by Adrian Blackmore

Heather growing on peat soil can quickly become dominant and out-of-control when left unmanaged, but methods of management have been a fierce area of debate for many years.

Some landowners have long opted to use fire as a method to maintain healthy growth, while others have taken to mowing, or leaving the vegetation unmanaged.  Researchers at the University of York are undertaking a 20-year study to compare the impacts of these three management options in relation to mitigating climate change, increasing water storage and quality, and increasing biodiversity, and their findings after 10 years of that study are significant.

Heather peatland gathers and stores atmospheric carbon, retains water, provides much of our drinking water, can reduce flooding, and provides a habitat for many different species of wildlife. Reporting at the halfway mark of the study, the researchers have found that heather burning, as well as mowing, and leaving the vegetation unmanaged, should all be available management tools, there being no ‘one size fits all’ approach that land managers should use.

The study showed that, when compared with unmanaged plots, the burning and mowing of heather supported an increased diversity of vegetation, with higher levels of sphagnum moss that is especially supportive of peat formation. Burning was also found to be particularly good both for carbon uptake, and nutrient content for grazing animals. Whilst carbon loss from burnt areas was higher than from mowing in the short term, it fell as the vegetation regrew, and took up a lot more carbon in the long term. Over 10 years, burn plots absorbed more than twice the carbon when compared with mown areas.  

Looking at the increased threat of wildfires in the UK, the study found that whilst there were some initial benefits to allowing heather to grow unmanaged, it becomes less efficient at taking up carbon as it aged. Unmanaged plots were also found to have a lower water table than those managed either by burning or mowing, which could prove relevant to ongoing carbon storage projects, which employ significant resources to raise water tables on moorland areas in order to capture and retain more carbon. Unmanaged areas were also found to be drier, which can be a very real fire risk due to our warmer and drier summers. Unlike the controlled cool burns that are carried out by grouse moor managers, uncontrolled wildfires can be catastrophic, resulting in huge carbon losses and environmental damage as the fire burns into the peat.

These interim findings are extremely important both for policy makers, and those responsible for managing our heather moorlands; an upland landscape of international importance, large areas of which have been preserved and improved thanks to its management for driven grouse shooting. No two grouse moors are the same, and when it comes to their management, the report’s finding that there can be no ‘one size fits all’ approach, and that burning, cutting, and leaving heather unmanaged should all be available tools that upland managers can use, depending on a particular piece of land and its aspects, is of particular importance.

Sadly, the RSPB has to date chosen to ignore available scientific research and evidence, and taken every opportunity to call on government to ban all burning on peatland. It is therefore hoped that they will take note of these interim findings from the University of York. They need to consider more than just their dislike for grouse shooting, and focus instead on how we might best mitigate climate change and the increased risk of devastating wildfires, increase both water storage and quality, and increase biodiversity.  To do otherwise would be irresponsible, and undermine their credibility when it comes to protecting and enhancing our carbon-rich peatlands’.

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