Heather and Grass etc. Burning (England) Regulations 2021 - Motion to Regret

– in the House of Lords at 4:50 pm on 18th March 2021.

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Baroness Jones of Whitchurch:

Moved by Baroness Jones of Whitchurch

That this House regrets that the Heather and Grass etc. Burning (England) Regulations 2021 (SI 2021/158) do not provide a basis for significantly reducing the amount of peatland burning that occurs in England, in part because the restrictions extend only to certain areas of deep peat; notes that while there are appropriate uses of peat burning, the protection of peatland ecosystems should be prioritised to provide a haven for wildlife, the safe storage of carbon, and the prevention of natural catastrophes such as flooding and wildfires; and therefore calls on Her Majesty’s Government to reconsider its approach to restricting the burning of peatland ahead of the season’s commencement on 1 October.

Relevant document: 48th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (special attention drawn to the instrument)

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, I am moving this Motion to Regret over the Government’s so far inadequate response to restoring our historic and precious blanket bog wetlands to their original native state, thereby improving conservation and reaping the huge benefits that could have been brought to achieving our net-zero climate change targets. As such, we contend that the SI should be reconsidered and strengthened, on the grounds that it does not achieve its stated policy objectives.

I thank the RSPB and Wildlife and Countryside Link for their helpful briefings on these issues. Our arguments have been strengthened by the report of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, and today by the report of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, which has reported the SI as requiring elucidation, as well as for defective drafting.

I will first say something about the broader issues raised by this SI. We are blessed in the UK with 13% of the world’s blanket bog. It is hugely important to our ecosystem, attracting important species, such as golden plovers and sundew plants, as well as nurturing the development of sphagnum moss species. However, as the Explanatory Memorandum points out, much of it has been degraded and is in a poor state, with less than 12% in a near natural state. It is a threatened habitat, which is why the Government, under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations, have a responsibility to protect this habitat type and return it to a favourable conservation status.

In the UK, we are fortunate to have a particularly rich level of peat, which stores some 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon and can offset our carbon emissions to help us meet our climate change obligations. Sadly, this crucial natural resource is being eroded by habitat encroachment, artificial drainage, the excavation of peat for horticulture and, most damagingly, the burning of peatlands. This is primarily carried out to create better conditions for breeding grouse for the shooting industry. Regrettably, this has a reverse effect on its role as a carbon store, releasing around 260,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each year.

It is now widely accepted that action to control peat burning is necessary. The Committee on Climate Change, in its report on land use in January last year, said:

“Burning heather promotes young shoots, which grouse feed on, but it is highly damaging to the peat, and to the range of environmental benefits that well-functioning peat can deliver (e.g. water quality, biodiversity and carbon sequestration). A voluntary cessation of this activity by landowners has not produced the desired outcome so the practice should be banned across the UK with immediate effect.”

In their 25-year environment plan, published in January 2018, the Government promised

“a new ambitious framework for peat restoration in England.”

They committed to publishing an England peat strategy later in 2018, and to delivering it, so, we might ask, where is that strategy? It is already nearly four years since the proposal first appeared in the 25-year environment plan, and as we know, even a strategy is no guarantee of action.

This brings me to the specific wording of the SI. I am grateful to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for drawing it to the attention of the House. In particular, the committee points out that much of the detail of how licences to burn will be granted will be set out in guidance, which gives the Secretary of State huge discretion in implementation before the start of the burning season on 1 October.

The committee also points out that the department should have been much clearer about the size of the areas of peatland that will be affected by a ban, on which the SI is hugely constrained. It only applies to upland peat in sites of special scientific interest, special areas of conservation or special protection areas. As Wildlife and Countryside Link has calculated, this equates only to about 109,000 hectares in England out of a total of 355,000 hectares. This is a maximum of 30% of the total of upland peat.

The scope of the ban is further limited by the series of exemptions which would allow burning to continue, for example: for conservation, enhancement or management of the natural environment; to reduce the risk of wildfire; or because the land is rocky or on a slope. The end-result of these exemptions is that, in large swathes of upland blanket bog, burning will take place much as before. We will also miss a golden opportunity to expand the use of blanket bogs to mitigate flood risk and improve water quality.

