Part of England’s protected peatlands – which the government once described as the country’s “national rainforests” – has been purposefully set on fire in contradiction with a partial ban introduced in 2021.
The UK government said the ban was aimed at protecting the peatlands and helping the country reach its net-zero CO2 target by 2050. The peatlands are England’s largest natural carbon storage system and burning harms their ability to store carbon away from the atmosphere and protect against floods.
Scientists and campaigners, however, criticize the new ban, saying that it is not detailed enough, has loopholes and will be hard to monitor.
Unearthed, an award-winning journalism project that reports on energy and climate change, has set out to investigate the issue with the peatland fires. The journalists developed a methodology that used data from three satellite services to discover evidence of the fires.
They found 251 burning incidents between Oct. 1, 2021 and April 15, 2022, 51 of which were unlicensed and on protected land. Over 40 of the burning incidents happened on blanket bog – or an area of peatland where there is lots of rainfall.
This is the habitat the legislation is most designed to protect, according to the UK government. It is believed the fires are caused to encourage the growth of the fresh young shoots of heather on which grouse like to feed – grouses that will later be killed by shooting parties.
“We are aware of third-party reports that allege breaches of the Heather & Grass Burning Regulations (2021),” said a spokesperson for the Moorland Association, which represents grouse moor owners. “We welcome Unearthed passing its information to the regulator and if, after proper assessment, Defra and/or Natural England feel it is appropriate to follow up with any of our members, they will cooperate fully and help with any queries.”
She added that: “In the meantime, our members follow best practice guidance to comply with their restoration and management plans, like checking peat depth and cutting fire breaks before undertaking management activities.”
Peatlands play an important carbon sequestration role. They absorb over 20% of the carbon dioxide that causes global warming, while only amounting to 1% of the Earth’s surface. According to scientists, wetlands are also five times more effective than forests and 500 times more effective than oceans in storing CO2 per square meter.
Organizations, such as the Luggala Estate Limited in Ireland have set out to restore peatlands. Luggala’s project aims to restore 1,300 hectares of peatland and 150 hectares of blanket bog.
The burning of precious carbon sinks like peatlands is a practice that entirely clashes with all restoration efforts of the UK government and organizations to increase carbon dioxide removal and fight climate change. Such natural habitats need to be fully protected so their natural cycle and carbon losses are restored.