Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Thoughts on restoration burning

Peatlands have locked up carbon over the millennia which explains why many people are concerned about losing this accumulated peat resource.  They only store carbon when they are wet enough to halt the normal processes of vegetation decay.   Peat breaks down rapidly and releases carbon into the atmosphere when it becomes dry and exposed which is why re-wetting and re-vegetating is so important. 

Most moorland managers understand this, but a major point of contention exists around whether or not to carry out prescribed burning in moorland environments and particularly on peatland.  There is a lot of science around just now concerning this debate and we explore some of the issues below.

There appears to be two schools of thought: one promoting the need and importance of muirburn for the continued management of vegetation on peatlands that are on a restoration trajectory; and the other advocating no further burning of peatland, after initial restoration work, as it takes the long-term path to a near-natural and self-regulating condition.  Science can be found to support both of these arguments.

The view that burning is unnecessary comes from the standpoint that peatland will recover to a near-natural state over time as a result of re-wetting alone.  There is also concern that prescribed burning is known to eradicate species that are sensitive to fire (including many species with high conservation value associated with near-natural wet bogs).  This counters the increase in very common species associated with bare peat and vegetation gaps that result from burning.  Once a bog has become fully functional, with a good coverage of Sphagnum mosses, below a mixed canopy of Hare’s-tail Cotton-grass (Eriophorum vaginatum) and Heather (Calluna vulgaris), there is no need for vegetation management since the conditions are too wet for Heather to gain ascendency.  A re-wetted bog, with less vigorous and scattered Heather, is understood to be more resilient against wildfire events.  It also serves as an important habitat for Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus scotica) seeking invertebrate food – especially when drought makes this difficult in other parts of the moorland.

The alternative line of thinking recognises that even after initial restoration work, peatlands remain modified and will act more like heath than blanket bog for a number of years.  Therefore, it may be appropriate to intervene with some management to reduce Heather and avoid wildfire risks.  Recent evidence suggests that cool-burning of peatlands may lock-up more carbon in the form of charcoal and reduce the amount of methane gas that might otherwise be emitted as a result of anaerobic respiration from re-wetted peatland.  Muirburn has also been shown to increase biodiversity in situations where Heather has become dominant.  Some species of Sphagnum moss appear to be unaffected by cool-burning – in the short-term at least.

There is a great deal of uncertainty about how to do long-term peatland restoration.  We have never restored peatlands in the UK on the scale we currently are or in so many different places and situations.  It may be that a more flexible and pragmatic approach is required than the sometimes quite entrenched standpoints set out above.  In some places intervention might well be required whereas in other places it won’t.  Learning about the recovery pathway and the recovered state of bogs will become important skills for all moorland managers to gain in the coming years.  This is something the Heather Trust is working with Peatland Action and others in Scotland to develop advice on.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Has anyone ever changed their mind because someone shouted at them?

In his Opinion piece of 12 February for The Guardian, George Monbiot again berates land managers and government this time over the recent floods in West Yorkshire, blaming them on what he sees as poor practice.  

As the article goes on, it makes some reasonable points about peatland restoration and the value of natural flood management measures, but how many people read that far?  They are either turned on or turned off by a polarising headline that adds more fuel to an unhelpful culture of blame.
The reality, of course, is that cause and effect are much more convoluted than Mr Monbiot suggests and, if he is really looking for people to blame for climate change and extreme weather events, then 99.9% of society is implicated.  Moor owners and managers are evolving their practices so that they can play a full part in climate regulation, natural flood management and biodiversity.  Some lead the way, others follow and a sticky few resist – that is the way of it no matter what section of society you seek change from.   

Tens of thousands of hectares of peatland are on a route to restoration on moorland across the UK all contributing to the outcomes he seeksResults will not be seen overnight however and this type of work, while important, does not offer the complete solution to climate regulation or flood management.  Everyone must make changes.   

