Saddleworth Moor: the burning issues

Grouse moor burning at Saddleworth Moor. ©Vanessa Whitfield

In this – the most glorious hot, dry summer we’ve been enjoying in the UK – it might be timely to recall that 10 years ago, we saw the most significant piece of environmental law enacted in the UK for many years. The Climate Change Act was made law in 2008, led through Parliament by the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, when he was Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

Yes, back then we had a Cabinet minister tasked with leading action on Climate Change. How things change.

The Act required that administration and all subsequent Governments to take the necessary actions to achieve an 80% reduction in climate change emissions, from 1990 levels, by 2050.

Ten years later, the Committee on Climate Change – that lean but effective organisation created to keep the Government’s feet to the fire on climate action – is not happy. It has  just released a report warning the Government that is it falling behind in its actions. Although overall emissions are down 43% since 1990, the Committee, chaired by former Conservative Environment Secretary John Gummer (now Lord Deben) notes that actions have stalled, especially over the last five years. Perhaps this is not so surprising, given his successors included Owen Paterson, who was not convinced climate change was even happening, or – if it was, it wasn’t a problem. Since leaving the Government, Paterson has been involved with a post-Brexit project called Clexit, which aims to get the UK to withdraw from taking action on Climate Change, including revoking the Climate Change Act.

One action the Committee has identified as needing urgent action, is to first identify emissions of greenhouse gases from UK peatlands; and then decide what actions that need to be taken to reduce these emissions.

There is a lot of peatland in the UK – mainly in the form of blanket bog which covers the upland landscapes of all four UK countries. Peat forms our largest Carbon resource – far bigger than carbon stored in forests, for example. Our peatlands need to be protected, otherwise they degrade and, as they slowly decompose, release carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane.

Degraded blanket bogs are found across much of our uplands, which have been damaged by centuries of industrial pollution, acid rain, as well as overgrazing and drainage for agriculture. It is, to me, astonishing that we still do not know the extent of greenhouse-gas emissions from UK peatlands, though the Government has committed to completing this analysis by 2022.

Probably the single most effective way of reducing emissions from peatlands is to restore their hydrology, that is the way water flows through the peat. Peat forms when Sphagnum moss (or less often certain grasses and sedges) grows and dies. The dead plant material does not break down (because oxygen is not available), but rather is converted into peat. This peat is then covered by a new layer of plants, and the cycle continues. The peat underneath the live vegetation is protected by its ‘skin’ of plants, and retains water like a sponge. And over centuries, or even millennia, peat can develop to a depth of many metres. But when it is damaged by pollution or agriculture, the vegetation dies. The peat is exposed, starts to dry out and then breaks down, once in contact with air.

A damaged, dried out peatland is vulnerable to fire. And this is exactly what happened on Saddleworth Moor (historically in Yorkshire, but now part of Greater Manchester) last week. It’s not entirely clear what caused the fire to start, though there have been suggestions that it was caused by some trespassers, either deliberately or by accident. Either way, the exceptionally hot and dry weather, and a vast area of damaged dried-out peat, created the ideal conditions for a large moorland fire which,  at the time of writing, has already covered around 1000ha of moorland. Some have claimed that the Saddleworth fire started on RSPB-managed land nearby, owned by United Utilities. The RSPB have studiously avoided using fire to manage this particular upland site, where they have been working to restore the blanket bog, and point out in this blog that the fire started elsewhere but spread on to their site.

What has also been noted is that the area where the fire spread was an area of moorland being “restored” to Grouse Moor. Grouse Moor management involves deliberately setting fire to areas of moorland to encourage the growth of new heather, which Red Grouse, (whose numbers are artificially boosted for shooting), like to feed on. Many thousands of hectares of Moorland are burned for Grouse Moor management every year. In a 2015 report the Climate Change Committee noted “the damaging practice of burning peat to increase Grouse yields continues.”

