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Fierce flames creep across moorland near Heriot, Scotland. Photo: Snipps Whispers (CC BY-NC-ND).
Fierce flames creep across moorland near Heriot, Scotland. Photo: Snipps Whispers (CC BY-NC-ND).
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Britain's 'protected' moorlands go up in flames

The Ecologist

21st July 2015

A new study led by RSPB shows that more than half of Britain's most precious upland moors are suffering from burning - widely used to increase the numbers of red grouse available for recreational shooting.

Many of our uplands are in poor condition due to intensive land management practices. It's very worrying that burning is increasing, given the damage it can cause and that it occurs in many of our conservation areas.

A new study led by the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science has revealed that burning has taken place in more than half of the UK's most highly protected upland moors assessed in the study.

This includes over half of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) designated under the EU's Habitats and Species Directive, and almost two thirds of Special Protection Areas (SPAs), designated under the EU's Birds Directive. According to the paper,

"Burning was detected within 55% of Special Areas of Conservation and 63% of Special Protection Areas that were assessed, and the proportion of moorland burned was significantly higher inside sites than on comparable squares outside protected areas.

"The annual numbers of burns increased from 2001 to 2011 irrespective of peat depth. The spatial overlap of burning with peat and protected areas and the increasing number of burns require urgent attention, for the development of policies for sustainable management and reversal of damage to ecosystem services in the UK uplands."

Burning on moorlands, a mixture of bog and heath habitats valuable to many endangered birs, reptiles and other species, is widely used to increase the numbers of red grouse that are available for recreational shooting.

Burning increased by 11% a year for ten years

This study, published in Biological Conservation, 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.

In the ten year period covered by the study from 2001 to 2011, the number of burns recorded increased rapidly by 11% each year. Other studies have found that the potential number of red grouse shooting days in some areas of Britain has risen over a similar period, and moorland management has also intensified.

"These sites are designated under EU legislation for their conservation importance, and governments are charged with protecting them from damage and ensuring that they are restored to the best condition", says RSPB.

"However, many SACs and SPAs are in unfavourable condition, with burning identified by governments and statutory agencies as a primary reason for this poor status."

Burning regulations and advice differs between England, Wales and Scotland, and the discrepancies account for the higher level of 'unfavourable' condition Scotland. In England 53% of the total area is 'unfavourable', but that rises to 87% of  upland bog features in Scotland.

"These sites are designated under EU legislation for their conservation importance, and governments are charged with protecting them from damage and ensuring that they are restored to the best condition", says RSPB.

"However, many SACs and SPAs are in unfavourable condition, with burning identified by governments and statutory agencies as a primary reason for this poor status."

Dr David Douglas, Senior Conservation Scientist at RSPB Scotland and lead author of the study added: "Upland ecosystems are highly sensitive to burning practices. Knowing how much burning takes place and where is crucial to developing sustainable land management policies for these precious environments."

The UK's greatest carbon store at risk

In Scotland and England, a third of burning took place on deep peat soils, an important carbon store. The UK has 10-15% of the world's blanket bog peatlands. Locking in 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon, this deep peat in the uplands is the largest carbon store in the UK.

Upland areas are also a vital water source, supplying around 70% of our drinking water. Burning has been linked to poor water quality in these areas, requiring large sums of money to treat the water.

Martin Harper, Director of Conservation at RSPB said: "Our uplands are amongst our most precious habitats in Britain and home to important wildlife. However, many of our uplands are in poor condition due to intensive land management practices. It's very worrying that burning is increasing, given the damage it can cause and that it occurs in many of our conservation areas.

"Governments and statutory agencies across Britain need to take action to reduce burning in our uplands rather than allowing them to be increasingly damaged year on year.

"Although their regulations already advise against burning on blanket bog it is often used on these areas with their consent. These regulations need to be strongly enforced so that uplands are properly protected against this damaging practice."

 


 

The paper: ‘Vegetation burning for game management in the UK uplands is increasing and overlaps spatially with soil carbon and protected areas' by David J. T. Douglas et al is published in Biological Conservation.

 

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