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Heather compost – another beneficial by-product of grouse moor management

Heather moorland in the United Kingdom is internationally important, and it is widely recognised that management for grouse shooting has helped preserve it. It is because of that management that some 60 percent of England’s upland Sites of Special Scientific Interest are managed grouse moors, and over 40 percent have also been designated as Special Protection Areas for rare birds and Special Areas of Conservation for rare vegetation under the EU Birds and Habitats Directives. If left unmanaged, heather can become a major fire risk due to a significant build-up of fuel loads, and with the warmer and drier summers that we are now experiencing, the frequency of uncontrolled wildfires can only be expected to increase, resulting in considerable environmental damage as they burn with greater intensity, burning the peat beneath the vegetation, and preventing the storage of water and carbon.

 Whilst the controlled burning of heather can help support wildfire prevention, carbon capture, and improve biodiversity, it is not always the preferred option, and it is also one that not always permissible or possible on many areas of moorland, except under special licence. The cutting of heather is therefore an essential alternative means of managing its growth on moorland, but if one is to reduce the fuel load, the resultant brash needs to be removed so it does not remain a significant fire risk. News that the Barningham Estate in North Yorkshire, in partnership with Teesdale Environmental Consulting Ltd, has been awarded £400,000 by the Department for Energy Security and Net-Zero to carry out a three-year project to determine whether heather brash can be used to make a peat-free compost for commercial use is therefore an exciting one, and one that could be of benefit to many.

 Although a third of the UK’s compost market is currently peat-based, the government has committed to ban peat in all retail bagged compost in 2024, along with its use in professional horticulture in 2026, and a viable alternative is therefore needed to meet demand. The Teesdale Moorland Biomass Project, is therefore using a soft tracked harvester on the Barningham Estate to cut and suck up the heather in an attempt to produce thermophilic compost through traditional compost heaps which will build up heat as the vegetation is broken down, killing any weed seeds and pathogenic organisms in the process. The thermophilic process is the same as that used in the production of compost that is available from garden centres, and if the project proves to be a success in producing heather-based compost, then this would result in there being yet a further beneficial by-product of moorland for driven grouse shooting.

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