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Let’s Ban Peatland Burning – Now!

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Olivia Blake

Former Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Member of Parliament for Sheffield Hallam

Former Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Olivia Blake MP details the dangers of peatland burn season for climate change and local habitats across the UK.

Every month during the burn season, people from across Sheffield Hallam write to me about the routine burning of heather on grouse moors in my constituency. The smoke from these burns lingers and can be smelt across my constituency, from Bradfield to Crosspool.

These burns facilitate the grouse shooting industry, an exclusive blood sport that is the preserve of a wealthy few.

In a twin climate and nature emergency, we not only have a moral imperative to ban burning on peatlands but also environmental, ecological and existential imperatives to protect and restore our precious peatlands.

Carbon capture

The UK’s peatlands are internationally significant landscapes and habitats that have a vital role to play in tackling the climate crisis. Despite our relative geographic size, the UK holds a globally significant proportion of the world’s peat: 13% of the world’s blanket bog is within our borders.

Peatbogs are a vital carbon store. In their natural state, peatlands are wetlands that can sequester colossal amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and lock it in the ground. Our peatlands already hold over three billion tonnes of carbon, which is more than all the forests in the UK, France and Germany combined.

Land mismanagement

Unfortunately, rather than serving as the carbon stores they have the capacity to be, our peatlands are spewing out carbon dioxide at a massive scale.

Nationally, 78% are in differing stages of degradation. Our peatlands should be a net carbon sink but continued mismanagement means that our peat bogs are instead, releasing huge quantities of carbon into the atmosphere.

The routine burning to facilitate grouse shooting is making this worse; every year 260,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide are released from burning on peat in England.

The land management involved in preparing moorlands to shoot grouse also makes areas more susceptible to flooding. The city of Doncaster regularly experiences flooding; the most notable recent occurrence was in November 2019, which saw a large proportion of the village of Fishlake submerged by flooding.

Doncaster’s Mayor, Ros Joes, has called for a ban on grouse shooting, as well as the ‘proper restoration of upland peat areas’ to prevent the flooding that has regularly impacted their city.

Damaged or drained peatlands worldwide emit at least 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually
Damaged or drained peatlands worldwide emit at least 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.

Ban the peatland burn

In 2021, I won a concession from Government for more regulation over what burning can take place. Following a Westminster Hall debate I organised on the issue in November 2020, we saw legislation that prevents burning on areas of peat deeper than 40 cm, albeit with several caveats.

However, we need to go much further, much faster. Only 32% of peatland is protected by the rules, despite its international importance and potential for carbon storage. I am concerned that there is still no map of areas of deep peat, which makes it harder to enforce the unambitious laws we already have on burning.

It’s time for a serious ban on burning and to move to restore peatland back to its wet, carbon-capturing best.

Nature restoration

In addition to storing carbon, blanket bog is an amazing habitat that can provide essential environmental benefits. Our peatlands should be home to wonderful wildlife and thriving with biodiversity. Sadly, burnt areas often function as monocultures compared to what should be much more diverse landscapes.

In 2021, I became an RSPB Hen Harrier Species Champion. Hen harriers are one of the most persecuted birds of prey in Britain. They normally nest in heather on open, upland moors. A growing body of evidence suggests that illegal killing, associated with the grouse shooting industry, is the main factor limiting the recovery of hen harrier populations.

I want to see more Parliamentarians working to champion conversation efforts, taking action to restore the natural habitats of our hen harriers and returning these vital landscapes to nature.

Climate justice

While peatland burning might disproportionately impact my constituents day-to-day, having to smell the burning and suffer the air pollution it creates, the wider impact of this environmental mismanagement is the acceleration of the climate and ecological emergency.

As vital carbon stores, and biodiverse habitats, we all have a duty to fight for our peatlands to be protected, preserved and restored at scale.

To watch Olivia Blake MP, Lord Randall and Chris Packham discuss the woodcock petition and conservation of birds, see here.

For further content, see the Chamber UK YouTube channel for insightful discussions.

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