Wild Justice and 25 others on moorland burning

As a member of Wildlife and Countryside Link, Wild Justice signed a recent letter to Theresa Villiers asking for an immediate end to burning of England’s upland bogs.

Walshaw Moor Estate. Photo: Sarah Hanson

Dear Secretary of State, 

The 1st October marked the start of the heather and grass-burning season, and this week Parliament debated nature-based solutions to climate change for the first time in its history. In light of this we are writing to ask you to bring an immediate end to the practice of burning England’s upland bogs, including our internationally important blanket bog. This would make a significant and immediate contribution to our fight against climate change and increase the resilience of these habitats and the benefits they provide for people and wildlife. It would also be a prime example of global leadership in the run up the UK’s Presidency of a nature-based solutions themed COP26.  

England’s upland blanket bogs are a stunningly valuable public good – they are internationally important for nature and are also vital in the fight against climate change. The UK’s peatlands store an estimated 3 billion tonnes of carbon, with England’s peatlands storing an estimated 500 Mt carbon. 

However, this public good is being destroyed for private gain. Much of our blanket bog is now severely degraded. Historic atmospheric pollution has combined with intensive management practices including drainage, grazing and burning to devastate large areas of protected habitat. These intensive management practices are intended to make the bogs more productive for farming and grouse shooting, but the private benefits they produce are greatly exceeded by the environmental damage they entail in the destruction of public goods. 

The scientific evidence is conclusive in showing that burning has a profound impact on the functioning of our blanket bogs, with large areas of bog now devoid of peat-forming bog mosses and vegetation, and the underlying peat soil dried out as a result. In many places, the vegetation has been entirely replaced by a monoculture of heather which further contributes to drying the peat. These habitat changes have significant detrimental impacts on bog structure, peatland invertebrates and internationally important species such as the dunlin and golden plover, which prefer to live on wet bogs.  

Due to this poor management, whilst England’s blanket bogs should be a net carbon sink, they are instead releasing 350,000 tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere each year, with 75% of these emissions a direct result of burning. This is the equivalent emissions of 140,000 cars per year.  

Allowing burning to continue will substantially undermine the UK’s ability to achieve the Government’s target of net zero emissions by 2050. Rather than continuing to allow upland bogs to be burnt, we need a concerted programme to re-wet blanket bog across England to make them more resilient to future worsening climate change and the associated increase in fire risk. A recent study of European peatlands found that climate change and human impacts (including burning) are causing peatlands to change from being a carbon sink to a source of emissions. Healthy blanket bog needs water, not fire.  

Burning also has more immediate effects on the ecosystem services provided by our moors and bogs. Healthy bogs help slow the flow of water across the bog surface, reducing the risk of flooding for communities downstream, as well as impacting water quality. By contrast, degraded blanket bogs are less able to withstand the worsening and more frequent heatwaves making them vulnerable to an increased risk of wildfires, with the resulting smoke pollution having a major negative impact on the air quality of nearby population centres. 

We welcome your personal commitment to tackling the climate and nature crisis and that Parliament has declared a climate emergency, as well as the Queens Speech highlighting the importance of restoring natural habitats. However, if the Government is serious about showing global leadership in the run up to COP26, you should introduce an immediate and outright ban on burning on all upland blanket bogs. This would be a powerful and proportionate demonstration of practical action to show that the Government is determined to tackle climate change and improve our natural environment.  

We would be very grateful for the opportunity to discuss this issue further and would be delighted to organise a site visit for you if that would be helpful.   

Signed by: A Rocha, British Mountaineering Council, Butterfly Conservation, the Climate Coalition, CPRE, Council for British Archaeology, Earthwatch Institute, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Green Alliance, the League Against Cruel Sports, National Trust, OF&G Organic, Plantlife, Conservation Farming Trust, People’s trust for endangered species, Real Farming Trust, Rewilding Britain, The RSPB, Wildlife and Countryside Link, Sustain, Sustainable Soils Alliance, Wild Justice, the Wildlife Trusts, WWF, ZSL.