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How do we stop toxic grouse moor burning in Sheffield?

Last week, wealthy landowners launched what one resident described as "a physical assault on the people of Sheffield." How do we stop them?

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Burning on Broomhead Moor, 8 October.

Bob Berzins.

Last Monday (9 October), around midday, many residents of Sheffield stepped outside to find that their homes had become enveloped in a low blanket of smog.

As was quickly revealed by photos and videos posted across social media, as well as a report by the Sheffield Tribune, the cause was a fresh round of grouse moor burning set off by wealthy landowners in the hills above the city.

As previously reported in Now Then, the moors are deliberately set on fire to create the ideal conditions for grouse, which are then shot for fun by customers who pay many thousands for a day of bloodsports.

Residents of Crosspool, Hillsborough and the city centre (among other areas) all reported being affected by the toxic smoke that rolled down from the moors and into the city's low-lying suburbs.

Evidence later that day from an air quality monitor at Hunters Bar found that pollution levels had spiked to five or six times the current legal limit. The graph shows a clear correlation between the setting of fires at midday and a sudden change in air quality.

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Burning on the Moscar Estate, 9 October.

Bob Berzins.

"The city smells of smoke"

Anger at what had happened exploded on social media. "The city smells of smoke …it’s lunacy," tweeted folk veteran Martin Simpson. Gregory Norminton described it as a "crime against all of us perpetrated by two grouse moor owners," and decried the "silence" from the council.

"They just don’t care at all," tweeted broadcaster Chris Packham, the day before he gave a talk in the city for Off The Shelf. "Not about the planet, not about ecology and not about all the kids with asthma in Sheffield. It’s time to shut this down."

That evening, University of Sheffield student Rei Takver said that her packed journalism class that day had "stank of smoke", and challenged South Yorkshire mayor Oliver Coppard on how he could let this happen in the city.

"How have you let the entire city of Sheffield's health be imperilled for some grouse hunting?" Takver asked of Coppard, the council and local MP Olivia Blake.

In the replies, former council leader Bob Johnson described moor burning as "appalling," but pointed out that the council is powerless to do anything about burning on land that it does not own. The council has already banned burning on its own land.

"Hi Rei," tweeted Coppard, who later hinted at his disapproval of moor burning. "Genuinely, what is it you think I could or should have done? You’ve said I should have done more to stop it, so would appreciate understanding what you mean."

In response, Takver listed a series of actions Coppard could take in a Twitter thread that was viewed over 80,000 times. Most of these involved the mayor taking a more public position against the burns, and using his status and profile to lobby for a change in legislation.

Falling on Defra ears

Despite the serious health consequences for tens of thousands across the city, the type of burning that took place on Monday appears to be legal, although some minor restrictions have been introduced in recent years.

Many burns are licensed by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), and neither Sheffield Council, the mayor or the local Director of Public Health (DPH) have the power to cancel or amend the licenses – even when they affect the city's health.

The government have so far resisted calls from clean air campaigners and environmental activists to outlaw moor burning entirely, despite introducing restrictions on more ecologically valuable 'deep peat' areas in 2021.

Many of the shooting estates' owners, some of whom come from an aristocratic background, have links to government, or even sit in the House of Lords themselves.

Takver has called on Coppard to convene a meeting between the owners of the estates and city residents, as well as to use his platform to raise awareness of the health consequences of burning in the local media. She also suggests that the mayor write an open letter to Defra calling for a complete ban on burning for the purpose of bloodsports, as well as pushing for a ban to be included in Labour's next manifesto.

Law of the land

Finally, Takver raises the possibility of local leaders exploring what legal action they can take to prevent future burns, possibly by demonstrating that licenses issued by Defra fall foul of other legislation on clean air.

Olivia blake

Sheffield Hallam MP Olivia Blake described moorland burning as a "dangerous, destructive practice"

Olivia Blake MP.

Guidance for licensees clearly states that any burning "must not create smoke likely to damage human health or cause a nuisance." The furious response to Monday's burns suggests many Sheffield residents would consider both of these conditions to have been breached.

Activist Bob Berzins, who has been closely monitoring the recent burns, has explained on Twitter how to complain to Defra about the effect of the recent controlled burns on Sheffield residents.

It could be the case that local leaders like Coppard, as well as the DPH Greg Fell, could speak to lawyers about whether they can leverage laws on nuisance smoke to challenge licenses issued by Defra to some of the country's wealthiest landowners.

A staggering 1 in every 19 deaths are at least partly linked to air pollution in the UK's largest towns and cities, including Sheffield. A 2019 study found that air pollution was the direct cause of between 29,000 and 43,000 deaths for adults aged 30 and over.

In Sheffield, the council estimates that air pollution contributes to between 250 and 500 deaths every year.

But despite the disastrous health consequences, the public fury and condemnation from public figures like Packham, it appears that the wealthy owners of the shooting estates simply don't care.

Despite the outrage over the burn on 9 October, more burns were recorded on 10 October, 11 October, 15 October, 16 October and yesterday.

Activists say that to protect public health and the Peak District itself a change in the law is needed – and fast.

by Sam Gregory (he/him)

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