Turning to the arguments around wildfires, I believe that we are in danger of making the wrong link between cause and effect. Burning is only done to regrow the easily flammable heather vegetation. When you burn it, you get locked into an ever-smaller cycle of the heather growing back quicker and thicker. Ultimately, the most effective way to address the threat of wildfires is not to allow localised burning but to return the landscape to a state less like moorland and more like actual bog, full of muddy pools of water, which clearly do not catch fire. We should also acknowledge that most wildfires in the UK are not spontaneous but caused by accident or thoughtlessness on the part of the public or, indeed, arson. And controlled burns in themselves can become out-of-control wildfires.

Finally, I shall address the concerns about the need for greater scientific research into the management of peatlands. Anyone reading the Committee on Climate Change report will see that its recommendations are absolutely predicated on the latest national and international science. Furthermore, the recent report from Natural England, which has once again reviewed the latest science, concluded that burning on upland peatland had a largely negative impact on the flora, fauna, carbon and water. In response to an Oral Question on 14 October, the Minister said Defra had kept abreast of all the latest scientific evidence, and

“overall, the evidence shows that the burning on blanket bog is detrimental as it moves the bog away from its original wet state and risks vulnerable peat bogs being converted to drier heathland habitat.”—[Official Report, 14/10/20; col. 1087.]

We agree with this analysis, which I hope gives noble Lords some comfort.

I know the Minister cares about these issues; I hope he will listen to our concerns about the limitations of this SI and accept the need to revisit it. I also hope that he is able to address the specific concerns of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee and the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. If he is unable to give the reassurance that we seek, I give notice that I am minded to test the opinion of the House on this issue. I look forward to his response.

Photo of Baroness Sheehan Baroness Sheehan Liberal Democrat 4:59 pm, 18th March 2021

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, for tabling this regret Motion and moving it so effectively. At the same time, I regret the way important legislation is being rushed through half-baked. Thank goodness that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments is not similarly constrained to two minutes. It has rightly condemned this SI for defective drafting. I also thank the Wildlife and Countryside Link for its invaluable work in helping to draw out the elucidation needed to make sense of this SI.

My contribution will concentrate on the mismatch between the Government’s words and their deeds. I shall leave it to other contributors to query the wisdom of making legislation before thinking through the guidance that will inform it.

I welcome the inclusion of nature-based solutions in tackling the climate emergency as one of the five themes of COP 26. However, it begs the question: why make an SI to protect peatlands that leaves 60% unprotected? Does the Minister accept that the optics of justifying this on the grounds of “jam tomorrow” are poor?

Secondly, the Minister has said that

“the UK will use our presidency of COP 26 to persuade other countries to put nature at the heart of their climate response.”

How can those words be reconciled with the inevitable live-time pictures of burning peatland during the November peak burning season that will surely, as night follows day, accompany them during COP 26?

Lastly, will the Minister restate the Government’s response to the Wildlife and Countryside Link’s first briefing, which states that,

“exemptions from the prohibition of burning in protected areas should only apply when burning can be shown to be part of either a restoration plan or wildfire management plan.”

Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Conservative 5:01 pm, 18th March 2021

My Lords, I declare my family’s interest in managing an area of blanket bog in Scotland which is now in a peat restoration programme.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, on the need for more research, but I am afraid I do not agree with some of her other points. The guarded tone of this measure is appropriate but, as the noble Baroness said, until the promised guidance is issued, it cannot be of much comfort.

In high rainfall areas, such as the one in which I live, any burning is totally site-specific and governed by the wind and weather on the day in question. Given all this trouble, it is easy to wonder why we should bother with burning.

By way of illustration, on National Trust land on the Isle of Arran, near my home, an ecologically oriented policy of no burning was adopted for a number of years, until someone on a day out dropped a match, which resulted in a fire which burned for two or three days.

There have been commercial incentives for installing fire breaks. If these activities are being limited, the guidance will have to consider what incentives there will be for this necessary work. My experience with blanket bog is that, provided a controlled fire is handled in the right way, it will consume the surface vegetation and only scorch the waterlogged peat moss, thus sparing the peat. It is a very exact science. Licensing will have to take account of all this practical experience. So I give this measure only a guarded welcome until we have more detail.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

The noble Lord, Lord Botham, is not participating in this debate, so I call the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth.

