An attempt to ban the controlled burning of heather and grass in its entirety has failed, after MPs rejected a Labour amendment to the Environment Bill today.
If successful, the amendment would have created conditions for wildfires and put wildlife and the environment at significant risk.
Large stands of rank and woody heather pose a major fire risk due to a significant build-up of fuel loads. Uncontrolled wildfires cause considerable environmental damage as they burn with greater intensity and burn the peat beneath the vegetation, and prevent the peatland storing water and carbon.
The amendment, which was submitted by Labour’s Shadow DEFRA Minister Ruth Jones MP, sought to go beyond the latest regulations, which came into force on 1 May 2021, that 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.
Prior to the vote, the Countryside Alliance cited the amendment as an example of an ‘unfortunate misunderstanding’ with regards to the importance of heather and grass burning to reduce fuel load in order to reduce the chances of wildfires in England.
Recent wildfires seen on Marsden Moor in West Yorkshire, are an example of what can happen if heather and grass burning is not performed. More than 100 firefighters were called to Marsden Moor to tackle the latest fire, which burnt for three days after it broke out on the evening of April 25, and a helicopter was brought in to drop water from a nearby reservoir on the worst affected areas. The scale of the devastating fire was due to dry weather, irresponsible behaviour but also the decision of the National Trust to stop managed burning on the moor.
Likewise, the 2018 wildfire on Saddleworth Moor, which was followed by a further serious wildfire in February 2019, took 10 days to bring under control. Some four square miles of moorland were destroyed, and the environmental damage was considerable. The moor, too, had a no-burn policy.
Last year, wildfires in Australia devastated over 38,000 square miles, with untold damage to the country's unique biodiversity, not to mention loss of life and livelihoods. None of the 25,000 square miles of landholdings managed by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy - the largest private owner of land for conservation in Australia which carries out controlled burning- were affected by any of those wildfires.
As well as helping to reduce wildfires rotational heather burning helps create lots of micro habitats so that within one acre of moorland the widest possible range of biodiversity, from insects to reptiles, and mammals to birds, have the full range of habitats they require. A low intensity ‘cool burn’ of vegetation in small patches removes the canopy but prevents the burning of peat or moss, avoiding the resultant loss of carbon and delay in regrowth of the heather.
Tim Bonner, Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance said: “Labour MPs need to look at the horrendous fires on Marsden Moor and Saddleworth Moor to understand what happens when controlled burning is prohibited. Stopping an essential practice that is carried out to protect the public, environment and wildlife risks fuelling the fire and would obviously be catastrophic, but it further reinforces the concerns that many in rural communities have about Labour’s priorities when it comes to the countryside."
He added: "While we are glad this latest attempt has failed, it is very sad that Labour continues to propose damaging legislation and has not consulted with land mangers or rural representative bodies.”