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Millions of tonnes of carbon released from preventable wildfires on RSPB managed land

[Aftermath of yet another wildfire - Kara Simpson/Thurso Fire Station]

Our regular readers will recall our discovery that the RSPB was so keen on preventing the Brexit Bill allowing mutual recognition of goods and services between the four nations of the UK that it was taking common cause with the SNP to attack these otherwise seemingly unexceptional provisions in the Bill.

This was apparently in the hope of preventing people from less environmentally sound nations such as Wales, England or Northern Ireland selling peat based compost in Scotland. An issue on which RSPB had 'long campaigned'.

All of this was a bit of a surprise. Who knew that they had been vigorously and stridently campaigning to stop gardeners, including their own members, from the iniquitous practice of using peat based compost? Certainly not the members we have spoken to.

We must have missed the regular articles in the magazine, the pieces of Countryfile and Channel 4 News. We will have to pay more attention. Who knew it was that easy to entirely miss an RSPB campaign?

It is odd that we missed their campaign to restrict the freedom of gardeners to use compost, because you cannot miss the fact that they want to stop the rotational burning of heather and other vegetation in our uplands.

Only last week we saw three interesting developments; an extraordinary tweet, a remarkable press release and a startling television interview.

We will return to the tweet and the press release on another occasion, they deserve their own careful scrutiny, but the interview with Pat Thompson as part of the Channel 4 News report on rotational burning is our topic for today.

First, to clarify the terminology. What is being burnt? The media normally say, “peat” and as far as we can tell no one who wishes the practice banned ever corrects them. The people that do it call it “heather burning”. The RSPB has recently been calling it “peatland burning”. Which is right? Does it matter?

Actually, like all language, they each have elements of inaccuracy. When you say, “I love cakes”, you don't express the detail of your affection for pastry. So which is the closest? Burning the peat is wrong. As was evidenced by the Channel 4 piece, the peat is cold and wet during the winter burning season and something has to go very wrong for there to be even a hint of truth in the claim, and it is never true that even damaging the peat, let alone burning it, is the intention of the process.

Calling the process, “heather burning” is far more accurate, although even this isn't perfect because moorland is far from a heather monoculture, other fire tolerant plants are also burnt along with the heather.

Burning peatlands is meaningless, akin to saying that you are burning Yorkshire. It would be more correct to say that the keepers are burning heather growing in peatlands (or Yorkshire). But from the RSPB's point of view this form of words makes it sound even worse than burning the peat, without being as easily ridiculed as plainly untrue.

But Pat Thomas, RSPB's Senior Conservation Officer, decided that the old ways were good enough for him when he spoke to the Telegraph. “Burning peat in England is our equivalent of burning rain forest”. That is some statement. It could not be clearer what Pat thinks about people who are responsible for burning peat. They are about as low as it gets. Luckily, the people he is talking about are clearly not members of moorland communities who will, when conditions are right, be cool burning stands of rank heather over the winter months.

To be absolutely clear there is a profound and obvious difference between burning the peat, as opposed to the stuff that grows on it. Even Pat, at his most self-righteous, must know this. Not understanding such a simple distinction is akin to not knowing the difference between a haircut and decapitation.

Whilst we may feel that Pat's analogy is a bit over blown, as well as being literally inaccurate, we can agree with the sense of it. Burning peat is a very serious matter. The heather moors of England sit on vast stores of carbon and everything possible must be done to protect it. This one of the few things we can all agree about. Where the RSPB's view diverges from the traditionally held view of upland communities is how best to protect the peat.

[Saddleworth wildfire erupted on moorland where controlled burning was not carried out]

Many moorland managers, within upland communities, think, based on experience spanning generations, that it is a huge risk to allow fuel loads to increase unchecked. That to leave vast, unbroken stands of highly combustible vegetation, increasing in mass and burnability every year, is a reckless invitation to disaster and that it will sooner or later end in tears.

When it goes up in a summer wildfire, it will be as hot as hell and get into the peat with catastrophic consequences. They also believe that climate change and greater access is rapidly increasing the risk of wildfire, and their severity when they occur.

