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Urgent action needed as peat burning ban and restoration measures miss the mark

30 June 2022

New figures have revealed that despite a partial ban in 2021, the climate-polluting and nature-damaging practice of burning vegetation on upland peat has continued at scale. Warnings in the Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) report also highlight that: peat restoration rates are well below the levels needed to achieve Net Zero by 2050, peatland under restoration management actually declined last year, and that damaged peat is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions from land use.[1] Conservation and climate experts are demanding urgent Government action.

Figures for 2021, obtained through FOI requests by Wildlife and Countryside Link, reveal that:

  • One large site of 50 hectares, the size of 50 rugby pitches, was licensed for burning
  • No licences for sites under 10 hectares of size were granted in 2021. Burns taking place on these smaller sites do not usually come under any site protection rules and therefore take place without being officially recorded

Defra released data for licences to burn on SSSIs granted under The Heather and Grass etc. Burning (England) Regulations 2021 in response to a parliamentary question in June 2022, revealing the Secretary of State received and refused only one application for a licence to burn.

This contrasts with data collected by Wild Moors and Unearthed which suggests that 51 burns took place on land protected by multiple conservation designations (and which Natural England’s latest available map identifies as deep peat) in the 21/22 season. Separate RSPB data suggests 70 burns took place on protected sites. The disparity between the official number of zero burns on protected areas in 21/22 and data suggesting 50-70 burns in protected areas during the same time period suggests that the 2021 regulations are being breached on a significant scale. The Wild Moors and Unearthed and RSPB data sets suggest more than 250 incidents of peatland burning overall during the 21/22 season.

Nature experts are calling on the Government to introduce a simple, comprehensive ban on all burning on upland peat to shield protected sites more effectively and to better protect all upland peat habitats. Read full policy briefing here.

Dr Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said:

“Peatlands ought to help the climate, water and wildlife. Instead, many of our peatlands have become heather monocultures that are releasing carbon, reducing water quality, and contributing to flooding.

“Last year, the Government insisted that its new regulations to limit burning heather on peatland would be effective, despite a series of loopholes in the legislation. This year, early evidence indicates that the burns continue at a significant scale, both on protected sites and outside them. It will be impossible to meet net zero while the land use sector remains a net emitter. Only by restoring peatland to retain and remove carbon from the atmosphere can we hope to curb our contribution to climate change.

“The Government should strengthen its partial burning ban to ensure that these globally important habitats are restored.”

Patrick Thompson, senior policy officer at RSPB, said:

“It’s clear that the new peatland burning regulations in England are not working and that burning is still taking place at a massive scale on peatland vegetation and inside protected sites. We are in a nature and climate emergency. Intensive and damaging land management practices such as burning continue to harm and further threaten these vital carbon and nature-rich ecosystems. This is why the RSPB is calling for a blanket ban of burning on all peat.”

Doug Parr, Policy Director for Greenpeace UK, said:

“The climate and nature emergencies mean that protecting and restoring peatland is a priority that should come before a few wealthy landowners burning heather for the benefit of grouse shooters. Peat is the UK’s largest natural store of carbon on land and a vital habitat for birds, rare insects and plants. A ban on all peatland burning is required along with a clear plan to create job opportunities in habitat protection and management that will support the rural communities affected by the ban.”

Burning vegetation on peatland can have serious consequences for climate change, biodiversity and water quality. New regulations to limit burning on protected sites were introduced in 2021.

When in good condition, peat acts as a valuable carbon store making it a key natural solution in the climate crisis. But across England just 13% of peatland is in good enough condition to absorb rather than emit carbon. Burning is a key cause of this poor condition. Previous polling found that 60% of the British public want to see the Government’s peat burning ban expanded to cover all peatland at risk of being burned, with only 3% opposed.

Often seen as our equivalent of rainforests, peatlands are the UK’s biggest carbon sinks – storing around 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon. Peatland is also an excellent natural buffer against flooding due to its ability to soak up water when it is in good condition. This helps slow the flow of water through the uplands and reduces the risk of flooding downstream. More frequent extreme weather due to the climate crisis will make natural defences like this ever more important.

As well as being a key natural climate solution upland peat is an important habitat for wildlife including waders such as golden plover and invertebrates like the large heath butterfly. Bogs also support golden eagles, hen harriers, and short-eared owls which use them as hunting grounds.

Natural England has calculated that 260,000 tonnes of CO2 are released every year from rotational burning on upland peat habitat in England – the equivalent of CO2 pollution from 175,000 cars.[2] The wider greenhouse gas emissions from peat due to its poor condition across the country in 2019 were estimated at 23.1 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent, adding 3.5% to total UK carbon emissions.

Notes to Editors:

  1. See the Climate Change Committee’s report on progress towards net zero here. Key peat mentions in the CCC report include:
    1. Major increases in peatland restoration are needed to reach 67,000 hectares/year by 2025, with around 80% of peatland needing to be restored to ensure the land use sector is a net carbon sink by the mid-2030s. Due to the time lag before restoration leads to emissions reductions, these land use changes need to start now. (p285)
    2. Slow sector progress. Emissions from agriculture and land use have been relatively flat since 2008, which is inconsistent with the Net Zero target and reflects insufficient progress across the board. Land-use changes, such as peat restoration and afforestation, are well below required levels and have yet to meet delivery targets across the UK. (p285)
    3. In 2020 UK land use had net emissions of 4 MtCO2e, 0.9% of total GHGs in the UK, and down 0.4 MtCO2e from the previous year. Net emissions have been virtually flat since 2008 but have decreased by 70% since 1990. Damaged peatlands are the largest source of land emissions, although emissions have fallen by 15% since 1990 (Figure 8.10). Drainage and management of peat for use as croplands and grasslands are the major contributors, with conversion to cropland and settlements further sources of emissions (p292)
    4. In 2021, the CCC estimated around 7,700 hectares of peat were put under restoration management across England, Wales and Scotland. This is a decrease from 8,500 ha in 2020. Action must be ramped up to meet ambition, particularly in England and Scotland, where established strategies have set targets to restore 35,000 ha in England by 2025 and 20,000 hectares/year in Scotland from 2021 – both of which are currently likely to be missed. (p297)
    5. The CCC recommends Defra introduce policy to end rotational burning on peatland before the start of the 2022 burn season. (p561)
  2. In 2010 Natural England concluded that 260,000 tonnes of CO2 is released from rotational burning on England’s upland peatlands into the atmosphere each year. Average new car CO2 emissions are 124.5g/km and the average number of miles travelled per car per annum is 7,400, equivalent to 11910km. 11910x124.5 = 1,482,795g of CO2. This equals 1.48 tonnes of carbon dioxide produced per car per year on average. Peat burning of 260,000tonnes of CO2 / 1.48 = the equivalent CO2 of 175,676 cars.

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