Photo of Lord Knight of Weymouth Lord Knight of Weymouth Labour 5:03 pm, 18th March 2021

My Lords, first I want to thank and congratulate my noble friend Lady Jones on ensuring we have this important opportunity to question the Minister on these flawed regulations.

We have already heard that the main problems with this SI, beyond its drafting, are that it is limited in scope to only 40% of upland peat in England and that it is also undermined by loosely worded exemptions, so that the protection for the 40% can be revoked by licence, with little clarity on how exemptions from the prohibition on burning would apply.

I would like to use my limited time to ask the Minister a few questions. First, given that 86% of our upland peat is currently classed as being in poor condition, how will Defra measure the impact of these regulations in correcting this problem for these globally rare ecosystems? Secondly, does the Minister agree with the RSPB that the only long-term way to reduce the risk of wildfires is to re-wet and restore peat to its natural “boggy” state? If so, how will burning heather help that process? Thirdly, how will the department measure whether these regulations reduce burning—the stated policy intent—and will he ensure that data is published to Parliament on an annual basis on that progress? Finally, will he resist vested interests who resist a ban on rotational burning, and agree with the 60% of the British public who want a burning ban on all of England’s peatland?

These are deeply flawed regulations. I look forward to the Minister’s answers and strongly support the noble Baroness’s Motion.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative 5:05 pm, 18th March 2021

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, about where she wants to get to, but I think that her regret Motion is like driving down the wrong side of a motorway.

The regret Motion talks about peatland, but the statutory instrument does not even mention it. Peatland is not defined anywhere, but what definitions one can find of it do include peat. Nobody is talking about burning peat; they are talking only about the vegetation on top of the peat.

The regret Motion goes on to say that peatland should be “a haven for wildlife”. It can be a haven for wildlife only if it is properly managed. I have lived on blanket bog, or beside blanket bog, for many years in my life, and the best biodiversity was found on the managed peatlands.

My main concern is wildfires. One can talk about the amount of carbon that is produced from cool burns—managed burns—on hillsides, but they produce about 1% to 5% of the carbon emissions from peatlands; 95% of the carbon emissions come from lowland peat, which is not covered by this statutory instrument.

I want to talk about the Flow Country in Caithness and Sutherland, which is the biggest blanket bog in Europe. In 2019, there was a fire there. Every day that fire burned, and it burned for six days, it doubled the amount of Scotland’s CO2 emissions—700,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent—because it got out of control. With climate change advancing, we need to manage peat so that we minimise the chance of any fire spreading.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat 5:07 pm, 18th March 2021

My Lords, where I live, we are surrounded by moors. I would describe them as peat moors; a lot of them are heather moors and a lot are grass moors. Every year, there are fires on them. Some of them are managed fires on the grouse-shooting estates. Others are unmanaged fires caused by people who accidentally drop cigarette ends, or whatever, or have barbeques. It is not quite central to this statutory instrument, but I have asked questions of the Government previously about banning people from having barbeques on open country of this kind. The answer I get is that it is up to local authorities. The problem is that many of these moors are, by definition, the places where local authority boundaries are drawn, because they are up on the hills and the tops between the valleys, and getting local authorities together to organise jointly on this is not easy. I will just make that point.

The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has written a pretty damning report on the SI that has been presented. I think it is another example of how regrettable it is, with the way that parliamentary business is being organised at the moment, that there has not been the opportunity or the time available for the Government and the Joint Committee to discuss it and negotiate properly in the way in which it always happened in the past. We are told by the Government that they do not agree with it; the department says that it does not agree with it. That is not satisfactory—they should be having a discussion, getting together and sorting it out before it comes here. It is very unsatisfactory for us to have a statutory instrument where the JCSI is basically saying, “Don’t pass it”.

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench 5:10 pm, 18th March 2021

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for tabling this regret Motion. I wonder what proportion of the population knows that, globally, peat holds twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests, and that peatlands, not forests, are the UK’s biggest carbon sink? I certainly did not until this week.

