At a time when governments spend billions on reducing the amount of carbon that goes into the atmosphere, two organisations are still pumping it out. Thanks to their policies on controlled burning, the RSPB and the National Trust are causing more, not less, of the climate change they say they are committed to stopping. The reason? They don’t burn small strips of uplands to create firebreaks and reduce fuel load.
One fire in 2018 at Saddleworth Moor, parts of which are managed by the RSPB, which burned for more than three weeks, released the same amount of carbon as 100,000 cars for a year. Another at nearby Winter Hill released 90,000 tonnes of carbon equivalent.
The Met Office predicts the number of wildfires in the UK will continue to rise.
Muir burning is one of the essential tools gamekeepers and landowners can use to combat the crisis, but the RSPB wants to ban it. Controlled fires work for wildlife as they can create firebreaks and allow regeneration of plant life.
Ross Ewing, director of moorland for Scottish Land & Estates says banning muirburn would be destructive. He says: “These habitats are extremely carbon rich. It’s vitally important that we protect them, and we make the habitats as resilient as possible.”
He says he would caution anyone against banning controlled burning.
Adrian Blackmore of the Countryside Alliance says climate change is creating drier, hotter summers. He says: “If we don’t manage vegetation, then the fire risk is considerably greater. Compared to the controlled muirburn that’s carried out by gamekeepers and other land managers, wildfires burn down into the peat, into the ground and caused considerable damage.”
He says muirburn is different because it is a cool heat that is controlled, and gamekeepers carry out muirburn under strict conditions. He says: “You do not want it getting out of control. You do not want it to burn down to the peat. Muirburn does not cause the same damage.”
BASC is warning of “disastrous consequences” for moorland landscapes unless the RSPB reassesses its position on managed moorland burning. Gareth Dockerty of BASC says his organisation wants to see the RSPB be more open with its statistics about muirburn, and the differences between burning on shallow and deep peat. He says the RSPB needs to accept the need for prescribed burning at certain times. He says: “The aftermath of wildfires can be absolutely devastating. It can take tens or hundreds of years for the recovery of that peat land.”
Despite the damage their policies cause to climate change and to upland wildlife, organisations such as the RSPB and the National Trust have the ear of government. The Scottish Government is considering licensing muirburn.
Ross says the Worldwide Fund for Nature, WWF, estimates that from just one fire in Scotland’s Flow Country, that lasted six days, it estimates that Scotland’s carbon emissions doubled. He says that, if more fires like that occur on a regular basis, UK carbon emissions will increase hugely.
He says: “That’s not something that we can afford to do in a country that’s got ambitious climate-change targets. We are going to undermine ourselves by failing to protect peatland habitats that store vast quantities of carbon. We really are going to be shooting ourselves in the foot when it comes to meeting these important targets, which ultimately we as a society in the UK, but also on a global scale, all depend on.”
He says it’s important these habitats are protected and made resilient to wildfire risk.
Bruce Farquharson of the Scottish Fire & Rescue Service says the impact of climate change is being seen. He says: “The fire behaviour that we’re experiencing when we get wildfires is of a higher intensity than we’ve seen before.”
He says this is of great concern. He adds: “Muirburn is absolutely an essential part to preventing wildfire and is not the main cause of wildfires in Scotland.”
In England, government figures say there are 30,000 wildfires a year, which burn around 6,600 hectares of land in the countryside every year. Gareth says the statistics clearly show that every year there are more wildfires than the year before, and that that’s a trend happening across the globe. He says: “That can be linked to climate change and extreme temperatures and droughts.”
He says the wildfire at Saddleworth Moor didn’t just cause devastation to key species or the landscape. “If we look below ground,” he says, “the amount of carbon released in just under a week was the equivalent annual use of a hundred thousand family cars. That’s how much carbon went up into the atmosphere. And we know that that fire sent particulates into the air that impacted the air quality for around 4.5 million people.”
Both fire brigades and scientists support the idea of controlled burning. The North Wales Fire Service released a video last year about how to conduct a controlled burn, though it criticised landowners for the ‘large numbers’ of controlled burns that they either start without notifying their local fire brigade or that burn out of control.
A recent report by the University of York on the management of heather on moorlands concluded that burning absorbed twice as much carbon as mowing over a ten-year period thanks to new growth. This is at odds with the RSPB’s claim that controlled burning adds to the climate crisis.
Adrian says the RSPB wants to ban all burning. He says: “I think that is pretty irresponsible given the risk of wildfires which they’re well aware of. The fact is controlled burning or cutting can actually reduce that risk.”
He says wildfires cause considerable damage to the environment, wildlife as well as people’s livelihoods and safety. He says: “Anything we can do to reduce the frequency or risk of those fires; we need to do.”
In Wales, a wildfire devastated a mountain in Snowdonia. Farmer Gareth Wyn Jones says it could take years to recover. He says: “Seeing the devastation and the power of that fire just gave me a sense that we have to protect these mountains.”
He says it’s important to make sure that farmers are grazing their animals in the right place. He says: “We need to be looking at ways we can create firebreaks because you could lose vast habitats of thousands of acres.”
Gamekeepers and land managers know that controlled fires reduce the risk of wildfires like the one that devastated Saddleworth Moor. If they lose that vital tool, they warn the intensity and spread of wildfires on moors could get worse.
Ross says: “We need to recognise that Scotland has got a warming climate. The wildfire risk is increasing, and we absolutely need now more than ever every single method of vegetation control at our disposal so that we can appropriately and decisively tackle wildfire risk in Scotland. “
Gareth says thousands of years of carbon can go in the blink of an eye. He says: “We are fighting climate change and we desperately need to keep this carbon stored in the ground.”
He says the RSPB and other organisations should be far more open about the uses of burning across the globe, especially in the UK. In 2022, the RSPB advertised for a staff member to carry out burning on its land at the same time it was campaigning against the practice.
Fieldsports groups say the RSPB needs to listen to scientists to protect the environment and reduce the carbon emissions from wildfires.
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