Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Burning in the Uplands - My Cup is Half-Full

Details of the RSPB-led Study
A new study led by the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science has revealed the extent of moorland burning across Britain’s upland areas. This is the first time upland burning has been mapped in detail across mainland Britain. 

Using aerial photography and satellite images, 45,000 1-km squares were mapped across Scotland, England and Wales, and revealed that burning occurred across 8,551 of these squares, including 5,245 squares in Scotland.  In the ten-year period covered by the study, from 2001 to 2011, the number of fires recorded increased rapidly by 11 per cent each year.

For more information see the RSPB press release.  The paper has been published in Biological Conservation, Volume 191, November 2015, Pages 243–250.  The abstract of the paper can be viewed online and the full paper is available to download for a fee.

This study is useful as it helps to build a picture of what is going on, but while it has highlighted the problems, it has not addressed possible solutions.  I suspect that this was not part of the research brief, but increasingly I believe that we need to put more effort into joining problems to solutions, if we are going to make progress.

It is relatively easy to use burning to fuel a rant about the state of our peatlands, but we should remember that these areas were, until recently (very recently in the life of peat), regarded as wasteland.  These are slow moving habitats and it will take a long time, under consistent management, to improve their condition.  I would be among the first to agree we need to improve the way we manage burning in many areas, and through this the condition of peatland, but before we discard the management tools, which after all have got us the habitat we all now value highly, we need to think about how the peatland is to be managed, and by whom.

In the short term, my action plan for peatland includes:
  • Continuing to raise the profile of peatland - it is an important habitat that needs sensitive management;
  • Encouraging the revegetation of bare peat areas to reduce erosion by wind and water;
  • Introducing guidelines for traditional peat cutting (for domestic purposes only);
  • Agreeing what long-term management is required to improve the condition of the peatland; and
  • For highly degraded sites, seek funding for capital works to, for example: 
    • reprofile peat hags, 
    • block man made ditches and other drainage channels to raise the water table, and
    • introduce sphagnum mosses to wet sites, where absent.
Longer-term action will rely on the owners and land managers to make the right decisions for the management of the uplands and the peat stocks they contain. This is an area that needs to be looked at separately.

We should not forget that burning takes place to support: crofting; upland agriculture and commons management; and deer stalking, as well as grouse moor management. Picking on grouse moor managers and then using the detrimental side of burning as a stick to beat them with is potentially self-defeating. Privately funded grouse moor managers are a significant proportion of the upland work force, and if their efforts can be correctly focused, alongside the full range of other managers in the uplands, they should be seen as part of the solution, not the problem. We need the support of these people to deliver the objectives we seek.

Also outside the scope of the study are the considerable changes that are already taking place in the uplands. As demonstrated by our Golden Plover Award, and the take up of support from the Peatland Action project in Scotland, landowners and managers are beginning to embrace the 'love your peatlands' message. We still have a way to go with this, but momentum is building.

During the 'bogathon’ visits, in Northern England last year, which the RSPB were part of, we agreed that burning should remain as one of the management tools, but it needs to be applied intelligently, not by rote.  We need to adjust burning techniques and rotations to suit the requirements of the land, including peatland, and this may mean less, or even no, burning in some areas.  This might save grouse moor managers some work!  

Also, the alternative of cutting heather, should not be ignored.  Cutting cannot be used everywhere, but the Trust's recent studies have recorded that some grouse moor managers are getting excellent results through cutting alone.  See our Members' Briefing on Heather Management in the Reading Room on the Trust's website.

I believe that the picture is for from being as gloomy as the study would have us believe.  The winds of change have started to blow, and with encouragement I believe that momentum is building behind improving our management of burning and the condition of our peatland.  My cup is half-full!

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