We understand from Bill Gates that the entire world emits 51 billion tonnes of CO2 each year, and this number needs to drop to zero by 2050 to prevent catastrophe. This helps us put the contribution of peat in perspective, in my view. We should surely treasure the fact that the UK’s peatlands store around 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon. While reducing CO2 emissions in the production of steel, plastics and cement will involve vast investments in new technologies, all we have to do with our peat is to leave it alone. As the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, said, it needs very careful precision work to burn the surface and not burn the peat.

At this point, I must acknowledge the Government’s regulations which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, has explained, do go a little way to reduce peat burning—but why is the scope of the regulatory controls so very limited? Can the Minister tell the House whether the Government have come under pressure from the grouse-shooting industry or, indeed, from landowners, to limit the controls over peat burning? I hope the Minister will respond to that question.

The very informative briefing from Wildlife and Countryside Link makes the interesting connection between peat burning and cars, suggesting that removing upland peatland burning would be as beneficial in tackling CO2 levels as removing 175,000 cars from the road. Link also gave us evidence of the strong public support for a peat-burning ban, with 60% support and only 3% against. I very much support the two amendments to the regulations proposed by Link: first, that the restriction of the controls over peat burning to SSSIs, SACs or SPIs should be dropped; and, secondly, that the exemptions within those areas should be tightened to ensure that peat burning really is limited to that absolutely necessary for safety purposes. If the Government will accept those amendments, I would welcome the regulations as a very helpful step forward.

Photo of Baroness Mallalieu Baroness Mallalieu Labour 5:12 pm, 18th March 2021

My Lords, I am sorry that I am unable to support my noble friend Lady Jones. The Government have been caught in the middle between those who want all rotational burning stopped and those who believe that no additional restrictions are necessary or supported by the most recent research, and I think they have produced a not unreasonable compromise.

I will offer a caution: living in Exmoor national park, I have seen the adverse consequences of the over-restriction of rotational burning. Swaling, as we call it, has been used since medieval times over large areas of moorland to encourage the growth of young heather and grasses to the benefit of grazing animals, both domestic and wild, and evidence shows that curlews and golden plover benefit from it too—not grouse, because there are none. In the 1980s, SSSIs and stricter controls on both the timing and extent of the burns were introduced. It is now clear that the amount of burning that took place afterwards was wholly insufficient.

Heather needs to be cleared, ideally every 20 years or so. If not, as we have seen, there are large expanses of over-mature plants, a lot of them dead or dying. Heather and mosses have now dramatically declined in some areas, and instead Molinia grass, bracken, gorse and scrub have taken over. So have ticks, Lyme disease and tick-borne diseases of livestock. There have also been damaging wildfires, which, unlike carefully controlled and limited swaling, are not superficial but burn hot and deep, with very serious carbon-loss consequences. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, pointed to the major one in Scotland.

There is plenty of peat on Exmoor but no blanket bog, so these regulations will not affect us, but calls for further restrictions may well. On the evidence I have seen, the consequences would not be good for wildlife, carbon capture or those who love the heather-clad moors.

Photo of Viscount Ridley Viscount Ridley Conservative 5:14 pm, 18th March 2021

My Lords, I declare my interest as president of the Moorland Association and as the owner of moorland in County Durham. I shall address the issue of emissions. There is good scientific reason to think that the SI to restrict burning might actually increase net CO2 emissions—some noble Lords may vote this evening to regret that possibility—and here is why: cool heather burning generates only a very small percentage of the emissions from heather moorland, as we have heard, and it enhances the sequestration of carbon. Recent scientific research by the University of York has revealed that, if you cut heather, it releases high levels of CO2 as it rots. By contrast, burning turns some of it into inner charcoal, which does not rot but remains in the ground for many decades. More importantly, heather burning prevents the shading out of sphagnum mosses, which are by far the largest sequestrators of carbon in blanket bogs. This has been demonstrated by experiments, but it is also obvious to anybody who has spent time examining the vegetation on moorland.

