by Ed Rowlandson

On Thursday 18 March, the House of Lords debated recently published legislation on heather and grass burning (The Heather and Grass etc. Burning (England) Regulations 2021 (legislation.gov.uk).

The new regulations, which come into force on 1 May 2021, will prevent the burning of any specified vegetation on areas of peat over 40cm deep on Sites of Special Scientific Interest that are also Special Protection Areas or Special Areas of Conservation, except under licence.

However, the prohibition does not apply if the area of specified vegetation to be burned in one burning season is an area which has a slope of more than 35 degrees; or where more than half of that area is covered by exposed rock or scree, and in either case it is a single area of 0.5 hectares or less, or is on two or more areas within 5 metres of each other with a combined area of 0.5 hectares or less.
It is these exemptions that has caused much debate, and resulted in the regret motion in the name of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch. 

That this House regrets that the Heather and Grass etc. Burning (England) Regulations 2021 (SI 2021/158) do not provide a basis for significantly reducing the amount of peatland burning that occurs in England, in part because the restrictions extend only to certain areas of deep peat; notes that while there are appropriate uses of peat burning, the protection of peatland ecosystems should be prioritised to provide a haven for wildlife, the safe storage of carbon, and the prevention of natural catastrophes such as flooding and wildfires; and therefore calls on Her Majesty’s Government to reconsider its approach to restricting the burning of peatland ahead of the season’s commencement on 1 October.

The Countryside Alliance disagrees with the regret motion, and briefed peers in advance of the debate. The fundamental reason why we disagree with this regret motion is that it is in fact a misrepresentation of the regulations in question. The motion refers to peatland burning when it is the heather and grass that is being burnt. No peat is being burnt, as peers such as the Earl of Caithness made clear: ‘The regret Motion talks about peatland, but the statutory instrument does not even mention it… Nobody is talking about burning peat; they are talking only about the vegetation on top of the peat.’

Lord Benyon rightly noted that to infer otherwise is offensive: ‘Upland managers would be offended to see this regret Motion mention peat burning. The only peat that is burned is from the 32,000 wildfires that we have every year, some of which get into the peat, as we have heard, doing huge damage.’ 

Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville described how heather burning was the preferable option to doing nothing, as some would encourage: ‘…well-organised and regulated cool burning is far better than leaving the heather to become old and dry and suspectable to largescale wildfires which could ignite the underlying peat, causing far more damage.’

Rotational heather burning also benefits our wildlife, as our President, Baroness Mallalieu QC, highlighted in her contribution: ‘Swaling, as we call it, has been used since medieval times over large areas of moorland to encourage the growth of young heather and grasses to the benefit of grazing animals, both domestic and wild, and evidence shows that curlews and golden plover benefit from it too.’  

The Earl of Shrewsbury also spoke on the positive biodiversity outcomes: ‘Burning benefits many rare species. The mosaic of high and low vegetation that it creates, with mosses, grasses, rushes and flowers thriving alongside heather, is a much richer habitat than wall-to-wall heather. Curlew and golden plover benefit especially from this form of habitat management. So do red grouse, Britain’s most unique bird and a huge conservation success story in only those areas where grouse shooting occurs.’

There has been much debate on the science. The Alliance has always and will always support policy and legislation made on the latest available science and research, not on ideology. On the latter point, it was regrettable that the Baroness Bennet of Manor Castle used her contribution to distort the debate to focus on those that shoot as a reason to disagree with these regulations: ‘This statutory instrument is a tiny nod to the public desire to end the disastrous management of land for driven grouse shooting. It is clear that, behind closed doors, the Government are still sitting around in comfortable armchairs, whisky glasses in hand, guffawing loudly and toasting their shooting mates—which, of course, means toasting themselves.’

It would have been more appropriate if Baroness Bennet had instead focused on science to support her claims. Indeed, those contributions that did use scientific evidence to support their arguments were the more convincing. For example, Viscount Ridley referred to such evidence when commenting on CO2 emissions: ‘Recent scientific research by the University of York has revealed that, if you cut heather, it releases high levels of CO2 as it rots. By contrast, burning turns some of it into inner charcoal, which does not rot but remains in the ground for many decades. More importantly, heather burning prevents the shading out of sphagnum mosses, which are by far the largest sequestrators of carbon in blanket bogs.’ 

The response from the Minister of State, the Rt Hon Lord Zac Goldsmith, indicated that the debate is not over. We are pleased that the Minister is ‘aware that research is ongoing and there are findings both in support of and against the practice’ and ‘will continue to listen to the science and keep our policy and our minds open.’ However, the Minister did make some remarks with which we disagree. For example, we do not agree ‘burning heather to reduce wildfire risk could itself dry the land and exacerbate the risk.’ Recent instances in Australia, the USA and Scotland have all shown that the threat of wildfires increases when controlled heather burning is discontinued. 

There also seems to be a reluctance to accept the huge benefits that controlled rotational heather burning creates: ‘It is hoped that…the need to manage these sites by burning will diminish and, ultimately, become unnecessary.’ This seems to ignore that the practice is part of peatland restoration as it prevents wildfires that does damage to the peat. We hope that the Government will recognise this and understand that rotational heather burning is very much needed as part of effective moorland management. 

We also do not support the Minister’s claim that there is ‘an established scientific consensus that burning of vegetation on blanket bog can be damaging to peatland formation and habitat condition, making it difficult or, in some cases, impossible to restore these habitats to their natural state and to restore their hydrology.’

We are unaware of any such scientific consensus, and would argue that if one does not burn or cut vegetation when there is a need to do so, sphagnum moss is not going to be encouraged, and it is that which is peat forming, and helps absorb water and remove discolouration. It is that which will help restore the hydrology of blanket bog habitats; not, as the Minister suggests, leaving them to become overgrown, and a wildfire risk.

The motion was disagreed with 252 content and 274 not content. The narrowness of the vote illustrates how the need for burning as an essential management tool is still misunderstood, and how there is much to do make both Houses, and Government, aware of the science in support of it. It is a victory, nonetheless. 

The full transcript can be found here.

Our briefing note can be found here.

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