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Daily Mirror's report on controlled burning 'littered with falsehoods'

In a week where three wildfires have broken out in the Peak District on moorland not managed by controlled burning, Dr Pat Thompson, the RSPB's Senior Conservation Officer, has been helping the Daily Mirror's Environment Editor, Nada Farhoud, with an article on the imagined evils of heather burning. Farhourd, who lives in Brighton, publicly declares herself a twitcher in her Mirror profile and regularly promotes the League Against Cruel Sports on her social media.

The article contains all we have come to expect from those activists with an agenda against driven grouse shooting. It would take too long to deal with every bit of nonsense in the article, but as someone - perhaps even Dr Pat himself - has gone to the trouble of taking the journalist to a grouse moor, (obviously avoiding the people who actually work there), the least we can do is address some of the points made within the latest article.

Apart from the fact that the Mirror's 'independent local community resident' quoted, Financial Advisor Richard Gray, is in fact a well-known anti-grouse shooting campaigner and is thought to be behind one of the most hostile activist Twitter pages, the usual nonsense around burning pushed from the RSPB was regurgitated.

The first is a classic of its kind. We read that Dr Pat, 'compared the burning of peat in England as “our equivalent of burning the rainforest”. Why do they do this? Do they get a frisson of excitement from getting a journalist to believe this nonsense? Do they perhaps even believe it themselves?

Whether Farhoud was fed the line by the RSPB, after their 'ban-the-burn' campaign or whether she has just been purposely misleading of her own accord, she once again pushes the narrative 'peat is being burnt'. As anyone with iota of genuine upland experience will tell you, what Farhoud was reporting on was not the burning of peat.

It can be correctly be called rotational burning, cool burning, muirburn, heather burning, vegetation burning, controlled burning, prescribed burning and more, and all of these names are factually correct. It cannot be honestly called peat burning, for the simple and very easily understood reason that peat burning is not the intention, the practice, or the result.

What is happening is very simple. The surface vegetation is burnt. The peat is not.

Dr Pat must know this but he prefers to pretend not to. This is as simple as the difference between a haircut and having your head cut off. The one grows back, the other doesn't.

Then we have heather burning being the English equivalent of burning the rainforest. We have to confess we have not taken the trouble to ascertain what precise field Dr Pat's Ph.D. was obtained in, but we are prepared to guess that it wasn't geography.

The tropical rainforests are very different from the moors of Yorkshire. The word tropical, is perhaps, a give away.

These tropical forests are very wet and very tropical and as a result the ecosystems they support are highly energised and the plants growing in them hold vast stores of carbon and, even more importantly, produce vast quantities of oxygen.

Very little carbon is stored in the soil, virtually all of it is stored above ground and is emitted when the forest is burnt.

The high altitude peat and heather moors of Yorkshire are the complete opposite.

The systems are cold and slow, where the rainforest is hot and fast. There is very little carbon in living plants and the moors accumulate carbon underground as peat at a very slow rate indeed.

Their value is down to the fact that they have been storing these tiny annual increments for thousands of years. Thus the challenge is to keep what you have safe.

The big divide between the RSPB and the moorland community lies precisely on this point. The people who have kept these carbon stores safe for generations believe that rotational cool burning is vital in reducing the risk and intensity of wildfire.

The RSPB, Ms Farhoud and their fellow travellers, say that this is nonsense, a lie dreamt up by grouse shooters. Who is right? How can we judge who is telling the truth? Well, the Mirror article has opened a window that may let in some light.

We read, 'They also say how the fire which ripped through Saddleworth Moor in 2018 before spreading across a large area of the Pennines started on Stalybridge Estate, a grouse moor, was an accident waiting to happen'.

If this came from Dr Pat, it is beyond disgraceful. He would know perfectly well that while Stalybridge is privately owned and the owners would like to manage the moor in the traditional way, Natural England (NE) has prevented them from conducting a meaningful programme of rotational burning.

This is because NE has adopted the RSPB's no burn policy, as have the National Trust.

He would therefore be blaming the victims of his own policy and its wider consequences and he knows it.

The RSPB has previous in this. When the fire was finally put out, and the exhausted fire fighters could finally go home after days of sweltering toil, and the owners could at last start to view the appalling damage and count the cost, the RSPB made two statements.

The fire, they said, reflected the fact that grouse moors were drained wetland, and the fire was extinguished when it crossed on to their reserve at Crowden, where the sphagnum moss put it out. History does not record what the firefighters thought of this nonsense but if you care to go to the moor and want to find a drain, prepare to be disappointed, the owners have never drained it.

So someone has told the journalist a pack of lies.

But what is true is that it was an accident waiting to happen. But the cause of this situation, which repeats itself across the uplands, wherever RSPB, NT, and NE have been able to stop rotational heather burning, is people like Dr Pat and his friends in the "conservation" industry.

The grouse moor managers say that burning is an important tool in preventing wildfire and stopping one when it happens. The RSPB says it makes no difference and re-wetted moorland will stop wildfires.

In the last three years there have been massive wildfires on moors where rotational burning has been stopped, at Stalybridge, Darwen, Marsden, Moray, Forsinard and Winterhill, and more. All on ground where controlled burning wasn't allowed.

Stalybridge will take 200 years to recover the lost peat.

Darwen had smallish wildfires almost annually, but before the massive wildfire last year, the owner had not been allowed to manage as he wished. Despite re-wetting the moor, it burnt to a crisp in the middle of the nesting season.

Marsden, where thanks to the NT policy no controlled burning is carried out, went up twice having stopped all rotational burning some time ago.

Moray and Forsinard, both run along RSPB no burn lines, between them released almost a million tonnes of CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere.

Winterhill, used by the Mayor of Manchester as an example of the iniquity of rotational burning, was in fact a wildfire on land where rotational burning had been stopped.

It burnt for a month and the Fire and Rescue Service identified the “unbroken and continuous arrangement of vegetation across the landscape”, as a primary reason why it happened and could not be brought under control.

That is just a snapshot of the mayhem.

[Mayhem caused by wildfire]

You can add the RSPB reserves at Dovestones and Crowden which burnt last year, apparently the sphagnum moss wasn't working that day. But that is just what has happened. Think of what is to come.

Dr Pat knows all this. He's not a idiot. Exactly how you should describe him however we will leave to our kind readers.

What do you call someone who ploughs on, using every trick in the book, to further a policy that they know has resulted in one environmental and wildlife catastrophe after another and released millions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, for no better reason than you don't like the people who have kept these wonderful places safe for generations and want to take control of the moors away from them.

Perhaps we should leave the last words to Prof Rob Marrs, an internationally respected authority on peatland conservation. He has never shot a grouse in his life and never will yet he is as independently minded as anyone you can find

He said, following the Stalybridge fire, “Leaving the land alone causes much more damage than controlled burning because there is more heather to burn so it gets hotter and spreads to the peat, which in turn spreads the fire” and (perhaps, mostly tellingly for Dr Pat), “It wasn't a matter of if, but when”.


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