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RSPB's Pat Thompson left looking foolish after 'mad' claims of 'peat fires' lead to public backlash

As the old saying goes, when it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck. So when the RSPB acts as though it is a single issue obsessed sect, it is possibly that's what it has become.

RSPB was once universally respected and admired by many. It operated in a collegiate and measured way and its pronouncements were equally measured and heavyweight. Sadly, those days are long gone. On Farming Today this morning the RSPB's Pat Thompson, who really ought to know better, went on to talk about the RSPB's findings under the program title: 'peat fires'.

When it comes to moorland management, an area where its own record in producing fledged rare ground nesting birds is sometimes only marginally better than a supermarket car park, and never even gets in sight of keepered moorland, nothing is out of bounds. Hysteria, hyperbole, exaggeration and misinformation are standard.

The latest example is RSPB's assertion that some keepers have inadvertently burnt vegetation on ground where the underlying peat is slightly deeper than the statutory limit of 40cms.

This is backed up by Greenpeace, whose knowledge of moorland management is legendary (I might have got that wrong), and of course, the BBC. All the usual unscientific dross is there. It is difficult to believe that RSPB claims to be a science based organisation when it endlessly claims that freezing cold, heather covered uplands are akin to the rainforests of Brazil or the Congo Basin.

Greenpeace writer, Emma Howard, even celebrated that they 'threw the kitchen sink at this one', working with with the career criminal Luke Steele and his group, Wild Moors. Did Emma know we wonder of Steele's well known history for manipulating evidence and intimidation that has led him to spending 18-months in jail in the past. No wonder they were so keen to try and make some 'noise' about it. Yet their efforts seem to have been in vein and their resources wasted.

It is appalling that the BBC is still talking about burning peat, when even the RSPB has decided to avoid the term as it was embarrassing even for them.

Worse, the burning peat/rainforest nonsense is blown apart by the first photograph illustrating the BBC article. Entitled, “Scars of burning on deep peat in the Yorkshire Dales National Park”. It shows a lots of burnt heather twigs, essentially biochar, which is good news from the carbon sequestration point of view, and a more or less intact layer of moss, also good news for carbon.

Underneath the moss will be plant debris accumulated over the decade or so since the last burn, under that will be the peat. Anyone who knows anything about peat, will know that the peat didn't even get warm let alone burn.

Yet, “Burning the peat” is the message that the BBC and RSPB were happy to leave with millions of viewers. It is difficult to believe that this is accidental. BBC producers and presenters can't be that stupid. They must have passed exams and had training, mustn't they? If I can see it, and you can see it, why can't they?

The next photograph turns surprise into disbelief. Remember, RSPB has been asking every one of their million plus members and the wider public to report all moorland fires to them so they can be investigated.

God knows how many they have investigated, but out of this multitude there are less than 80 that are suspect and it seems some of them can be ignored because even the BBC admits that some of the places they went to were not, in the event, deep peat.

But of these alleged vast swathes of illegally burnt moorland, akin to burning rain forest visible from space, we see not a sign. What we do get is a picture with a few tiny dots on it. This would not be visible from a car parked a hundred yards away, to compare it, as RSPB, Greenpeace and the BBC all do, to the horrific fires destroying hundreds of square miles of tropical forest, shows they have lost any grasp on reality they may once have had.

But worse, far worse is the hypocrisy. Greenpeace and BBC don't own or manage moorland and they have not influenced the way other organisations manage them, thank goodness. Can you imagine what a moor managed by the BBC would look like? But RSPB cannot, much as it might want to, avoid judgement. They do own and manage moors, they have influenced the National Trust and Natural England and many others, to stop rotational cool burning. So we can assess how they perform in terms of positive or negative climate impact compared to a few little bits of cool burn on peat a few centimetres over the limit.

Let's just go with what has been reported in the press over the last few years. Let's look at their wildfire record. But always remember that a wildfire, unlike a cool burn that leaves the peat intact, is very much a climate issue. Wildfires occur when the landscape, the vegetation, the debris layer and the peat are hot and dry. As a result they routinely set the peat alight and release thousands of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.

Here are some of the more famous fires that have taken place either on RSPB land or on moors where rotational burning has been stopped in line with their policy.

Saddleworth 2018, burnt for 3 weeks, 18 sq kms burnt releasing nearly 500,000 tonnes of carbon.

Moray, 70 sq kms, releasing 700,000 tonnes of carbon. Saddleworth burnt again in 2019, 'only' 4sq km but the highest flame front the Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) had ever encountered.

Forsinard, including RSPB land, in Sutherland, 50 sq kms, released 290,000 tonnes of carbon.

Then there were big wildfires at RSPB Dovestones Moor twice, NT Marsden, repeatedly, Darwen, Winterhill and on and on and on. All on land where the RSPB policy of stopping cool rotational burning is in place.

On Stalybridge, where the owners had been prevented by NE from rotational burning, 7 cm of peat was burnt of a huge area. If the moor recovers and starts to accumulate peat, it will take between 200 and 300 years to replace what was lost.

After Winterhill, which burnt for over a month, the FRS sent a report to a raft of organisations, including the NT and RSPB. The report was very clear and cannot have made comfortable reading for either of these no-burn organisations. Here are some quotes.

“The incident lasted a total of 41 days during which there were over 950 appliance mobilisations, these resources came from 20 FRSs from as far afield as Newcastle and London. Air resources dropped over 400 tonnes of water, there were 77 reconnaissance flights made by FRS drones, 35 km of hose was run out, over 40 partner agencies were involved in the incident”.

The major problems faced by the FRS were listed, the first three were, “Unbroken and continuous arrangement of vegetation across the landscape, combustible fuel loads and high surface and ground fuel loads”.

Finally, “The combination of very supportive weather in the presence of high fuel loads on the landscape presented the FRS with the most difficult wildland fire fighting operation ever encountered in North West England”.

At the time of Saddleworth, Professor Rob Marrs, from University of Liverpool, added the fire would not have spread as easily - and would have been less likely to have penetrated the peat beneath - if the dry scrub and heather had been managed by occasional controlled burning. He said: "The RSPB didn't think a big fire like this would happen to them but I've been predicting this for 15 years. Leaving the land alone causes much more damage than controlled burning because there's more heather to burn so it gets hotter and spreads to the peat, which in turn spreads the fire. It wasn't a matter of if, but when, and that when is now."

In other words, if you had reduced and broken up the fuel load on the landscape, it would probably not have happened in the first place, and if it had we could have stopped it in a day or two.

Put another way, who was the idiot that had the idea of stopping cool rotational burning?

So, we have the spectacle of RSPB crawling about on moorland trying to find something, anything, with which to attack the communities who live and work on them, eventually finding something so trivial that they probably produced more CO2 driving about looking for it, than it could ever have produced, whilst being up to their necks in some of the biggest moorland catastrophes ever seen. Just three of the fires listed above, were reported to have released nearly 1,500,000 tonnes of CO2.

Faced with such an appalling record, reasonable people might think they would be hiding away in shame. But shame is a stranger to the RSPB. No, they simply double down. "People will forget, if they ever knew. We are a big charity. People who don't know the facts trust us. If we say it is so, it is so. Let's just plough on, keep on attacking the communities who can't answer back, not because they couldn't, but because we've made sure they have no voice. And if they do dare speak out, we'll send lawyers after them."


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