Less than three weeks ahead of the UN’s Cop26 climate summit, the British government’s level of commitment to tackling the climate emergency is again in the spotlight amid outrage over “possibly illegal” burning of peatlands on grouse shooting estates across north England.
Over 100 fires have been reported on carbon-rich peatlands in four days, conservation organisations have claimed, despite a government ban on the practice, which the groups have said raise questions about the effectiveness of the law.
Moorlands have long been burnt to stimulate the growth of fresh heather on which red grouse reared for shooting, feed. But the practice was recently outlawed in an effort to preserve the peat, which is globally threatened despite storing twice as much carbon than all the world’s forests combined.
Burning exposes the peat not just to fire, which can burn for long periods of time and release huge amounts of climate-altering carbon dioxide, but also to erosion, washing the peat into streams and rivers and leaving the land bare and unable to absorb water, therefore increasing flood risks.
Peat also provides nesting and feeding grounds for many wading birds and is an important habitat for rare insects and plants.
The RSPB has called for Defra and Natural England to “urgently investigate possible illegal peatland burning”, citing a fire on open moorland on Walshaw Moor, a grouse shooting estate, near Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire.
Meanwhile, Greenpeace said it had been passed drone footage of 109 peatland fires, as of 10 October, burning inside the North York Moors, Peak District and Yorkshire Dales national parks.
However, it is difficult to assess the legality of burning, as the law states that burning without a licence on peatland greater than 40cm in depth in protected areas is illegal.
Dr Pat Thompson, senior policy officer at the RSPB said: “It’s outrageous that in the run up to the UK hosting Cop26 in Glasgow we are watching our peatlands burn. These are the UK’s equivalent of the rainforests in terms of both their nature and their storage of carbon.
“Each burn on peatland destroys crucial vegetation and exposes the surface of the peat itself. This leads to erosion both as the carbon in the peat is released into the atmosphere or is carried off into our rivers causing pollution.
“This process also reduces the ability of the peatland to slow the flow of water, which further compounds the problem. It also leads to problems of flooding in local communities further downstream, which we have seen in recent years. We are passing a tipping point in these places, and this practice needs to stop.”
In a statement the RSPB said it “is calling for driven grouse shooting to be licenced in order to better control what it sees as a form of intensive and damaging land management.”
Kate Blagojevic, Greenpeace UK’s head of climate, said: “Just days before the UK is due to host a major climate summit, our largest terrestrial carbon store is on fire. And this is not a natural disaster, but an entirely avoidable one caused by grouse moor owners setting fire to their own land.
“It’s obvious that the government’s regulations are worse than toothless and completely failed to stop this absurd practice that damages both the climate and wildlife.
She added: “A comprehensive ban should be introduced immediately along with concrete measures to fully or highly protect at least 30 per cent of our land and seas by 2030 – anything less would be a major embarrassment for the UK government.
“There are better ways to welcome world leaders to a crucial climate summit than the sight of smoke and flames engulfing our largest carbon store.”
The RSPB has recently launched a new app for people to report burning on peatlands.