New legislation for heather burning

Unmanaged moorland leaves it at risk to wildfires, a concern which has only grown with climate chang

Unmanaged moorland leaves it at risk to wildfires, a concern which has only grown with climate change. The government intends to work with land owners and managers to develop local wildfire control plans. Credit: Danielrao/Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

With the UK having 13% of the world’s blanket bog, the government has made a priority to restore England’s peatlands by introducing new measures

The government has today announced plans to bring forward legislation to prevent the burning of heather and other vegetation on protected blanket bog habitats. The new measures take into account the fact that, in some select circumstances (for example, when the ground is particularly steep or rocky), heather burning is a vital tool for land managers that cannot be replaced by a suitable alternative.

The new regulations will prevent the burning of any specified vegetation on areas of deep peat (over 40cm depth) on a Site of Special Scientific Interest that is also a Special Area of Conservation or a Special Protection Area, unless a licence has been granted or the land is steep or rocky.

It is believed that burning of vegetation on blanket bog is damaging to peatland formation and habitat condition, which makes it more difficult or impossible to restore these habitats to their natural state and to restore their hydrology.

The government has said that if moorland is unmanaged, there is a risk of wildfire which is most damaging of all and that these risks have grown due to climate change. Therefore, the government intends to work with land owners and managers to develop local wildfire control plans.

The proposed regulations will be laid before Parliament for its approval before it comes into force.

In response to the announcement, Caroline Bedell, BASC’s executive director of conservation, has said: “The government’s legislative plans sit well within the BASC policy that prescribed heather burning has a vital role to play in moorland management.

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“The government’s announcement that licences will be available does not mean they are against tackling climate change but that they are aware of the science behind the increasing risk of wildfires, undertaking bracken control, and the benefits to conservation from moorland management.

“This is not the damaging blanket ban on burning that some have lobbied for, and BASC welcomes the fact that the government has listened to land managers to ensure burning can be undertaken in the right circumstances. However, the question remains how Natural England will interpret any new legislation on the ground.”

Amanda Anderson, Director of the Moorland Association, also commented that: “Heather burning is a vital tool for moor owners and managers who are heavily involved in peatland restoration and tackling climate change. They will be concerned over the impact new legislation and further restrictions may have on their important conservation work.

“We are glad government has recognised that controlled winter burning has a part to play in certain circumstances, particularly preventing wildfire which is the greatest – and growing – threat to moorland. The provision of licences to assist wildfire prevention and conservation work will be important and we look forward to seeing more detail on these proposals.

“Wildfire prevention and conservation work goes hand-in-hand with moor owners’ long-standing commitment to tackling climate change and driving forward peatland restoration.”

Vice-chairman of the NGO’s moorland branch, Richard Bailey, aired his concerns over the new legislation: “This announcement feels like an attempt to tick a box and grab the headlines without it having much impact on the reality of what happens, and what will continue to happen on the ground if biodiversity is to improve.

“These areas were designated because of the historic way they were managed and, as a result, the wildlife they hold. Burning, along with cutting, is part of this management. Areas designated for ground-nesting birds such as curlew and other red and amber listed bird species are sensitive habitats and we want to ensure we can continue to look after them as best we can.

“Many of us have managed these hugely important areas for wildlife conservation for decades. We will wait and see how easy it will be for land managers to be granted certificates to burn areas for permitted reasons and how we can continue to help these important habitats and carbon stores to thrive.”