Upland fires set by gamekeepers can spread out of control. Photograph: Farm Images/Getty Images Upland fires set by gamekeepers can spread out of control. Photograph: Farm Images/Getty Images

‘Omnishambles’: DEFRA’s ability to enforce new peat rules in doubt

There is no map describing the location of deep peat in England, posing the question of how the limited ban on peat burning set in law earlier this year can be enforced.

The Heather and Grass etc. Burning (England) Regulations 2021, which enter force in October, prohibit burning on certain conservation areas that are also sites of special scientific interest where peat is more than 40cm deep. It also applies on slopes of more than 35 degrees, or land that is mostly covered by rock or scree.

Guy Shrubsole, formerly of Friends of the Earth and now policy and campaigns coordinator at Rewilding Britain, asked if the department has maps of where these conditions are met.

“We do not currently hold a map of all peat that is 40cm or more deep,” DEFRA replied. A mapping project is currently “in commencement” and once complete will be published, it added.

The law is so limited that around 70% of upland peat would be excluded from the ban, with further loopholes rendering it “almost completely ineffective” according to environmental coalition Wildlife and Countryside Link.

Shrubsole said the regulations were a compromise between maintaining the status quo demanded by shooting interests and the full ban sought by conservationists. Ministers were not given a briefing on the available options before the regulations were drawn up, he said, leading to the creation of “unworkable loopholes” that are not good for the climate or flood risk.

Shrubsole doubts that a reasonably accurate map of peat depth could even be created. The only information DEFRA does have to support enforcement of the ban is data on the location of peat across England, though this does not provide the depth and may be outdated.

“It is increasingly apparent that the government's ‘ban’ is going to do little to stop burning. We need proper, enforceable legislation that protects more than around 30% of our peatlands,” said Labour MP for Sheffield Hallam Olivia Blake.

In a blog, conservationist Mark Avery described the regulations as an “omnishambles”, having been introduced “after delay after delay” only to be “roundly condemned by environmentalists as being no use at all”.

In a later supplement, he wrote: “It surely can’t be possible that civil servants did not brief ministers on the pros and cons of the statutory instrument that they were about to lay before parliament? Surely not? What sort of government department is DEFRA if that is the case? But if it is the case, then who is briefing ministers? It couldn’t possibly be a vested interest could it?”

“The alternative appears to be that there is a briefing, or maybe great piles of them, which were produced by DEFRA civil servants but that DEFRA don’t want us to see them and are splitting hairs to try to avoid making them public. That, of course, makes them seem all the more interesting and will fire us up to chase them down,” he added.

A DEFRA spokesperson said: “We have always been clear of the need to phase out rotational burning of protected blanket bog - which is why we are taking action and have brought forward legislation to prevent burning on these vital sites. As part of the government’s £640 million Nature for Climate Fund, we are developing an improved map of England’s peatlands which will show all areas of peat. Our ability to investigate suspected unlawful burning on protected sites is not reliant on this map.”

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