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RSPB's policy on controlled burning is 'a tale told by an idiot'

[Wildfire on moorland not managed by controlled heather burning]

When Shakespeare gave Macbeth his last words, in the 'Tomorrow and tomorrow' speech, which ends with, “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing”, he was not thinking of Martin Harper, Adam Barnett, Mark Thomas or any other members of the RSPB management advocating their 'ban-the-burn' campaign. But, judging by their latest article in their Natures Voice magazine on game shooting, he might have been.

Readers will recall that we have already dealt with the amazing claim that shooting partridges or grouse is an environmental disaster akin to the lethal Californian wildfires. We explained that RSPB knew a lot about wildfires, because their preferred management system had resulted in so many.

Now we must consider their next claim. That rotational cool burning causes flooding. This is what they say. “Grouse like a mix of old and young heather, so regular burning takes place to provide this. When heavy rain falls on land damaged by burning, it's more likely to run off quickly. This fast flowing water can cause flooding.”

Further on they explain more. Burning, “results in a heather monoculture instead of a healthy mix of dwarf shrubs, sphagnum mosses, grasses, and other plants that serve a vital ecological function. Burning also leaves bare patches and damages the soil so rain water rushes off the hills.”

These are important claims. In the last few years they have been repeated ad nauseam by the RSPB, and many of their followers, ever since they changed their policy on burning. A change which coincided with the discovery that there was money to be made, a lot of money in fact, out of the climate crisis.

The impression they have successfully sought to create is that grouse moor managers are operating in some sort of unregulated wild west, torching the landscape at will. Why else would they compare rotational burning with the Australian wildfire apocalypse. In fact, that intentionally created impression, is simply wrong. Grouse moor management is already heavily regulated. The RSPB knows that but just ignores it.

The RSPB know perfectly well that far from being Liberty Hall, heather burning is heavily regulated. They also know that it is unlikely to damage blanket bogs, as it is hardly ever occurs on them.

[A previous honest RSPB leaflet, before the charity got hijacked by political activists]

Nor is it intended to create heather monoculture, which is just as well, because it doesn't. Red Grouse are territorial birds and each pair needs a mix of vegetation types to rear its young. Each territorial bird wants, heather and the “healthy mix of dwarf shrubs, sphagnum mosses, grasses and other plants”, they refer to, on which to raise their young.

It is that mosaic of vegetation that is unique to managed heather moorland. Yet, RSPB pretends that a necessarily diverse habitat is a monoculture. It is also strange that an organisation supposedly dedicated to birds, never mentions the fact that grouse moors hold the best breeding populations of many rare ground nesting birds left in the UK. But they do.

Do grouse moors cause floods? Of course not. Extreme weather events cause floods. When 100 mm of rain falls on a 100 sq km of hill, (an increasingly common level of precipitation on the area of a typical dale), there are a million tonnes of water looking for somewhere to go. Even the best re-wetted moor, with the highest water table, or for that matter, any other landscape, will be overwhelmed.

The RSPB's allegation is based not on any practical understanding but on the exaggeration of a not particularly robust bit of science, and to be fair to the researchers involved, they did not claim that grouse moors cause floods. They were not that daft. What they actually said was, “Catchments where burning has taken place appear slightly more prone higher flow peaks during heavy rain- however this is not conclusive.”

What they didn't say is what the RSPB says. RSPB's interpretation of this very mild and equivocal position is, “Burning leaves bare patches and damages soil so that rainwater rushes off hills, causing erosion, muddying rivers and streams and worsening flooding downstream”.

It should also be remembered that the surface being compared with rotationally burnt heather moorland, is heather moorland that used to be subject to rotational burning, but hasn't been for a while. If both these types of moorland were compared with other types of land surface in the catchment, almost all the others would be far worse than either.

Undrained pasture-worse. Drained pasture-far worse. Commercial forestry-worse. Drained arable-worse. Roads, tracks, car parks, hard landscaping-you've got to be joking. To this can be added the fact that the RSPB's theory is exactly that. A theory and their's. Is the Environment Agency, the body that has to deal with floods exercised about grouse moors? No.

You may have spotted a pattern developing. There seems to be a tendency, indeed a compulsion, to exaggerate. “Appear slightly more prone” and “ not conclusive”, become, in the hands of the RSPB, massive and certain.

This sort of frankly ridiculous hyperbole, might be seen as faintly amusing, but it is not. It is in deadly earnest. The RSPB has decided that for their purposes grouse shooting must go and they intend to have their way.

The collateral damage to rare ground nesting birds, to one of the world's rarest eco-systems and to the landscape and culture of our uplands, is seen by them as a price worth paying. Anything that can be twisted into a weapon is worth it.

The RSPB must know that grouse moor owners are not draining moorland or blanket bog. They must know that when the drainage took place, it was at the behest of the government and intended to increase grazing for sheep.

They know perfectly well that grouse need wet places, that grouse can do perfectly well on fully functioning blanket bog, and that grouse moor managers have no interest in making moors dry. They know perfectly well that vast areas of drained moorland have been re-wetted by moor owners, often at their own expense.

None of this stops the richest and most powerful conservation organisation in Europe, intentionally creating an impression that is the exact opposite of reality.

Just in case anyone still refuses to believe that any organisation with the noble history of the RSPB can behave in this disgraceful manner or that they really believe that heather management is intrinsically bad and damaging, and that the vegetation mosaic created by burning and cutting is harmful to upland birds, here is a quote from one of their own leaflets, published just before it dawned on them how to make enormous sums of money by pretending to know how to sequester carbon.


Small, carefully-controlled rotational burns or cuts, scattered across suitable heather moorland, maintain an approximately constant proportion of the heather at its most productive and nutritious phase. As well as increasing red grouse numbers, good heather management will benefit other birds by providing structural diversity across the area of heather.

Hen harriers, stonechats and ring ouzels nest in mature or degenerate heather, but forage predominantly in other habitats. Curlew and golden plovers breed in areas of younger heather. Effective heather management also helps to spread grazing pressure more evenly across the moorland.

“Smaller burns-between 0.5 and 1 ha, made up of long strips about 30 m wide- provide a greater mix of heather structures.”

But you get the idea. This could have been written by a grouse moor keeper. It is so recent that the people who wrote it may well still work for RSPB.

The basis of RSPB's bizarre claim that grouse moors cause floods is research that makes no such claim. Their assertion that grouse moor management creates a habitat devoid of diversity is directly contradicted by their own words. Truly this is a tale told by an idiot. Full of sound and fury. But it does signify something. It signifies the descent of a once great champion of the countryside, into an organisation from which you would not buy a second hand walking stick.


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