I ask my noble friends, and I also ask the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, to recognise the fact that grouse moor managers have already delivered 25% of the Government’s 2025 peatland restoration target for the whole of England. They have blocked 4,000 miles of drains over 20 years and restored at least 66,000 acres of bare peat. This work is saving 60,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. Peat restoration partnerships are an effective example of stakeholders working together. Blocking agricultural drains resulted in the North Pennines area of outstanding natural beauty peatland programme being award the climate change award at the Durham Environment Awards 2015. Its management plan recognised that sound grouse moor management can contribute significantly to the conservation and enhancement of natural beauty. So will the Minister agree to keep the science under review, so we can find out whether this burning restriction actually increases emissions from peatland, as is entirely possible?

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, is not participating in this debate, so I call the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw.

Photo of Lord Bradshaw Lord Bradshaw Liberal Democrat 5:16 pm, 18th March 2021

Peat is an extremely valuable resource in terms of carbon, as has been noted by several other noble Lords. I ask the Minister, although it is not strictly in accordance with these regulations, what are the Government doing to prevent so much peat being used in horticulture? There is no doubt that much of our peat reserves are being used in that respect. I have a fairly open mind on the question of whether peat burning is a good thing or not, but I too would like to see further scientific evidence to prove what the best thing is.

Photo of Lord Mancroft Lord Mancroft Conservative 5:17 pm, 18th March 2021

My Lords, the Uplands Partnership, which comprises leading countryside organisations, has produced Peatland Protection the Science: four key reports that collate the latest scientific findings. This dossier is highly significant in that it strongly recommends that any policy discussions should take cognisance of the latest research. In summary, the findings indicate that, first, heather burning can have a positive effect on carbon capture and, secondly, that burning does not cause water discolouration. Environmentally important sphagnum moss recovers quickly from low-severity cool burning. The loss of controlled burning in the United States led to a severe decline in birdlife and an increase in damaging wildfires. Greenhouse gas emissions from controlled burning are relatively insignificant compared with emissions from wildlife, or indeed severely degraded lowland peatlands used for agriculture.

It is true that the evidence is uncertain on these questions, which is why continued research is vital. The studies on which Natural England has relied are mostly short-term studies, and they do not give the full picture. Longer-term studies by Andreas Heinemeyer at York University point to very different results. Will the Minister confirm that an exemption must be made to allow these studies to continue? Will he further comment on the extreme reluctance of Natural England to revisit the science on this question, which is now very out of date? A review of research from 2013 to 2020, carried out by respected independent scientists, has now found that the conclusions of the previous science are out of date and could not be regarded as a safe basis for policy-making today. This is particularly important given that the Government are currently developing a strategy for peatland.

Photo of Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Non-affiliated 5:19 pm, 18th March 2021

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, on tabling the Motion because the new regulations will not adequately protect peatland or reduce UK carbon emissions through a partial ban. There is a definite need for action to control peat burning, which is required as a matter of priority. That fact has been raised by the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee as well as the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

Further to that, Wildlife and Countryside Link has been particularly instructive in relation to this issue. It believes that this statutory instrument will not achieve its policy objectives of protecting upland peat habitats from the impact of burning; that it is limited in its scope in terms of partial burning and only on designated sites; that the SI is undermined by loosely-worded exemptions; and that the SI’s weaknesses undermine the Government’s advocacy of nature-based solutions to climate change. We cannot be a champion of nature-based solutions to climate change while at the same time allowing our nature carbon store to be burned.

There is strong public support, around 60%, for a comprehensive ban, because the public recognise the importance and value of upland peat. They wish to see its potential as a nature-based solution to climate change realised, and they support a comprehensive burning ban to deliver that. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that this legislation is reworked and that he comes back to your Lordships’ House with a new statutory instrument with a comprehensive ban?

Photo of Lord Robathan Lord Robathan Conservative 5:22 pm, 18th March 2021

My Lords, I declare that I do not have an interest because, sadly, I do not own a grouse moor. It seems to me that the Motion is prompted more by an antipathy towards grouse shooting than by care for biodiversity. Nearly two years ago a university friend of mine, who is a parish priest in a rather challenging part of Bradford, asked me to join him on the Pennine Way. We walked for three days from Marsden Moor to Malham across a lot of peat moorland. We saw golden plover and redshanks and, at some stages, fabulous numbers of curlew and lapwing. Where we saw them, there were no crows, because if there were any crows then there were no curlew or lapwing. That is because where there is predator control, on keepered moors, wildlife flourishes. If noble Lords do not believe me, they should go to see for themselves.

