear is that leaving huge swathes of our uplands unmanaged provides the poorest possible outcomes. As we stated in our recent audit of grouse moor management’s contribution to 25YEP goals(3) "We find little consistent evidence that the alternative land uses would better integrate, replace or sustain goods and services” and these results do little to change that view.

In the same debate on the Genetic Technology Bill referred to above Lord Krebs when describing the varying views held by scientists in the field of genetics stated that it is usually the case that “scientists do not agree on everything” and that instead one should consider “a centre of gravity of opinion” where science evolves towards a consolidated view. This is also the case with peatland ecology and its interaction with fire ecology.

But interestingly Lord Krebs went on to say [with regard to genetics and gene-editing] “.. when there is a centre of gravity of opinion, there are always outliers. Sometimes those outliers turn out to be right and there are transformations, but I have seen no evidence at this stage that the outliers are right and the centre of gravity is about to shift”.

This is also relevant here as Associate Professor Andreas Heinemeyer has been seen as an ‘outlier’; yet surely the results of his 10-year experiment (with another 10 years to come) are the evidence needed in peatland ecology and its interaction with surface vegetation and fire ecology that this should be a transformational moment.


1. https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2023-01-25/debates/6D8A0914-F879-4480-B78F-8BBD8F4CE3E6/GeneticTechnology(PrecisionBreeding)Bill
2. Heinemeyer, A. (2023) Protecting our peatlands. A summary of ten years studying moorland management as part of Peatland-ES-UK: heather burning compared to mowing or uncut approaches. Full report can be found here.
3. Sustaining ecosystems - English Grouse Moors (GWCT)

Thank you for reading this item. The GWCT conducts leading research, challenges misinformation and promotes effective strategies in the countryside. We are a small charity and every donation can make a big impact. It's quick and all cards, Direct Debit, Apple Pay, Google Pay and PayPal are accepted:


Heather Burning

at 10:02 on 15/02/2023 by Andrew Sharkey

It is great to see a continuing interest and rigour to the evidence base around heather burning. Just one small point on the evidence above is that while the data predicts 25 years ahead it is only showing one burn in that time period and compares just one form of management undertaken for the full 25 years, and there doesn't appear to be any consideration of any overlapping of these management regime or grazing/re-wetting impacts. Where as in the real world that is unlikely to be the case. However, and I am sure this is being done, the key to this is not the carbon balance of a single "point" area of land under a single management option but of a moorland at a landscape or full ownership level. I am sure somewhere in the middle of all these studies there will be a "sweet spot" which will bring together the increasing need from a carbon and wildlife point of view to see more re-wetting and carbon sensitive management, whatever that may turn out to be, while at the same time safeguarding jobs and income associated with shooting and moorland management. The risk here is that this becomes a "burn" v "no-burn" debate rather than one focused on a more holistic approach to moorland management and its ability to deliver on multi-benefits including eco-system services. It does now seem like the key is about starting to join the dots with all these various pieces of evidence and research before the "trenches" are dug and get too deep across wildlife, carbon and shooting interests and within upland communities. As GWCT is so deft at doing it also needs to ensure the evidence base is relevant and reflects real world and real site practicalities and practice. But so encouraging to see this increasing research and new data / evidence baselines being created as the interest around the role moorlands play in the UK and the World ecologically / socially and economically continues to expand. Couldn't agree more with the "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong” and the world would, I am sure, be a better place if we all appreciated and adopted this mantra.

Heather Burning

at 16:59 on 14/02/2023 by Nicholas Gibb

The burning of heather on our moors is essential! It encourages new heather to sprout from the base, it encourages berries to grow, grasses, a multitude of insects. If however regardless of Grouse situations, we ignore and stop managing our moors, we massively increase the risk of wildfires breaking out, with no means of controlling them easily. Let alone the fact that if we let the heather to become too old and mature, the young heather struggles to get started as the ground below has become almost suffocated. In every thing there has to be a balance. Every estate is different, the soil, the moisture, the altitude, the weather conditions all play a part in the success of species, whether it be animal or vegetable. I believe we are loosing our way when it comes to our countryside and what we are allowed to do or not! We will never please everyone, but within reason, estates I believe should be allowed to apply for open licences either yearly or every few years, allowing them to control and manage wildlife populations, as well as being allowed to continue heather burning to maintain, improve and better our habitat set up. A balance must be found! When the Heather is burnt, carbon, pot ash and a variety of things are released. The ground requires these things. For a period of time, there was an abundance of Sulphur in our atmosphere after I believe Chernobyl, although not all good news at all, we now have to in areas add sulphur to our fertilisers etc to maintain ph levels etc. Since time began, they have burnt or harvested the hill in order to keep it maintained. It doesn’t make sense to stop, when actually if done correctly is proven to work! Our biggest problem now though, depending on area of the country we live in, is that our heather burning season is too short. I believe the end of the season is fine, however the start should be earlier, such as early September. Most wildlife is active enough that it can escape controlled fire. It also takes the pressure of rushed burning perhaps in April, when conditions are getting too dry. Just my opinion.

Heather burning ….

at 14:56 on 14/02/2023 by Alec Swan

I'll admit to a mild irritation that those who support the entirely correct management tool of heather burning and so vocally, continue to ignore the simple fact that our thriving and prosperous Moors have arrived at their happy and wildlife inclusive state because of just that ~ Heather Burning. heather Burning is a management tool and should those who oppose Grouse Shooting, finally get their way, then THEY TOO will be forced to continue with the practice …. the residue left behind mowing, will most certainly choke and inhibit young growth. Let us assume that the practice of shooting driven Grouse is outlawed - and let us also assume the large and modern machinery can access those parts of our Moors ~ who is going to pay for this labour intensive work? ~ the campaigners? ~ or will they do as they have historically done and shrink away in to the background and obscurity?

Heather burning

at 11:00 on 14/02/2023 by DAVID RAMSAY

Keep up the good work. we all know this makes sense.

Make a comment