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Here is why it's so important that local councillors visit the moors, and understand their practices

(Wildfires are not only dangerous for humans, animals and moorland health, but also emit billions of tonnes of carbon globally, on an annual basis)

The topic of controlled burning is one that tends to start a debate – and it’s a debate that, politically, is most often heard on a local level among councillors and others involved in local government. But, as with everything, it is vital that councillors and decision makers understand the subjects that they are discussing and voting on.

An article in The Sheffield Star involving Douglas Johnson, leader of Sheffield Green Party and executive member for climate change, environment and transport, demonstrated exactly why it is so important that councillors understand what goes on in their constituencies and on the moors, and why land managers and Moorland Groups are so keen to explain their work to local politicians.

The piece involved him responding to questions sent in by readers, including one which asked: “When will there be a ban on burning heather on the moors around Sheffield and Barnsley?”.

In response, Councillor Johnson answered:

“A lot of the problem is enforcement also that it doesn’t seem to be always illegal to burn heather despite everything. Some of the moorland is controlled by the council directly as landowner so we ensure there isn’t any heather burning but most of it is private estates for shooting and keeping grouse on and they burn the heather for the grouse farming industry.

“It proves difficult to enforce because it’s not always clear where it is illegal but where it is it falls under the jurisdiction of Natural England and then the police to some extent as a crime. As always it seems to be the problems of resources needed to take hold and act on that and the police has been cut back a lot since 2010, people voted for a reduction in public services and that is what they got.

“Ideally, if we had more resources in the council we would be looking to get officers spending time trying to talk to the land owners there and see what their take on the issue is but also we don’t have widespread powers to take on moorland burning. So it’s more a case of persuasion.

“What I ask people to do if they see burning on the moors is to report it to Natural England.”

It is hard to decide where to start with the analysis of his answer; so let’s start at the beginning. “It doesn’t seem to be always illegal to burn heather despite everything”, he says. Well no, Councillor Johnson, heather burning is not illegal at all – but as with most things, there are rules and regulations. It’s quite simple; if he really doesn’t know about the legalities of heather burning, then the Defra website would be a good starting place. The first sentence of their heather burning page might help: “You can burn heather, rough grass and other vegetation (including gorse, bracken and Vaccinium species such as bilberries) if you follow the rules and get a licence where required.

Then comes the "grouse farming" reference; well we are not quite sure where to go with that, but as Councillor Johnson ought to know, grouse certainly aren’t farmed – in fact it is incredibly hard to breed red grouse in captivity. The Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus scotica, if you want to be scientific), is a grouse breed endemic to the British Isles, and the birds he would see on the moors – if he ever chose to visit – are entirely wild populations. It is true that people are employed to manage the uplands, which often includes predator control for the benefit of all ground nesting birds, as well as heather burning to clear dead vegetation and create fire breaks, as well as encouraging new shoots. But to claim grouse are ‘farmed’ is entirely untrue.

(Red Grouse are not the biggest fans of battery farming)

Next he says: “It [heather burning] proves difficult to enforce because it’s not always clear where it is illegal”.

Well no. As above, Defra and Natural England are the two bodies who can issue heather burning licences – if needed, and depending on what burning is being carried out. Licences for burning are required from Defra for burning in areas of deep peat and in certain conservation and/or protected areas. For burning outside of the set season, and certain other restricted circumstances, a licence is required from Natural England. But controlled burning on moorlands and in the uplands is already carried out under agreement with both Natural England and Defra, and monitored by them. Again, it’s all on the Defra website, Councillor Johnson.

He then goes on to blame police cuts for an inability to stamp out “illegal burning”. Be that as it may, but we would suggest that the police would be – or indeed are – wise to spend their time tackling actual crime, rather than looking at incidences of heather burning which are, as above, already strictly controlled and regulated by the two government bodies.

The next paragraph is perhaps the most interesting; he suggests that if they had more resources, he would like officers to spend time “trying to talk to the land owners there and see what their take on the issue is.” We are sure that any landowner would be more than willing to explain to – and indeed show – Councillor Johnson what goes on in the uplands and the benefits and uses of heather burning. If he has not been invited to the moors, which we find surprising, we would be more than happy to facilitate a visit, where he can see for himself the work that goes on there.

(Councillor Johnson might be surprised at the amount of bird life he would see if he visited the moors with the land managers – including many red and amber listed species)

Finally, he suggests that people should report burning to Natural England. We can’t imagine that they will be delighted by this suggestion, seeing as burning is already carried out in agreement with them and Defra, so they will be aware of it. At least he isn’t suggesting people contact the emergency services, as some anti-shooting campaigners are doing, which would simply be a waste of their time and resources. Estates already liaise with the fire services with regards to burning, so they are aware of who is burning, as well as when and where.

It’s a shame that Councillor Johnson obviously hasn’t found time in his diary to visit his local moors and the people that live and work there, as he might find what they have to say quite illuminating. In fact, as his remit includes both Climate Change and the Environment, you would think that wildfire prevention would be near the top of his list of priorities, given the vast amount of carbon emitted each time a moorland wildfire breaks out. Some recommended reading might include this article, where the head of the Scottish Wildfire Forum explains why wildfires in the Scottish Highlands look set to become more frequent and more intense; this recent paper on how cultural burning prevents wildfires, or indeed this paper on the effects of fire on soil’s long-term carbon storage.


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