I don’t think it’s too surprising that the Saddleworth Moor fire has become a microcosm for a wider debate about the future of our uplands. While such a large area is still managed for Grouse shooting – Moor burning is also used more widely to encourage grass growth for sheep farming. Those in the shooting community claim they have evidence on their side that controlled burning is environmentally beneficial – even “natural”. A few academics support this position, notably Prof Rob Marrs. But Marrs is also President of the Heather Trust, a charity which is closely aligned with and run by the Grouse Shooting industry. Then there’s the Countryside Alliance, who never miss the opportunity to capitalise on a story and attack their opponents  – this is no exception, though we were treated to CA’s head Tim Bonner claiming that there had never been trees on the upland peaks, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Perhaps one of the more interesting suggestions coming forward as a solution is the reintroduction of  Beavers to upland sites, to speed up re-wetting of damaged, dried out blanket bog. Beavers do not necessarily need trees to survive, and there is plentiful vegetation on a blanket bog (especially one that hasn’t been burnt.) It’s definitely worth someone doing a trial, given the great expense of mechanically filling in peat drains.

As the impacts of climate change become more severe in the UK, we can expect to see more hot, dry summers which will make our peatlands ever more vulnerable to fire yet, as  the Climate Change Committee notes, we are already lagging behind on our actions to tackle climate change by reducing emissions.

The Saddleworth Moor fire shows that we also urgently need to take action to restore the hydrology of our degraded peatlands, both for their wildlife (and archaeology), their bleak beauty, and because they are our biggest Carbon store.

And we need to ask ourselves whether managing Moorlands intensively to create Grouse for shooting, can possibly be compatible with this? Protecting the Carbon resource must come above every other priority.

this is an updated version of an article which first appeared on the Lush Times.

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in climate change, grouse shooting and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Saddleworth Moor: the burning issues

  1. Miles. Interesting that you skirt around the issue of grazing livestock. That National Sheep Association has a clear opinion as do many farmers in upland areas saying that in some areas, as a result of continued, sustained removal of sheep through environmental policy, some uplands are in fact undergrazed and this is a contributory factor to wildfire spread.

    NSA Chief Executive Phil Stocker comments: “Wildfires are becoming more common across the UK, in part due to a loss of grazing animals and an increase in high volumes of dry vegetation. The result is causing immense environmental damage including the loss of peat and release of carbon into the atmosphere, the destruction of mammals and young birds, the potential loss of domesticated livestock and of course, a risk to human health.

    “The grazed nature of most of our uplands has, in the past, protected us from out of control fires, meaning that when fires occur as they inevitably will, they are short lived and relatively easy to get under control. This is a practical example of how sheep farming has an integral relationship with our planet and connects our landscape, our people and our wildlife and environment through natural and traditional land management whilst also producing food and fibre from plants and regions that would not otherwise feed and clothe us.”

  2. Miles, thank you for another illuminating post. Some of it was not new to me, but some, eg the carbon sink potential of bogs being compromised when they dry out, was new.

    In response to your previous correspondent: of course the NSA is saying that! And of course farmers are. Here on Dartmoor, ironically, a similar kind of argument is used with regard to deliberate fire-setting – swaling – with supposedly controlled fires whose purpose is to burn back all that is not sheep fodder; quite deliberately, therefore, destroying acres and acres of flora and fauna, some of it rare. In effect, sheep farming and its effects create an upland monoculture.

    If we remove the grazing animals, some kind of regeneration returns that minimises fire risk and soil erosion. The truth is that it’s sheep that keep the deforestation cycle going, while a move towards reforestation would preserve some moisture and enhance the hydrological cycles, thus preserving topsoil, diversity AND reducing the risk of fire in the long run. In addition, clearly, we’d go some way towards slowing up climate change. Uplands that are ‘undergrazed’ would relatively soon begin the return to healthy diverse ecosystems.

    • Miles King says:

      thanks very much Roselle. Some years back I had the good fortune to survey the plant communities across a large part of the MoD Okehampton and Merrivale ranges. I was struck by how much of the blanket bog had been damaged in the past. But also how some parts of the bog had restored themselves, with plentiful sphagnum carpeting the surface. Given time these bogs will heal themselves. I think beavers would help speed up the process.

      • That’s good news.

        And yes you mention beavers in your post – seems they can do a lot of good to a landscape, and I’m so relieved they’ve let our localish beavers on the Otter remain.

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