The recent spate of devastating wildfires in England has brought the issue of moorland management into ever-sharper focus. Peatlands are the UK’s largest carbon store and a stronghold for many threatened bird species. How they are managed is crucial to our capacity to achieve climate and biodiversity targets.
Now a major new report on peatlands management by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) warns against unintended consequences of climate change and conservation policies, including catastrophic wildfires and species decline, if policy makers fail to take account of the complexity of moorland management, new evidence of how the carbon cycle works on peatland, and risks such as wildfire. Policy solutions must, they say, be nuanced and sustainable environmentally, economically and socially.
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Ahead of Defra’s new ‘Peatland Strategy’, due to be published in 2020, the GWCT’s report is a comprehensive review of research into carbon management in the English uplands, focusing on grouse moors and looking at the increasingly controversial issue of vegetation management through burning.
Controlled burning on grouse moors is now often cited as a contributor to peatland degradation and unwanted carbon emissions. But, say the report’s authors, the traditional burning of heather moorland is a highly complex topic that should not be dismissed as an effective management tool in some circumstances. The report’s authors support the restoration of blanket bog, but caution against a one-size-fits-all ‘no burn’ policy. They identify a lack of sufficient evidence to support a total ban on heather burning on the basis of greenhouse gas emissions and carbon budgets and worry about the unintended consequences a ban might cause. The report draws upon examples of of similarly well-intentioned policies in the United States, in which ending managed burning in the 1930s resulted in declines of bird life and the devasting fires experienced in recent years.
Nick Sotherton, GWCT Director of Research, says: “The evidence gap is long-term research. We don’t know enough about how carbon loss and sequestration works across the complete managed burn cycle of 15-25 years; we are concerned that no burning will increase fuel load and increase risk of wildfire, which can allow a much more catastrophic loss of carbon than regular managed burning – more research is needed. Birds of conservation concern like golden plover, which favour the short vegetation that comes from burning and sheep grazing, may also decline.”
Peatlands cover 11% of England’s land area and are estimated to store around 584 million tonnes of carbon. Moors managed for red grouse cover more than 400,000 hectares in England. Grouse moorlands also support populations of globally declining upland waders such as curlew, lapwing and golden plover.
Traditionally, grouse moor managers have carried out managed burns on small areas of older heather to reduce the vegetation cover to encourage new green shoot growth to feed grouse. This has been shown to benefit a range of threatened birds, such as golden plover and lapwing, which thrive on grouse moors. Burning patches of heather in different years provides a patchwork of different height heather, creating areas for feeding, breeding and cover from predators. Peat-forming plant life unique to the uplands, such as Sphagnum mosses, can also benefit from burning, which removes taller stands of heather that have been starving them of light.
When successfully managed, a controlled burn moves across the surface quickly and so is described as a ‘cool’ burn. It removes the vegetation canopy but does not burn into the peat below. Carbon is released when heather is burnt, but grouse moors can also capture carbon in the vigorous re-growth of vegetation and in the black char left behind following the burn.
By contrast, most wildfires reach much higher temperatures, burning deep into the peat destroying in hours carbon stores that took hundreds of years to form. Liverpool University scientists estimate that the catastrophic wildfire on Saddleworth Moor in 2018 resulted in the loss of seven centimetres of peat, which could take 200 years to be restored. Wildfires can burn vast areas of moorland, releasing huge quantities of carbon into the atmosphere.
Supporters of heather burning argue that it is essential to manage the risk from wildfire, but the GWCT scientists found that the evidence is inconclusive. Controlled fires set by gamekeepers are considered by some to reduce fuel loads (overgrown vegetation that could increase the risk of wildfire taking hold) and that burnt plots provide fire breaks that can help limit the spread of wildfire. While others suggest that these benefits do not exist and in fact burning dries out the land increasing the risk if wildfires. Managed fires can also run out of control and become wildfires.
The GWCT’s review of the science demonstrates the complexity of these issues and urges policy makers to give them careful consideration. Grouse moors can contribute significantly to climate change and biodiversity targets in England, but the environmental measures must sit alongside the management measures for the production of grouse. Farming and country sports provide a significant employment and economic activity in the uplands. A policy change that affects someone’s ability to manage land for a particular outcome can have serious knock-on consequences for local employment, economic activity and social cohesion. Policy direction will be needed, say the report’s authors, but the knowledge and experience of land managers must be harnessed to formulate estate-scale policies allowing for learning through adaptive management.
“Our aim,” says the Trust’s Nick Sotherton, “is to contribute to the debate, make sure that we learn from previous mistakes and from the experience of others, ensure that we follow the science, and provide the long-term research that is so badly lacking. Such research has begun but resources must be committed to it to ensure its successful outcome for years to come.”
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Notes to editors
The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust – providing research-led conservation for a thriving countryside. The GWCT is an independent wildlife conservation charity which has carried out scientific research into Britain’s game and wildlife since the 1930s. We advise farmers and landowners on improving wildlife habitats. We employ 22 post-doctoral scientists and 50 other research staff with expertise in areas such as birds, insects, mammals, farming, fish and statistics. We undertake our own research as well as projects funded by contract and grant-aid from Government and private bodies. The Trust is also responsible for a number of Government Biodiversity Action Plan species and is lead partner for grey partridge and joint lead partner for brown hare and black grouse.
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