Grouse shooting row as ministers back RSPB over peatland burning ban despite wildfire concerns

Ministers have become embroiled in a row with Tory backbenchers over grouse shooting after siding with the RSPB in a bid to ban peatland burning.

Land managers, countryside organisations and MPs argue that targeted burning of peatland creates an ideal habitat for rare birds, as well as managing wildfire risk by getting rid of dry, dead vegetation.

Environmental campaigners have long called for a ban on burning on the moors, as peat holds vast amounts of carbon, which is released into the atmosphere when set alight. Small animals and plants are also destroyed when the burns take place.

After recommendations from the RSPB and other conservation organisations, ministers seem poised to phase out the practice, eventually making it illegal.

Environment minister Rebecca Pow told dissenting MPs:  "I have looked closely at the issue and have met with our chief scientific adviser. I have taken advice from the Science Advisory Council. I have been at pains to analyse all the copious data, much of it conflicting.

"At the moment, the scientific data from the experts, from Defra and from Natural England is that, on balance and in general, in the UK the burning of vegetation on blanket bog moves the bog away from its original wet state, and risks vulnerable peat bog habitats becoming drier and turning into a heathland habitat."

Referring to a column Sir Ian Botham wrote this week in The Telegraph, Conservative MP Sir Edward Leigh said: "The RSPB is a charity. It has to act like a charity and not like a political organisation. It is all very well to argue, ‘Ban the burn’—an emotive phrase, but that is to try to simplify something that is highly complex in reality."

He explained that the issue is more complicated than charities present it, adding: "The royal society makes no distinction between two different things: the controlled burning of heather for wildlife management and the burning of peatland. Shooting requires careful land management that protects the growth and survival of many species of birds. Rural people have spent decades in careful custodianship of the land and the wildlife that lives in it. Despite that, they find themselves the target of RSPB campaigns that would do serious harm to the environment."

Robbie Moore, Conservative MP for Keighley agreed, adding: "As a tool among many, burning plays its part as a conglomerative measure to achieve ecological and conservational benefits. The process of burning small areas of heather removes older growth and allows plants to regenerate and thrive. New heather, mosses and grass shoots follow, and they, along with the new green flushes of new growth, allow plants such as bilberry to grow, which are key to providing food diversification for many animals such as deer and mountain hares.  It is important to note that the golden plover, like many other bird species, is often found nesting at higher densities in areas of recently burned heather.

"Of course, the burnt areas also act as valuable firebreaks, and evidence upon evidence has been put before us that where dead woody undergrowth is allowed to build up, wildfire risk is dramatically increased."

However, it appears ministers will take the side of conservation groups, as both Ms Pow and International Environment Minister Zac Goldsmith have committed to phasing out the activity. 

Some environmental campaigners argue that the ban is not taking place fast enough. Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link said: "There is just a year to go to stop this destructive practice before the COP26 climate talks. Peatlands are the UK’s largest store of carbon, and wonderful habitats for wildlife. As we press other countries to save the rainforests, and safeguard 30 per cent of land and sea for nature, protecting and restoring our peatlands is fundamental to the government’s credibility.” 

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