New research published in the journal Nature Geoscience has confirmed that controlled burning can increase carbon storage in the soil. The study, from the University of Cambridge, has found that controlled burns cause changes in soil composition, which not only offset immediate losses but can also lock in or increase carbon in the soil by creating charcoal, which is very resistant to decomposition, and forming aggregates that can protect carbon-rich organic matter. Unlike intense wildfires, low intensity fire also increases the amount of carbon bound to minerals in the soil. A further finding published in the report was that managed burning promotes new plant growth which enables more carbon to be stored.
These findings concur with research undertaken on peat soils by researchers from the University of York, Lancaster University and Newcastle University. Adrian Blackmore, the Alliance’s Director of Shooting said: ‘Fire has been used as a management tool for many thousands of years, and in our uplands the cool, controlled, burning of vegetation has helped reduce the risk of damaging wildfires, and the considerable environmental damage and carbon loss that they cause, burning as they do with greater intensity resulting in the peat beneath the vegetation being burnt, and preventing the storage of water and carbon. The 2019 wildfire of Scotland’s Flow Country is just one example of what can happen when moorland is left unmanaged, with 22 square miles of this UNESCO world heritage site being severely damaged, and 700,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent being released into the atmosphere, doubling the country’s greenhouse gas emissions for the six days it burned. This latest research by the University of Cambridge reinforces the important role that controlled burning has to play both in preventing wildfires, and for conservation, and policy makers need to take note of its findings.