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Environmental campaigners blame grouse moor burning for dangerously high waters in Sheffield

Wild Moors say that restored peatlands can slow the flow of water run-off by up to 75% and help prevent flooding.

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Burning on Bamford Moor in the Peak District in September 2021.

Wild Moors.

Flooding and dangerously high water levels in Sheffield last weekend were made worse by several months of moorland burning on higher ground, say Yorkshire activists who want to outlaw the practice.

Campaign group Wild Moors have documented 60 incidents of the practice in South Yorkshire since the burning season began in October last year.

Landowners burn moorland to create the ideal conditions for grouse which are then shot for sport, but scientists say the practice greatly increases the risk of flooding downstream.

"When peatlands are burnt they degrade, making them less effective at holding back rainfall, as well as losing sponge-like vegetation such as sphagnum moss," Luke Steele of Wild Moors told Now Then.

"It's no coincidence that the headwaters of Sheffield's rivers, not least the Don and Loxley, are located in burnt and degraded Pennine peatlands."

The group sent Now Then a spreadsheet detailing all of the burns so far this season, including some which have led to repeated air pollution incidents in parts of Sheffield.

Wild Moors say 12 burns were carried out in January on parts of the Midhope Moors owned by Wakefield Farms Ltd, which led to complaints that Stocksbridge was "covered in acrid smoke" by lunchtime.

We asked Davis & Bowring, who operate shooting sessions on Midhope Moors on behalf of Wakefield Farms, about the burning but they did not respond.

Steele's campaign also recorded 34 separate burns at the Broomhead Estate on Broomhead Moor in October, November and January, with one leading to "several complaints of smoke pollution drifting down into Sheffield."

In response, Ben Rimington Wilson of the Broomhead Estate told Now Then that any heather burning is carried out following the government's voluntary code of best practice.

"To my knowledge there is no proven scientific link between heather burning and downstream flooding," he said.

"The current flooding problems on the River Severn would seem to bear this out, given there is no heather burning carried out within its catchment. The moorland catchment of the River Don is only a small proportion of its total catchment."

This view is contradicted by a 2019 study from the University of Manchester, which found that restored moorland "reduces peak stream flow during storms" and that, if implemented widely, restoration could "alleviate the chance of flooding downstream."

Steele told us that the River Severn is also flooding due to heavily degraded peatland upstream, but that the cause was overgrazing rather than burning.

According to the RSPB, only 4% of England's upland peatlands – which are a unique habitat around the world – are in good condition.

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Burning on Midhope Moors in September 2021.

Wild Moors.

In May the government introduced new restrictions on peatland burning, banning the practice entirely on areas designated as blanket bog.

But Wild Moors say many of South Yorkshire's peatlands aren't covered by the new legislation because they're made up of already-degraded shallow peat, and need to be restored to a healthier, deeper condition.13 local councils, including in Barnsley, Sheffield and Doncaster, have called for a complete ban on moorland burning for the purposes of blood sports like grouse shooting.

“With the latest round of flooding causing serious disruption and destruction to communities and businesses across northern England, it’s clear that the cost of inaction is massively outweighed by the cost of action," said Steele.

"We urge the government to bring forward a complete ban on burning peatlands without delay to ensure the uplands are protected and restored for nature, climate and people."

by Sam Gregory (he/him)

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