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Moor burning in the Peaks: Bloodsport practice increases risks of flooding

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Burning at Langsett on 25 January.

With two near-catastrophic storms hitting Sheffield in recent months, politicians have been keen to promise resources to reduce the risk of further flooding. But few have mentioned one of the most easily-preventable causes - one that is politically inconvenient for Tory politicians with their rural voter bases.

Grouse shooting is a bloodsport which requires swathes of peatland to be burnt every year - literally set on fire - to clear land for red grouse and get rid of other species. Sheffield Hallam MP Olivia Blake raised the issue in her maiden speech, calling it an "act of vandalism", and even the government has floated the idea of banning the practice. But so far they have done nothing.

Deliberate destruction of the Peak District peatlands cause further flooding because, as George Monbiot has noted, "higher parts of the catchment can now hold back very little of the rain that falls on them." We spoke to an expert in moor burning, Luke Steele of the group Ban Bloodsports on Yorkshire's Moors, to find out more.

What's the extent of heather burning in the Peak District and what time of year does it usually happen?

Heather burning is performed extensively on grouse shooting moors across the Peak District from 1 October to 15 April. According to the grouse shooting industry's own figures, approximately 15% of each moorland is burnt each season.

Burning on grouse moors has a devastating ecological impact

What's the heather burnt for? Is there any legitimate reason for this practice, other than grouse shooting?

Heather burning is performed by grouse shoots to engineer prime breeding habitat for game birds. There's no legitimate reason for burning by grouse moors, especially when considering the widespread ecological damage caused to peatland, wildlife and the negative impact on communities through flooding. Where there is a strong conservation case for heather management, a mixture of cutting and grazing galloway cattle suffices.

What's the legal situation?

Yorkshire Water - the county's largest landowner, which owns a significant section of moorland on the northern edge of the Dark Peak - no longer allows routine burning by grouse shooting tenants. This forms part of a wider approach by the company to review the future of grouse shooting on its land and restore peatland.

Environment Minister Zac Goldsmith has also committed to introduce legislation to end peatland burning following a moratorium between the government and grouse moors failing to deliver the desired result.

What effect does heather burning have on the environment?

The Pennines are home to around 50% of the country's peatlands which act as the green lungs of the country. Yet approximately 80% of the UK's peatlands - which store tonnes of climate-altering carbon, as well as hosting threatened wildlife and plant life - are dried out and damaged. Burning on grouse moors has a devastating ecological impact. Studies show it damages rare peatland ecosystems, worsens climate change by drying out the peat and releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and increases flooding downstream.

There's also a strong indication that burning exacerbates wildfire risk because the damaged and dried out peat ignites very easily and can burn for days and weeks. In comparison, wet peat bogs don't burn and don't need burning - as was shown on Saddleworth Moor when the re-wetted peat on conservation land restrained the wildfire which had begun on moorland repeatedly burnt for grouse shooting by gamekeepers.

Burning also has a negative impact on vulnerable breeding birds including dunlin, short-eared owl, merlin and hen harrier which can no longer make the damaged habitat their home.

What action would you like to see the government take?

Grouse shooting estates have been asked by the government to voluntarily end burning in light of the environmental damage caused and this has failed to deliver the desired outcome of ending burning. With clear evidence demonstrating the considerable ecological impact of grouse moor burning and its contribution to flooding across Yorkshire, the government must introduce legislation to outlaw the practice.

Sam Gregory

Find out more about Ban Bloodsports on Yorkshire's Moors. George Monbiot speaks at Festival of Debate 2020 on 14 May.

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Luke Steele of Ban Bloodsports on Yorkshire's Moors.
by Sam Gregory (he/him)

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