Rather than criticise, the Heather Trust takes a different approach.  We work across sectors and interests to support the development of moorland management practices to ensure they deliver for new and important agendas.  Moorland practices are being scrutinised through research and sound evidence-gathering.  They should move forward based on this rather than rhetoricBuilding consensus and common purpose is not the sort of work that grabs headlines in the way Mr Monbiot does, but it is the sort of work that leads to lasting change and might be a more constructive line to take. 

Anne Gray Director 
18 February 2020

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

What are Britain's Uplands for? Summary Report


There are many differing perspectives on how Britain’s uplands should look and what they should be used to deliver.  This loosely speaking ranges from those who would like to see the continuation of “traditional” management for farming and sporting interests with the particular mix of wildlife, rural jobs and communities this supports, through to those who advocate what has become termed “rewilding” with its alternative case to deliver for people and the natural environment.

These two perspectives are often presented in a very polarised way by the media and this can fuel further division.  However, there are many steps and stages between these two positions, and indeed other agendas such as renewable energy and forestry expansion - which have an environmental as well as an economic imperative - to take account of.  For many people the portrayal of one as “all good” and the other as “all bad” is neither helpful nor realistic. 

Throughout 2019, The Heather Trust ran seven discussion/debate events focusing on the future of land use and management of Britain’s uplands.  The events aimed to provide a space for honest and respectful debate about the issues.  We wanted to attract people with a range of viewpoints to come together in equal number to explore how land use and management supports the natural environment, the rural economy and communities, and wider society.  

By bringing people together - who would not naturally find themselves in the same room - we started to build shared understanding and trust, which in turn is a stepping stone toward building consensus from conflict.

Each event consisted of a morning site visit to explore aspects of existing management particular to the venue. This was then followed by an afternoon of presentations and a panel led debate.
Events took place in:
  • Lurgan Farm, Perthshire
  • Invercauld and Mar Lodge, East Cairngorms
  • The Hopes Estate, The Lammermuirs
  • Beacon Hill, Powys
  • The Peak District, England
  • Goathland East Moor, North York Moors
  • College Valley Estates, Northumberland
Each event explored different themes chosen to reflect the issues pertinent to the place we were in.  These themes included: hill farming; grouse moor management; re(wilding); deer management; heather and peatland restoration; investment in public goods delivery (carbon storage, water management, biodiversity and public access); conservation and species recovery; visitors and tourism; and community engagement.  
In attendance were:
  • Academics
  • Government researchers
  • Policy makers
  • Environmental charities
  • Uplands advisers
  • Farmers
  • Gamekeepers
  • Shoot owners
  • Stalkers
  • Rewilders
  • Lobbyists
  • Campaigners
  • Interested members of the public


Following each event, the questions raised in the afternoon debates were analysed to identify the key themes:


The events brought with them some useful learning for the Heather Trust:
  • There was definitely interest in attending events such as these. All but one of the events sold out.
  • We were able to attract people from a range of different perspectives
  • We found that site visits worked well in terms of getting people to have constructive conversations with each other. There is nothing like talking about what is actually living and growing and being done on a hill or moor.  It is so much better than a theoretical conversation about an idea of generic hill or moorland.
  • We found that the factors affecting and influencing management of any site varied a great deal. While we might see farming, game management, carbon, water, waders, raptors, designated sites, community interests, trees, outdoor recreation and so on, all having a role to play, the relative importance of each varies and therefore there is no one size fits all solution to the question of achieving the right balance.  However, that doesn’t mean to say there are not principles and approaches that can be applied to help find the right solution for each circumstance.

99% of feedback respondents found the site visits Good or Excellent
98% of feedback respondents found the speakers / presenters Good or Excellent
96% of feedback respondents indicated they would be interested in continuing these conversations and attending future Heather Trust events
92% of feedback respondents felt the event improved relationships between people, organisations and groups with disparate interests in moorland management and land use
91% of feedback respondents felt the event improved their understanding of what good, sustainable moorland management looks like
90% of feedback respondents felt the event improved their appreciation of moorland ecosystems

Next steps

The Heather Trust plans to take forward a number of pieces of work by way of follow-up to these events.

