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Westminster Hall debates provide an opportunity for MPs to raise local and national issues, often as part of a wider campaign, and this was certainly the case of yesterday’s debate (23 January 2024) on the regulation of heather burning on peatlands; a debate that as it turned out was attended by just four MPs, including the Chair. This is not the first time that Olivia Blake, MP for Sheffield Hallam, has raised a debate on burning in the House, and once again it was only too apparent that she was either unaware of, or had chosen to ignore the available science and evidence in her call for an outright ban on heather burning.
Contrary to her claims, the controlled cool burning of heather as carried out by gamekeepers is not “damaging to precious blanket peat bog habitats that would otherwise exist”, and it does not “kill off the spongy sphagnum moss underneath that acts as a natural barrier to rain run-off”. Indeed, it is low-intensity ‘cool burns’ in small patches that remove the heather canopy, prevent the burning of peat and moss beneath the vegetation, and act as a fire break to help prevent the spread of wildfires, whilst encouraging the growth of peat-forming sphagnum moss which filters and absorbs water. Ms Blake also claimed that: “Some say that we need burning to control fuel load on the moors, and that without it overgrown heather would cause wildfires, but the more heather is burned, the more it grows, and the more we are locked into a cycle of burning”. For an MP with heather moorland in her constituency, her failure to understand how reducing the fuel load can help prevent the devasting environmental impact of wildfires that burn into the peat is staggering; as is her lack of understanding around the varying burning cycles of heather, where it is permissible.
Ms Blake’s claims of widespread violations of the Heather and Grass etc. Burning (England) Regulations 2021, which were introduced to protect blanket bog habitats in England, were dismissed by Robbie Moore MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Minister responding on behalf of the Government in yesterday’s debate. He pointed out that Defra, supported by Natural England, has been swift to act on any breaches of the regulations, securing two successful prosecutions last year. Indeed, the extremely low numbers of alleged offences and successful prosecutions show that compliance with the regulations is high, and that stakeholders are being receptive.
Prior to the debate, we circulated our updated briefing note on heather burning to supportive MPs, which was used extensively by the Minister. This contains details of the most recent science, including that being undertaken by researchers at the University of York who are undertaking a 20-year study to compare the impacts of different options when managing vegetation in relation to mitigating climate change, increasing water storage and quality, and increasing biodiversity. In their preliminary report at the 10-year point, they have determined that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach that land managers should use, with heather burning, mowing, and leaving vegetation unmanaged being management tools that should be available.
The Future Landscapes Forum, a group of academics and experts with specialist knowledge of the management, ecology, functioning, and fire risk associated with heather-dominated landscapes in the UK have also published a recent Position Statement in which they expressed their growing concern that the debate about managing heather moorlands, including on peatlands, is neither properly informed nor evidence-based, leading to dangerous policy decisions that ignore the positive social and ecological effects of controlled burning. These decisions disregard a large body of evidence showing that burning can support wildfire prevention, carbon capture, and improve biodiversity, there being no clear scientific consensus to support a blanket ban against controlled vegetation burning on heather moorland. Ms Blake should take note of this, and their concern that “policy decisions are being influenced by special interest groups who regularly ignore or distort evidence in order to outlaw the practice”.