Report criticises heather burning on Red Grouse moorland

THE practice of scouring moorland by burning off heather has left many conservation areas in Scotland in a poor condition, a charity has said. A new study by the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science revealed the extent of moorland burning across the country’s upland areas. Burning was detected in 55 per cent of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and 63 per cent of Special Protection Areas (SPAs) assessed in the study, and significantly more burning took place within them than on comparable moorlands outside.

Red Grouse Moor on fire 02 (1 of 1)

Moorland this year ablaze in the Forest of Bowland at exactly the spot where Hen Harriers historically used to breed

These sites are designated under EU legislation for their conservation importance and in Scotland include important habitats for iconic species such as the golden eagles.

Governments are charged with protecting these areas from damage and ensuring that they are restored to the best condition, but burning is carried out by landowners in agreement with with Scottish Natural Heritage

Dr David Douglas, Senior Conservation Scientist at RSPB Scotland and lead author of the study said: “Upland ecosystems are highly sensitive to burning practices.

“Knowing how much burning takes place and where is crucial to developing sustainable land management policies for these precious environments.”

Duncan Orr-Ewing, Head of Species and Land Management at RSPB Scotland said: “The Scottish Government is in the process of reviewing the Muirburn Code, its advice to landowners and farmers in connection with burning practice.
Heather burning in April this year destroys prime habitat one the home of the Hen Harrier now far too short to offer a home for this species.

“As 28 per cent of the current moorland burning in Scotland overlies deep peat , and the Scottish Government has rightly set challenging targets to reduce climate change emissions, it is essential that new burning guidance provides clear direction to sporting interests and farmers as to where burning can be damaging to peatlands and may now be inappropriate.”

The Scottish Moorland Group, part of the Scottish Land & Estates rural lobby group, released a statement in response to the study. It said: “The Scottish Moorland Group has set out the benefits of well managed muirburn – a natural management tool that has been used for centuries and is highly effective.

“By regenerating heather in a mosaic pattern on a 10-25 year rotation, it makes it palatable to sheep and grouse and provides the right mixed habitat for a wide range of upland birds.

“Muirburn is a well tried and tested method of providing that habitat. The process of burning off old rank heather has the added advantage of preventing build-up of woody fuel which is a big factor in out-of-control wildfires, and it also maintains the bright purple landscape so loved by visitors to Scotland by reinvigorating the flowering heads of the plant.

“These are the public benefits arising from a management operation carried out by landowners.”

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