Protected peatland sites described as England’s “national rainforests” have been burned on grouse moors despite a ban, campaigners claim.
Environmental groups say satellite monitoring and reports suggest dozens of fires have been set as part of grouse moor management on protected deep peat areas in the past winter in contravention of the new ban.
Grouse moor managers carry out controlled burning of heather on peatland during winter months to stimulate new growth of the plants which red grouse can feed on, and say their methods do not harm the peat below.
But conservationists say burning peatland destroys vegetation, erodes the carbon-storing peat and reduces its ability to slow the flow of water and prevent flooding in the valleys below.
The UK has 13% of the world’s blanket bog, which in a healthy state is an important store of carbon and natural habitat for wildlife but produces carbon dioxide emissions when degraded.
The Environment Department (Defra) brought in a ban last May on burning on blanket bog with deep peat – more than 40cm – in specially protected areas of England, without a licence, and with exemptions for rocky or sloping ground.
The move – which campaigners said was riddled with loopholes – aimed to protect what the Government described as the country’s national rainforest and help tackle climate change and nature loss.
Officials said there was consensus that burning of vegetation on blanket bog was damaging to peatland formation and the condition of the habitat, and made it more difficult or impossible to restore them to their natural state.
An eight-month investigation by Unearthed, Greenpeace’s investigative journalism team, has used satellite monitoring and mapping data for protected areas and deep peat to assess the ban.
It identified 251 fires set over the burning season, of which 51 took place without a licence in nature sites protected by conservation designations and identified by government agency Natural England maps as deep peat – though they are based on modelling and do not conclusively mean there is deep peat.
Physical spot checks at a few estates found that while some landowners were taking care to only set fire to heather on areas where the peat is less than 40cm deep, others have burned on the deep peat covered by the ban, the campaigners said.
Separate data from campaign group Wild Moors showed there were 1,203 reported incidents of grouse moor burning on peatland, including 191 reports of suspected illegal burns in contravention of the ban introduced last May.
And conservation group the RSPB said it had received 272 reports of fires over the last season, 79 of which took place on areas mapped as deep peat and in a designated site.
But the Moorland Association, which represents grouse moor estates, said the investigation showed the overwhelming majority of controlled burns complied with the legislation, and on-the-spot checks found only two incidents which may have been on deep peat – and the evidence was not conclusive.
Amanda Anderson, director of the Moorland Association, said: “We are confident that our members are compliant, are following best practice guidelines and we are in touch with Defra on this matter.
“It is important to note that the Fire and Rescue Service in England supports controlled burning on moorland for the prevention of wildfire, the single most serious threat to the carbon store, as wildfire ignites the underlying peat,” she said.
Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace UK, said the current ban was “shot through with loopholes”, poorly enforced and some landowners appeared to be ignoring it.
“Peatlands are the UK’s largest carbon store on land, help prevent floods and are home to rare plants, insects and birds.
“Why on earth is the Government allowing them to be turned into charred wasteland for the private gain of a few?
“If ministers were ever serious about protecting this vital landscape, they should make sure this evidence is thoroughly investigated, peatland burning is comprehensively banned in law and extra funding is committed to guarantee enforcement,” she urged.
Dr Patrick Thompson, senior policy officer at RSPB UK, said: “It’s clear from the evidence we have collected 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.”
He called for a full ban, and for grouse shoots to be licensed.
And Luke Steele, executive director of Wild Moors, said: “By allowing grouse moor burning to continue in any capacity, the Government is not only permitting peatlands to be damaged, but also giving space for the existing rules, as shortcoming as they are, to be broken.
“Wild Moors is urging the Government to extinguish grouse moor fires once and for all by introducing a complete ban on burning peatlands.”