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Upland communities accuse RSPB of pushing fake news over rotational cool burning of heather moorland

Recently the RSPB tweeted, “There really is no scientific or moral justification for burning our peatlands... so why is it still allowed?” In those few well chosen words they managed to encapsulate the problem that upland communities face when dealing with the conservation industry in general and RSPB in particular.

[Another RSPB tweet with purposely misleading headline as 'peat bogs' are never burnt]

Let us spend a few moments unpicking what lies behind them.

Lies, is a good place to start. The statement that, “there really is no scientific....justification for burning our peatlands” is not actually true. If the RSPB was being devious, and heaven forbid such an idea, they might say that they were talking about literally burning peatlands, something which is as meaningless as talking about burning Yorkshire.

But, in fact it is obvious that they are, as always, talking about cool rotational burning of heather moorland as carried out by gamekeepers and others. This is what they seem determined to see banned.

Contrary to RSPB's bizarre claim, there is published science there makes it perfectly clear that rotational cool burning is beneficial in several ways.

There are peer reviewed studies which show that there is greater biodiversity of birds and plants on moorland that has been managed by properly conducted rotational burning, than on places that have been left as RSPB wants.

[Controlled cool burning on heather moorland]

There are peer reviewed papers which clearly show that there is more peat forming sphagnum moss on moors burnt on a twenty year rotation than on moors unburnt for a hundred years.

There are more mountain hares on managed grouse moors than there are on any nature reserve we can find, thanks in part to the effect of rotational burning.

All these papers, and a lot more besides, are in the public domain. All are known to the RSPB. They may not like what they say. They may not agree with their peer reviewed conclusions. But they cannot, or at least should not, pretend they don't exist.

Yet that is what they did. This massive, powerful and once great organisation has apparently decided to go into fake news. When the science does not suit your strategic objectives, pretend it doesn't exist. There is more to greatness than size.

Then there is the second part of this strange RSPB tweet. That, according to RSPB, “there really is no moral justification for burning our peatlands”. Not content with branching out into party politics the once respected RSPB is now setting itself up as an arbiter of morality.

But is it competent in this field? After all it started the text with what appears to be what some might call a lie. In such circumstances it is fair to ask why they think they can lecture people on what is, and is not, moral behaviour. But let us indulge them a little. If rotational cool burning is not 'moral', what is it. There can only be one answer. Rotational heather burning is, according to RSPB, immoral.

Think for a moment where this gets us.

First, why do people burn heather and other vegetation? To increase biodiversity and to reduce the risk and severity of wildfire. Is it immoral to increase biodiversity? Is it immoral to want to reduce the risk and severity of wildfire? Of course not, the very idea is mad.

Whilst writing this, we read in the Sunday Times that the US Forest Service had, in 2018, altered its approach to wildfire prevention and management, and had now re-instated the controlled burning, which had been practiced by the indigenous population before external experts and the conservation industry took over. Is the US Forest Service being immoral? Were the indigenous people being immoral? Of course not. The idea is ludicrous.

[Iowa state university firefighters demonstrating the benefits of controlled burning]

What is worse is that fact that this is an exercise in gross hypocrisy. The RSPB knew full well when it is tweeting nonsense about burning peatlands, that it is perfectly happy to do it when it suits them.

Last November we stumbled across a piece on Facebook by the reserve manager of the RSPB Old Moor and Blacktoft Sands Reserve an area of peatland and fen on the Humber estuary.

He said, “There's nothing like the crackle of the fire when you are controlled burning out here along the Humber at Blacktoft. Here's a bit of footage from today in beautiful weather with the team keeping the home fires burning well”.

What can we say? How immoral and unscientific is that? Actually we don't think it is either. We think it is a practical way to manage the peatland reserve at Blacktoft. Just as we think that rotational burning has a part to play in managing the uplands. But then we would wouldn't we? Because we are reasonable people, who make practical rational decisions based on science and successful custom and practice.

We are not out to make a fortune from the taxpayer on a fake prospectus that we can sequester millions of tonnes of carbon if you just get rid of the annoying grouse shooters and give us a shed load of cash.

We also differ from the RSPB in another crucial way. We understand what moral behaviour is, and although we would never wish to sit in judgment on anyone, when we last checked it did not include making up fairy stories and rank hypocrisy.


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