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The government is failing to protect peatlands in England, conservation groups have warned, with the country at risk of losing more of its most efficient carbon sinks.
Figures obtained by Wildlife and Countryside Link suggest illegal burns of the areas, which are important for biodiversity and carbon sequestration, are likely to have taken place.
Farmers and those who manage grouse moors burn the vegetation on peat in order to provide new shoots of heather or moor grass for sheep or grouse to eat. However, doing so releases carbon and animals that live there are roasted alive.
Government figures for 2021, obtained through freedom of information requests, found that, in England, one large site of 50 hectares (123 acres) was licensed for burning, and there were no licences granted for sites under 10 hectares.
Regulations brought in that year made it illegal to burn deep peat on a protected site without a licence. However, data from Wild Moors and Unearthed released earlier this year suggests that 51 burns took place on land protected by multiple conservation designations in the 2021-22 season. Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) research estimated that 70 burns took place on protected sites. This is despite the fact that the government did not grant licences for at least the majority of these burns, which conservation groups say suggests the regulations were being breached on a significant scale.
Dr Richard Benwell, the chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “Peatlands ought to help the climate, water and wildlife. Instead, many of our peatlands have become heather monocultures that are releasing carbon, reducing water quality, and contributing to flooding.
“Last year, the government insisted that its new regulations to limit burning heather on peatland would be effective, despite a series of loopholes in the legislation. This year, early evidence indicates that the burns continue at a significant scale, both on protected sites and outside them. It will be impossible to meet net zero while the land use sector remains a net emitter. Only by restoring peatland to retain and remove carbon from the atmosphere can we hope to curb our contribution to climate change.
“The government should strengthen its partial burning ban to ensure that these globally important habitats are restored.”
This week, the Climate Change Committee warned that peat restoration rates were well below the levels needed to achieve net zero by 2050, peatland under restoration management actually declined last year, and that damaged peat is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions from land use.
Patrick Thompson, a senior policy officer at RSPB, said: “It’s clear that the new peatland burning regulations in England are not working and that burning is still taking place at a massive scale on peatland vegetation and inside protected sites. We are in a nature and climate emergency. Intensive and damaging land management practices such as burning continue to harm and further threaten these vital carbon and nature-rich ecosystems. This is why the RSPB is calling for a blanket ban of burning on all peat.”