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Scientists argue that anti-shooting agendas have helped shape a false picture of prescribed burning

Updated: May 23

A paper which examines the relationship between carbon storage in peatlands and prescribed burning has recently been released by scientists at the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York and the School of Geography, Geology and Environment at the University of Keele.

As the authors explain, peatlands are a vast global carbon store, while prescribed burning is an “important and well-recognised vegetation management tool used to promote biodiversity, increase habitat heterogeneity and mitigate uncontrolled wildfires”. In the UK however, there is an ongoing debate about the efficacy and legitimacy of using prescribed fire as a vegetation management tool, mainly due to the extent to which prescribed burning is associated with a decline in habitat status and ecological function – particularly on moorland peatlands.

“Robust reviews of the evidence base are thus required to disentangle this debate”, and in order to do this, the authors of the paper critically review “Carbon storage and sequestration by habitat: a review of the evidence (second edition)” by Gregg et al., 2021.

While the authors of the critical review welcome the previous attempt to collect evidence on peatlands and how burning affects them, they have concerns about the lack of a transparent and objective review methodology, and the misrepresentation of the evidence relating to prescribed fire impacts on blanket bog ecosystems and net ecosystem carbon budgets. As in the UK prescribed burning is mainly used in moorland management systems on grouse moors, it has become a contentious topic. In other countries, it is accepted as a valuable tool in the management of vegetation and particularly in terms of wildfire prevention.

The independent authors of the new paper find numerous issues with the Gregg et al., 2021 report, including misrepresentation of the evidence relating to prescribed fire impacts on blanket bog ecosystems and NECBs; the omission of key evidence; misreporting of previous findings and reports; and the citing of evidence from studies with significant methodological flaws.

The paper ends with a number of recommendations from the authors to those of the Gregg et al. report – recommendations which they believe would “enhance the value of their review for academics, land managers and policymakers.”

These recommendations include that the authors:

· Clearly describe the review methodology so the robustness and utility of the review can be assessed.

· If the described review methodology indicates Gregg et al.’s approach is subject to high levels of bias (e.g., [29]), we recommend that they re-assess the evidence using a systematic approach that follows explicit and objective guidelines (e.g., [25,35,36]).

· Remove unevidenced statements or clearly state that such statements are conjecture. This is important because Gregg et al. is a review, and readers may confuse conjecture with fact.

· We would also suggest including a balanced set of peer-reviewers; to only include a representative of the RSPB (Royal Society of the Protection of Birds)—an organisation with strong views opposing grouse moor management and rotational burning of heather—seems biased.

It is particularly interesting that independent scientists are now happy to state publicly that they believe that the RSPB are biased and that their representative should not be replied upon to review an evidence paper such as this. Although the RSPB's royal charter states that: “The Society shall take no part in the question of the killing of game birds and legitimate sport of that character except when such practices have an impact on the Objects”, it has been obvious to most people who work closely with the RSPB that they, and particularly the people at the top, have a clear bias against game shooting of any kind, and will do their very best to put a stop to it.

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