Channel 4 News made a one-sided and bitter attack on moorland conservation in a news piece, fronted by its reporter Jane Dodge. Ben O’Rourke tells the true story.
“It’s extremely disturbing the lack of information they have to come to that conclusion,” says Jimmy Shuttlewood, head gamekeeper of an estate in North Yorkshire, of the RSPB’s campaign to ban muirburn. “A lot of it is common sense.”
It’s not unusual for groups that claim they are concerned about wildlife to do things that don’t make sense. Wild Justice blocking the issue of pest control permits to protect red and amber-listed birds from predators is an example.
The RSPB’s call for a ban ignores thousands of years of evidence that heather burning reduces wildfires on the North York Moors – and elsewhere. Controlled burning is used all over the world, including Australia and the USA, where fire departments blame failure to carry it out as a reason for high profile bushfires.
Often it is ‘green’ politicians who call for cutting back burning of excess fuel loads, claiming it’s bad for the environment. The same people then blame climate change when catastrophic fires break out.
“What we do today is the evolved solution to problems that have occurred over many, many generations,” says Jimmy, “It’s extremely ancient. It’s Bronze Age-based, when man cleared the hills to graze sheep.”
The estate he manages learned a tough lesson after the Second World War. Neglect – some of it due to keepers not making it home – led to a lull in burning, allowing heather to grow well above safe levels.
“It’s all in the fuel load in the heather,” says Jimmy, “You’ve got tons and tons of it if you let the heather grow 15, 20 years of age. When that burns, it is far hotter than when you’re burning heather at eight years of age. That heat is enough to burn the peat and peat is very difficult to put out.”
That’s what happened when a wildfire broke out in the 1950s, heat from the aging plants set alight the peat, which took weeks to put out and two decades for the moor to fully recover.
“We burn our moors to protect the peat,” Jimmy says. “We protect the peat because that’s where the heather grows out of… to feed the sheep, to feed the grouse, and everything that lives off it. If I burnt away the peat then I wouldn’t have heather.
“In modern times we are aware that carbon needs to be stored and locked up and this is a great way of doing it. Not burning your heather is not the way forward. You will lose tons and tons and tons of peat if you do not burn heather.
“So we burn heather at the right time of year when it’s cooler and the minimum amount of carbon goes up but the maximum amount of carbon is absorbed when the heather starts to grow.
“So the RSPB may have made their decision quiet innocently from the studies that they’ve read for two years, but quite frankly, they’re not close. I do this for a living, I’ve done it 30-40 years and there’s a lot more to discover yet and they cannot make decisions on a small amount of information, which they have.”
There is more about this work in the GWCT’s Peatland Report 2020, which you can find here