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