We will:
  1. Explore the approaches and mechanisms that will enable each area of moorland and hill to contribute in the best way it can to achieving regionally and nationally important outcomes.  These approaches will need to promote balance between economic, environmental and social uses of the uplands, and recognise that all are important and that none can dominate.  Since each moor is different, we need to identify a policy framework that will allow enough flexibility for each to place to find its own balance.
  2. Promote developments in approaches to and investment in the delivery of public goods (climate regulation/carbon storage, water quality and flood risk management, biodiversity and public access for mental and physical health) thus enabling moorland managers to make financially realistic choices to manage for these outcomes.
  3. Find better ways to ensure neighbouring land uses as far as possible complement each other rather than conflict.
  4. Continue to get people of all perspectives together on moorland to keep the conversation going

With thanks to: SRUC, Powys Moorland Partnership, Moors For The Future Partnership, Cairngorms National Park Authority The Hopes Estate and College Valley Estates for sponsoring the events.

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Creating a Brighter Future

Simon Thorp reports on the Creating a Brighter Future (CABF) project that he helped to deliver for the Uplands Alliance, with Nigel Stone, the former Chief Executive of the Exmoor National Park Authority.

Creating a Brighter Future, Lake District

With the support from the Prince's Countryside Fund, the CABF project brought together over 100 hill farmers, with Defra staff, to explore how farmers can create a brighter future for their businesses and the environment.  Farmers were keen to stress how many public benefits they already provide and that, with appropriate support, they can provide more.  They also reminded Defra that these public benefits are delivered alongside producing high quality food and being the glue of rural communities.

Leaving the EU will result in the biggest change for seventy years in how farmers are supported. No longer will farmers be paid to farm but instead they will be paid to provide public benefits which are not paid for “at the till”.  These benefits include biodiversity, carbon storage, clean water and heritage landscapes.  This new scheme is called the Environmental Land Management (ELM) Scheme.

An initial meeting took place with members of Defra’s ELM team in London.  We had selected active farmers to represent the nine upland areas of England.  We wanted to provide Defra with practical views, ‘straight from the tractor’, to provide a contrast with the views from the farming organisations.  This meeting went well and the ‘down to earth’ views were welcomed by Defra.  It was decided that the London meeting should be followed by meetings in the English upland regions, which would be organised by the hill farmer who had been to the London meeting.  Nine regional meetings were held and each was attended by someone from Defra’s ELM team.  This provided an invaluable opportunity for farmers to speak directly to those who are developing ELM and for Defra to gather views from active farmers.

Notes from all the meetings are available on the Uplands Alliance website.  These notes were then collated into a report for Defra that is also available.  The key findings include:
  • Long term schemes (~25 years) would allow business planning and delivery of environmental benefits;
  • Payment rates need to be sufficient to ensure business viability and should pay for delivery of existing good practice, as well as improvements;
  • There should be a flexible approach to delivery, focusing on outcomes not prescriptions;
  • Funding applications that can be filled in by the farmer will result in a higher commitment to delivering outcomes;
  • Local advisors are needed to support application and delivery; and
  • Monitoring and verification of outcomes should be built into the scheme.
I think this was a very successful project, but it could, and perhaps should, be the start of a longer-term working relationship between Defra and hill farmers.  Although a separate job, Defra has already asked to use the contacts, established through the CABF project, to road test their early ideas for the design of the information that will be used to deliver the ELM scheme.  This bodes well for the development of the longer-term relationship.

This sort of liaison work is core to the activity of the Uplands Alliance and The Heather Trust.  I hope that the value of this balanced, independent approach can be recognised so that more similar work will be supported with public and private funds.


  1. Anne Gray, Director of The Heather Trust, is a member of the Uplands Alliance Steering Group
  2. The Uplands Alliance is a network of farmers, conservationists, policy makers and researchers all with a shared interest in creating a thriving uplands.  It has some secretariat support from Defra and is hosted by the University of Cumbria.
  3. For further information please contact The Heather Trust, or Simon Thorp simon@sprthorp.co.uk