The same applies to heather burning. Controlled heather burning lets invertebrates and, indeed, plants flourish. It was a very dry spring. When we were walking, there had just been the most terrible fire at Marsden; seven square kilometres had been destroyed on Marsden Moor. Ilkley Moor nearby was burning and was being devastated as we walked.

Those severe fires in dry weather, burning into the peat and getting it burning, were very difficult to put out. However, they were not started by cool heather burning: Marsden was started by a discarded barbecue and Ilkley by arson. Wildfires spread especially in dry, old, shrubby heather, which controlled cool burning gets rid of. How many controlled fires have been undertaken by keepers or estates and got out of control in the past 10 years, and how many acres of peat were thereby destroyed? At the same time, how many wildfires on moorland have there been, started either by arson or by accident, and how many acres of peatland were thereby destroyed?

I would like to see what exactly the problem is that the regulations seek to address. If, in reality, arson and wanton carelessness are the causes of the destruction of peat moorland, surely we should be looking at them rather than at controlled cool burning.

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon Conservative 5:24 pm, 18th March 2021

I refer noble Lords to my entry in the register. As Environment Minister, I was often berated by upland managers who complained that they were being prevented from rewetting their moorland—but then, their mantra was “The wetter the better”—and there was much frustration with Natural England at the time about how long it took to get permission to block grips and drains. Therefore, I do not recognise this idea that upland managers are somehow trying to dry out their moorland.

The areas of upland that we are talking about are, by and large, extraordinarily rich in biodiversity. Indeed, many of them are exceeding their biodiversity action plan targets by huge margins. The area where managed cool burns take place are almost the only places where one can go to see proper populations of rare curlew and other waders, as has been proved by research carried out by Fletcher et al.

The message has to be that we do not want to get this wrong; it is too important. Upland managers would be offended to see this regret Motion mention peat burning. The only peat that is burned is from the 32,000 wildfires that we have every year, some of which get into the peat, as we have heard, doing huge damage. That damage could be exacerbated by a ban that allowed fuel loads to increase and the increasing risk of devastating wildfires through climate change. Fire and rescue services need to be listened to here.

As with so many issues, the science is varied and there is certainly increasing evidence of the value of cool burning for the restoration, protection and enhancement of upland peat. The truth is that neither side is entirely happy on this matter, which could mean that the Government might be getting it about right. I was pleased to hear the RSPB say earlier in the week that the UK was edging towards being a world leader in restoring upland peatlands. That is welcome news but if there were to be a blanket ban on any burning, we would lose the mosaic of natural habitats that are so necessary to the biodiversity of these precious landscapes and seriously put at risk many hectares of uplands to wildfires that will release vast amounts of carbon.

Photo of Lord Krebs Lord Krebs Chair, Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee, Chair, Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee 5:26 pm, 18th March 2021

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, for bringing forward this Motion, which I support. I will not repeat what other noble Lords have said about the ecosystem services provided by upland peat, such as flood protection, water purification and carbon storage, as well as its importance for rare species such as sphagnum imbricatum.

We are all critical of Brazil’s burning of the Amazon, but we are doing something similar to one of our most precious habitats of global importance. As other noble Lords have said, nearly all our upland peat bog has been damaged or destroyed by a combination of burning, overgrazing, drainage and pollution. The Climate Change Committee concludes that climate change will increase the rate of degradation and carbon loss from peat bogs and that only by restoring them to good condition now will we be able to benefit from their ecosystem services in the future.

Can the Minister say whether the proposed regulations follow the Climate Change Committee’s advice and, if not, why not? Some noble Lords have argued that burning is actually good for carbon storage. There is, indeed, dispute about the precise effects. I do not have time to go into the literature but let me quote Professor Peter Smith of Aberdeen University, arguably the UK’s leading expert on soil carbon. He states:

“While there might be some merit in the suggestions that peatland burning could lead to a longer term carbon storage, we know that peatland burning does lead to additional carbon release now. At a time when we should be focused on restoring peatlands to help meet our net zero by 2050 climate change targets, allowing peatland burning does not seem very compatible from a climate change perspective.”

