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Government moves to reduce burning on upland peat – a step in the right direction, more steps needed

Dr Pat Thompson, Senior Policy Officer for uplands at RSPB, reviews recent progress in restoring our upland peatlands to health and looks ahead to the expected publication of a Peat Action Plan for England.

May 2021

Wildfires and burning on peatland have been in the news again. To ensure that our peatlands are returned to a healthy state, providing a home for wildlife and a range of vital services for people, we need to draw a close to traditional management practices such as burning and invest in action to restore these special habitats thus breathing new life into our uplands. Peatlands should be wet underfoot year-round. Unfortunately, because of the long history of drainage, burning, grazing and atmospheric pollution, large areas of upland peatlands have lost their peat forming mosses. Many are now dry, threatening their unique wildlife and their vital stores of carbon-rich peat.

Given the increasingly urgent need to tackle the nature and climate crises, in line with the Committee on Climate Change recommendations, all upland peat must be restored to good condition. It is time to stop damaging our peatlands and to rewet and restore them. Restoration would make them more resilient to drought and fire, help alleviate flood risk downstream and of course would be better for nature and carbon. Investing in these places now will guarantee a handsome return for future generations.

But there is much to do and we are running out of time.

It’s great to hear Government talking about investing in restoring peatlands, building on and supporting initiatives already underway, and further supporting new peatland restoration initiatives. The transition to managing and using peatlands for what they naturally should be and do as opposed to managing them against the grain of nature via drainage and burning - is crucial to realising their full benefits for nature and people.

The RSPB has been working for many years to halt the burning of upland peatland habitats, especially blanket bog. In response to a complaint to the European Union the UK Government has now committed to end the burning of blanket bog in internationally important protected sites, publishing new regulations on Heather and Grass Burning in England.

A good start, yet Government needs to go much further and quicker, taking action to end burning on peatlands outside the network of protected sites and moving to protect and restore carbon-rich peatland habitats more widely in the uplands.

Under the new regulations (which came into force at the beginning of May), landowners may apply for a licence to burn peatland habitats, within protected sites, for the purposes of conservation, enhancement and management, to reduce the risk of wildfire or to manage vegetation that is otherwise inaccessible. These exemptions are problematic, not least because they potentially allow land managers to continue to use fire to manage peatlands in ways that are not going protect the carbon stored in the underlying peat and above-ground vegetation or help restore damaged peatlands to their natural wet state.

We agree with Government that ‘there is a consensus that burning of vegetation on blanket bog is damaging to peatland formation and habitat condition’ and that this ‘makes it more difficult or impossible to restore these habitats to their natural state and to restore their hydrology’.

Supporting guidance issued at the start of this month sets out how the exemptions will operate. This will need to be closely monitored, to ensure that they don’t become loopholes to allowing burning to continue at a similar scale to that before the regulations came into force. It will also be essential for Government to properly resource and enforce the licensing system.

How important is it to reduce peatland burning? We have widely recognised twin crises, for nature and for our climate. Bringing back the plants, birds, insects, and other animals that thrive in healthy, wet bogs ticks the first box, for a habitat which the UK has particular importance, with 15% of the world’s blanket bog. And for climate, the greenhouse gas emissions are equivalent to the potential gain from the whole of the UK’s tree planting targets. If we want to have any extra benefit from all those trees, we also need to look after our peatlands and return them to their natural state.

The new burning regulations are a small but positive step toward a brighter future for our upland peatlands - we look forward to more and bigger steps as a matter of some urgency, and we eagerly await the publication of the Government’s England Peat Action Plan next week.

Restoring and sustainably managing upland peatlands, thereby reducing emissions, are a key element in helping us achieve the Government’s Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050. The ambition must be matched with action.

Dr Pat Thompson, Senior Policy Officer (uplands), RSPB

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The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.