The ground is black and burned. For miles around the hills are quiet and almost bare, covered in a patchwork of heather and access roads. Distant plumes of smoke rise from a neighbouring valley, evidence that one of the UK’s most important ecosystems is on fire.
This was the scene we witnessed in late 2018 on a Yorkshire moor – and it’s something that we believe is not supposed to be happening any more.
Friends of the Earth has uncovered evidence that moorland estates managed for grouse shooting are still burning on protected blanket bogs – potentially in breach of a recent voluntary agreement to end the practice – and the government’s green watchdog Natural England is now investigating further.
Blanket bogs, a threatened moorland habitat, are one of the UK’s biggest carbon stores, locking up millions of tonnes of climate-altering gases. They cover a vast expanse of the country’s uplands, and should be ideal spaces for wildlife. Read more about why peat is good for climate and nature.
Yet hundreds of thousands of acres of blanket bog are managed intensively for grouse shooting, with landowners systematically burning on them to create an artificial habitat that maximises numbers of grouse.
Burning on blanket bogs has a devastating ecological impact: studies show it damages a rare ecosystem, worsens climate change by drying out the peat and releasing carbon dioxide, and increases flooding downstream.
The government’s Committee on Climate Change says that damage to UK peat soils is causing a staggering 18.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) to be released to the atmosphere every year – more than all the oil refineries in the UK emit annually. The damage is such that the European Commission is undertaking legal proceedings against the UK government for allowing landowners to damage blanket bogs in this way, following complaints by local residents and the RSPB.
But, predictably, the government has been slow to act. In 2018 then Environment Secretary Michael Gove belatedly acknowledged the damage being done, and encouraged landowners to sign voluntary agreements to cease rotational burning on blanket bog.
157 estates were reported to have signed up. How many would keep to their word? Friends of the Earth decided to investigate.
The "burning season" for upland estates runs from October to April. In October 2018 Friends of the Earth’s Investigations Unit spent several days in the Yorkshire Dales, looking for signs of moorland burning.
What we found shocked us: swathes of landscape scarred by burning. And on our final day, we filmed burning taking place on an estate that had signed up to the government’s voluntary agreement, on ground that Natural England’s own habitat maps shows to be protected blanket bog.
You can see what we found on just one estate by watching our short film here.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Spurred on by what we’d witnessed, we spoke to others who’d reported similar incidents, and compiled a dossier of evidence on over a dozen estates reported as burning during October 2017 – photos, maps, geolocation data.
We submitted this evidence to DEFRA, the European Commission, and Natural England. It’s this evidence that has prompted Natural England to confirm it is investigating and seeking clarification on 5 estates.
If it transpires that the estates are not in breach of their voluntary commitments, we’ll update this blog to clarify the situation. If any of the estates named in our reports wish to contact us to clarify any matter, we’d be delighted to hear from them.
The Moorland Association argues that a form of burning, which they call 'restoration burning', remains beneficial by removing heather overgrowth, even on deep peat, thereby reducing the fuel load on moors and lessening wildfire risk. This kind of burning is still allowed to take place under current voluntary agreements. However, restoration burning is a controversial concept, and many conservationists dispute its alleged benefits: any sort of burning, we argue, dries out peat and increases soil carbon emissions.
But the evidence we’ve seen to date has convinced us that the government’s voluntary agreement on moorland burning is not working. Protected blanket bog is being damaged; our biggest carbon store is going up in smoke.
Our suspicion is that the government has opted for a voluntary approach, not because it’s effective at protecting the environment, but because it’s the sort of light-touch, hands-off approach that grouse moor owners want.
Indeed, we’ve also uncovered compelling evidence of behind-closed-doors lobbying by the Moorland Association, the body that represents upland landowners, pressing for precisely this.
Ministerial transparency data reveals that a meeting took place between the Moorland Association and Environment Secretary Michael Gove on 14 September 2017 to “discuss blanket bog burning”.
Our initial Freedom of Information request for details of this meeting was rejected by the Department for the Environment (DEFRA) on the grounds that “We have contacted the Moorland Association and they have indicated that disclosing this information would cause them substantial harm”.
We didn’t think that was a good enough reason to withhold the information, so we persisted.
DEFRA eventually released an email sent by the Moorland Association to Gove, in which they stated that adopting a voluntary approach to moorland burning “is a big prize and I am sure it can be used to demonstrate to Europe that this sea-change is underway voluntarily and there is no need to regulate to improve the structure and function of blanket bog.”
From the evidence we’ve seen, there clearly is a need to regulate. Landowners can’t simply be taken at their word.
A blanket ban is the only way to protect our peatlands.
 De Zylva, P. 'Why peat is good for the climate and nature: a guide', 21 February 2019.
 Brown, L. E, Holden, J. and Palmer, S. M. (2014), Effects of moorland burning on the ecohydrology of river basins. Key findings from the EMBER project. University of Leeds. Full report; 2-page summary.
 Committee on Climate Change, ‘Land use: Reducing emissions and preparing for climate change’, November 2018, p.46.
 DECC & BIS, ‘Industrial decarbonisation and energy efficiency roadmaps to 2050: Oil refining’, March 2015. “In 2012, oil refining emitted 16.3 million tonnes of CO2”.
 RSPB casework webpage, ‘Walshaw Moor and Northern England’s protected blanket bogs’ (no date, continues to be updated).
 Rob Evans, ‘Michael Gove accused of letting wealthy grouse moor owners off the hook’, The Guardian, 12 August 2018.
 Natural England guidance, ‘Heather and grass burning: rules and applying for a licence’, 13 October 2014.
 Moorland Association, 'Heather burning and the need for all to be on the same page', 15 March 2017.
 RSPB, 'When is a step forward, actually a step back?' 14 February 2018. As the RSPB says about restoration burning, "There is no evidence this works – and plenty to suggest it doesn’t. Blanket bogs should be wet on the surface – they need water, not fire."