The 109 fires have all been reported by campaign group Wild Moors, with Greenpeace’s investigative unit Unearthed having confirmed several of the fires itself. The number of fires represent a fivefold increase on last year, and the NGO says that it calls into question the effectiveness of the government’s recently introduced partial ban on peat burning.
Peatland is the UK’s largest natural carbon store on land, which locks in an estimated 3.2 billion tonnes. It also provides nesting and feeding grounds for many wading birds and important habitats for rare insects and plants.
Heather is often found on grouse-shooting estates, and is deliberately burnt in peatland fires to provide younger, more nutritious heather for grouse reared for shooting.
The government’s new regulations prevent the burning on areas of more than 40cm deep peat, but exclude shallower or ‘steep’ sites. When the regulations were first introduced, the NGO coalition group Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL) condemned them as containing “gaping loopholes that could be exploited and could leave the ban almost completely ineffectual”.
According to WCL, around 70% of upland peat is excluded from the ban, and Greenpeace says that because the vast majority of the 109 fires observed the last four days have been set on shallow peatlands, they too are not covered by it.
However, Natural England has told the Guardian it is investigating two locations where illegal burning may have been carried out.
Richard Lindsay, head of environmental and conservation research at the University of East London, who has worked in peatland conservation for 45 years, told the Unearthed investigation that “it’s difficult to see how the UK government… can call on governments such as Indonesia and Malaysia to stop burning its peatlands when the hills in the UK are aflame simply in the name of sport.”
Kate Blagojevic, Greenpeace UK’s head of climate, also commented on the implications that the peat burning could have on COP26, saying: “There are better ways to welcome world leaders to a crucial climate summit than the sight of smoke and flames engulfing our largest carbon store.”
“It’s obvious that the government's regulations are worse than toothless”, she continued, “and completely failed to stop this absurd practice that damages both the climate and wildlife”.
However, Amanda Anderson, director of the Moorland Association, has defended heather burning on peatland, saying it is “a perfectly legal land management tool”.
“Burning is permitted between October and April on shallow peat and in very exceptional circumstances on deeper peat”, she said, adding that it is “only undertaken at the right place at the right time and for the right reason”.
She said that controlled burning “does not damage peatland as the technique burns the heather but not the peat below it”, and that there is “no evidence whatsoever that any legislation has been contravened to date nor evidence that burning is being carried out to anything but best practice standards”.
However, Lindsay called this into question, telling Unearthed that “it’s not practical to say you can burn the heather without damaging the peat surface” because the surface is uneven.
A spokesperson for DEFRA told Greenpeace: “We have always been clear of the need to phase out rotational burning of protected blanket bog – which is why we have brought forward legislation to protect these vital habitats from harm whilst ensuring landowners and managers have the tools available to protect and restore them to their natural state.”
The spokesperson continued that the peat burning regulations represent a crucial step in meeting the government’s nature and climate change targets.