The RSPB thinks that this view is no more than a convenient excuse dreamt up by evil grouse shooters to continue their wicked ways. Ways, which according to Pat, involve the environmental crime of burning peat, something as evil as burning the rainforest.

[RSPB's CEO Beccy Speight seems determined to see controlled burning banned]

As luck would have it there is no need to speculate about who is right. Several organisations have followed the RSPB's instructions and stopped rotational cool burning on their land, even where it is leased to grouse shooters. The National Trust, and utility companies being prominent examples, and NE are unlikely to allow burning in any HLS schemes. Thus there will be plenty of places where Pat's theory can be shown to be working. Won't there?

In the last year or so there have been some really appalling wildfires. Fires which, unlike the keepers cool burning of heather and sedge, did get into the precious peat stores and destroyed huge quantities of stored carbon. Where were these? They couldn't possibly be on land that Pat, the RSPB's Senior Conservation Officer, has anything to do with or where his theory is put into practice by NT or NE?

Well actually that is exactly where they were. Take the Saddleworth Fire, where no rational burning was allowed. When the fire started there in 2018 it burnt for three weeks and released half a million tonnes of carbon.

Or Marsden Moor, where the National Trust had stopped burning, and it had not one, but two massive wildfires.

Stalybridge (NE HLS) where only tiny amounts of burning were permitted, had a wildfire which burnt for days and lost peat that will take 150-200 years to replace.

Winter Hill, the wildfire was fought for nearly a month, and released at least 90,000 tonnes of carbon and where United Utilities had not practiced any rotational burning.

Or Forsinard, owned by the RSPB, where no burning was allowed, and when it had a wildfire it released 290,000 tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.

Or Dove Stones, again managed by RSPB and against had catastrophic consequences.

Or Crowden, managed by RSPB, and another example of a catastrophic wildfire leading to a widespread loss of wildlife.

Or Moray, where 25 sq miles of peatland burnt to a crisp and released 700,000 tonnes of carbon and where once again no rotational burning was allowed.

Well, what can we say. The jury is out? No. The jury came back ages ago, pronounced the defendant guilty and they've gone home for tea. Only if they were blinded by bias and self-interest could anyone look at these appalling incidents and think that stopping rotational burning has no effect on the risk and severity of wildfires.

But that is apparently what Pat can do. Not only that but having been profoundly involved in the management of these wonderful and precious moors and watched them turn to black ash, literally burning both peat and peatlands, Pat has the audacity to point an accusing finger at the very people who have kept these precious places and their vital carbon stores safe for generations.

To make matters worse and as a significant advance in politicisation of his organisation, Pat appeared unconcerned with the political sub plot of Channel 4 News, which was essentially that the only reason that the rotational cool burning has not already been banned is that no less a person than the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had been protecting the practice.

Well, if it were true, which it almost certainly isn't, all any sensible person could say, based on the evidence of what happens when it is stopped, is, “Thank God”.

[Wildfires can burn for weeks once the peat catches alight]

Old sayings survive the passage of time only because they are plainly true. The one that springs to mind, is, “People in glass houses should not throw stones”. If anyone is responsible for burning peat it is not the gamekeeper, Jimmy, on Channel 4 News, as he graphically demonstrated. Pat should look inside his glass house.

Pat Thomas, is a major player in formulating policy for the RSPB. Neither he, nor his rich and powerful organisation which had turnover of nearly £150 million last year, can avoid responsibility for the burning of peat and peatland on a vast scale on land where their policies have been put into practice and where they have resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of tonnes of peat.

So much has been lost on these sites, that it will take hundreds of years to replace, and if the same policy remains in place it will all burn again long before that.

Remember that there are people still living in upland communities who have played their generations part in protecting, Crowden, Marsden, Forsinard, Winterhill and all the rest.

Remember that they have been pushed to one side by people as clever as Pat, and ignored or ridiculed as ignorant backwoodsmen.

Remember that now they have been proved right and the places they loved and cared for are destroyed, the people in charge and who created this shambles, have decided to simply pretend it never happened and bully their way out of it.

Imagine what it is like to be right but ignored, or worse, demonised.


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