Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Is it time to ban heather burning?

by Andrew Gilruth - @AndrewGilruth 

Today some were quick to seize upon some of the negative findings within a report on heather burning. The University of Leeds looked at the impact on water hydrology. Are they right to leap to swift conclusions? Do we need to immediately ban burning?

The report needs proper review but it looks perfectly sensible - let’s assume all the findings are correct. What next? Bring in a ban tomorrow?

I feel that is a knee jerk reaction.

In the lowlands our farmers are busy ploughing their fields - yet there is plenty of evidence that ploughing causes similar water quality issues… discolouration, siltation etc. We could just as easily rush around saying that ploughing should be banned. We don’t.

We can’t ban ploughing because it is a really important land management tool. Instead a lot of very good work has been done to reduce the impacts by using buffer strips, contour ploughing, rotational ploughing and ways of doing ploughing better so that we get the benefits of ploughing but not the downside.

The truth is we already adopt that mitigation approach with burning. As concerns have been identified they have been addressed. Examples include:

- Avoid the replacement of heather with grasses by not burning in areas of heavy grazing
- Avoid serious damage by only having small ‘cool’ burns
- Avoid erosion by not regularly burning on steep slopes

You can download Natural England's Heather & Grass Burning Code here.

So once the new findings from Leeds have been looked at - the challenge is to find ways of mitigating the impacts. Retaining the ancient practice of carefully burning small areas of heather, as used on nature reserves, is important because:

- Burning rejuvenates the heather and removes the accumulation of woody heather and dead shoots
- Stimulates seed germination and encourages shoot regeneration
- Young heather is nutritionally superior to old heather, having more nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium
- Helps prevent the replacement of heather by other vegetation types
- Patches of different aged heather attracts sheep away from the fringes of heather moorland where overgrazing can occur
- Burning can provide fire breaks and reduce the risk of large scale wild fires

In a European context heather moorland of the sort maintained by grouse shooting is one of the rarest habitat types and enjoys some of the highest conservation designations. These wonderful places only exist because generations of owners have refused huge grants from successive governments to drain them, fence them, plant conifers on them, carpet them with sheep and cover them with roads and tracks. Properly conducted grouse shooting is a force for good in the uplands. It can and must study and learn from research but its demise would be a disaster for the landscape, biodiversity, global warming and many small but locally important rural economies.

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