Tory MPs accuse Government of bowing to the RSPB, while the environment minister says the ban will cut Britain’s carbon footprint
By Helena Horton 20 November 2020 • 8:21pm
Grouse shooting has been put under a “sustained attack” after ministers vowed to ban peatland burning, countryside campaigners have claimed.
In the latest blow for fieldsports, ministers have announced that they will ban peatland burning in order to cut Britain’s carbon footprint.
The RSPB has long called for a ban on burning, claiming the practice releases too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and roasts rare lizards alive.
But Tory MPs accused the Government of bowing to the RSPB’s “hatred” of grouse shooting and said the ban would negatively impact the centuries-old sport.
Gamekeepers burn vast swathes of peatland each year in order to encourage green shoots for grouse to feed upon. Each year, 15 per cent of the land on which grouse are shot is burned to create plentiful micro-habitats of heather.
It comes a week after the Government agreed to put law into place which would restrict pheasant shooting across the country by banning their release into protected areas.
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.
Gareth Dockerty, the upland officer for the British Association of Shooting and Conservation, said: “This year there has been a sustained attack against grouse shooting, targeting the use of prescribed burning in our uplands. Their message, ‘ban all burning’. But this idea is flawed and based on cherry-picked research.”
Rebecca Pow, the environment minister, 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: “It is quite clear that the RSPB has long had a campaign, motivated primarily, I suspect, by its hatred of grouse shooting.”
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: “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 Zac Goldsmith, the international environment minister, have committed to phasing out the activity.