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The RSPB's burning problem

[Gamekeepers supporting the effort to put out wildfires on moorland where controlled burning has not occured, like the RSPB's Saddleworth]

While the country is in lockdown, matters of government must, of course, continue on their way. The high profile topics are ones we hear about constantly: Brexit, trade deals, infrastructure and HS2, levelling up the north… and, increasingly, environmental issues.

With parliament, lobbyists and pressure groups unable to work as normal due to the pandemic, however, campaigners are increasingly clutching at straws in a bid to convince policy makers to embrace their points of view.

One issue that fits perfectly into this category is that of controlled heather burning – or as anti-shooting campaigners and the likes of the RSPB wrongly prefer to call it, “peat burning”.

Tomorrow sees a Westminster Hall debate on moorland burning, which has led to a flurry of briefings, press releases and online petitions, the majority of which are pushing completely incorrect information towards MPs and their advisors.

The RSPB – the alleged Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – are the one organisation who have really nailed their colours to the mast. As well as encouraging MPs to sign up to their campaign against “peat burning”; to attend the debate and “speak against peat burning!”, they have today launched a new burning reporting system. “If you are a walker, hiker or countryside lover, you can now report any upland burning you have seen taking place, to help us call for a ban on burning,” they write, adding that their new system will “empower communities”.

The RSPB Facebook campaign urging people to report moorland heather burns

The problem is that all of this ­– including their Facebook advertising campaign with the tagline “bogs need water, not fire”, is based on a web of lies and false information. The RSPB talk of heather burning destroying “fragile peat bog” and state that “three quarters [of the UK’s 2.7 million hectares of peatland] are degraded”.

But they conveniently ignore the fact that the people who are working to rewet these peatlands are moorland owners and keepers. In the 1960s and 70s, the government offered grants, encouraging landowners and farmers to drain the uplands in an attempt to increase agricultural productivity.

Now, moor managers and owners are working to reverse this and rewet the moors, restoring damaged peat bog, blocking up drains (over 4,000km have now been blocked) and revegetating peatland. In the North of England, over 44,000 acres of moorland managed for grouse have been revegetated and restored. A Climate Change Award was awarded at a 2015 Environmental Awards, for work undertaken in the North Pennines to re-block drains.

But while the RSPB fail to mention the hard work that is being done by moorland managers to restore peatland – needless to say, without the help of the RSPB – they also fail to mention that cool burns have a purpose. Wildfires are a regular occurrence across the uplands in the spring and summer, and while wetter is of course better when it comes to stopping fires from starting, cool burns have a vital role to play in wildfire management.

As well as creating fire breaks which stop wildfires in their tracks, cool burns also remove the dry, dead surface vegetation which provides the fuel for wildfires to spread.

The RSPB have been urging MPs to sign up to their campaign of false statements

In their blog on the topic, the RSPB’s Senior Policy Officer, Dr Pat Thompson, mentioned Dovestone in the Peak District – where he says “we are restoring blanket bogs by rewetting the moors and re-introducing peat-forming sphagnum mosses… We also know that keeping these places wet makes them more resilient to the impact of wildfires, as well as slowing the flow of water off the moors which reduces the risk of flooding.”

It is vital that places like Dovestone can cope with wildfires – particularly when Dovestone itself has suffered from serious wildfires, as recently as this summer, and is surrounded by the biggest concentration of wildfires for years.

Wetting Dovestone will help the surface and peat survive fires – but an even better solution would be to stop the fire spreading in the first place by introducing fire breaks and removing fuel. There is a reason why the most terrible wildfires experienced in the UK in recent years, such as Saddleworth, have taken place on RSPB managed land where controlled burning is not practiced.

Dovestone has seen numerous wildfires, as recently as summer 2020

But the RPSB seem to have abandoned all traces of common sense. Rather than seeing sense, they have decided to throw everything they can at their anti-shooting campaign – even stopping as low as to align themselves with the masked “Moorland Monitors”, who have been trying to politicise heather burning for years.

With the convicted criminal Luke Steele at their helm, they care little about the fact that a ban on controlled burning would make the uplands a tinderbox prime for wildfires, or that scientific research shows that blanket bog is capable of increased levels of carbon storage when rotational burning is part of its management.

Instead, they choose to risk the safety of the moorlands, the birds, the wildlife, the people – and the peat which they claim to be desperate to protect. Madness? That would be an understatement.

The RSPB's Jeff Knott, Mark Avery, and Luke Steele


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