Does the Minister agree with Professor Smith?

Photo of Lord Marland Lord Marland Conservative 5:28 pm, 18th March 2021

My Lords, I am afraid that we are in danger of armchair meddling in an ancient tradition that is of benefit to our countryside. This is part of a continued onslaught on rural Britain and its management. It is not as if we are not living in a green and pleasant land. As my noble friend Lord Ridley says, many initiatives are taking place to maintain the ecosystem that is upland moorland.

The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, clearly enunciates the cost if we do not continue this type of activity and what happens to flora and fauna if they are not managed properly by burning. I ask my noble friend the Minister to update the research, which is changing the whole time, and work further with the Moorland Association, which, after all, has greater knowledge of these matters than most in coming up with a pathway for the benefit of all concerned.

Photo of The Earl of Shrewsbury The Earl of Shrewsbury Conservative 5:29 pm, 18th March 2021

My Lords, I refer noble Lords to my entry in the register. I am also a member of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust and the APPG.

Burning benefits many rare species. The mosaic of high and low vegetation that it creates, with mosses, grasses, rushes and flowers thriving alongside heather, is a much richer habitat than wall-to-wall heather. Curlew and golden plover benefit especially from this form of habitat management. So do red grouse, Britain’s most unique bird and a huge conservation success story in only those areas where grouse shooting occurs.

The Eurasian curlew is the bird of greatest conservation concern in the United Kingdom because its international stronghold is the British Isles. One-quarter of all the world’s population breeds in this country. Its stronghold in the British Isles is grouse-moors. It has become very scarce in the meadows and pastures of southern England, and in the hills of Wales, Devon and the English Lake District. Despite heroic efforts, the number of pairs of breeding curlews in the RSPB’s reserve at Lake Vyrnwy in Wales went from three in 2003 to—guess what?—three in 2015. In other parts of Wales, after management for grouse ceased, golden plover numbers fell by 90%; curlew, by 79%; black grouse, by 78%; and lapwing, by 100%. These are scientific facts.

Curlew, redshank, lapwing and golden plover live at five times the density on managed grouse-moors as on unmanaged moorland, and have three times the breeding success. Over the past 20 years, merlin numbers have doubled on grouse-moors, while halving elsewhere. In 2020, there were 19 successful hen harrier nests in England, 12 of which were on managed grouse-moors. Some 60 chicks fledged—a number not seen for at least a century. I welcome these regulations; they are a sensible compromise.

Photo of Lord Cameron of Dillington Lord Cameron of Dillington Crossbench 5:31 pm, 18th March 2021

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the UKCEH and a lowland farmer. No one is trying to burn peat. Fire prevention in peat is, in fact, an objective of a cool burn. On a managed burn, the fire skims across the vegetation, not affecting the winter sodden peat. Cool burns happen every 15 to 25 years, creating a mosaic of localised firebreaks and habitats for golden plover, grouse, curlew, black cocks, ptarmigan, lapwing et cetera —all incredibly important species.

Where the cool burn is recent, chicks scratch at seeds and invertebrates encouraged by the burn, then regrowing heather, mosses and sedges provide more seeds and crane flies. Adjacent to that, you have mature heather providing weather protection for all. However, one thing to avoid is miles of two-foot-high leggy heather, in which biodiversity is limited and summer fires can explode.

Meanwhile, the research is pretty contradictory. In spite of the biodiversity benefits, you get a release of carbon in a cool burn, but some believe that this is neutralised by reinvigorated growth over the following seasons. Others say that, over the years, there has been a gradual loss of carbon. More long-term research is needed. Meanwhile, is the alternative of mowed heather better for biodiversity and firebreaks or not? Again, research is needed. Most importantly, we need more accurate data on the current condition of all our upland peatlands as a template for the future—namely, how extensive they are, how deep and what sort of condition they are in. Every site will be different.

One thing is sure: one out-of-control summer fire, where the peat itself burns for days, is more damaging to our environment and climate than anything else we can do. We must not let that happen by producing simple answers to a complex problem.

Photo of Viscount Trenchard Viscount Trenchard Conservative 5:33 pm, 18th March 2021

My Lords, the regret Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, is factually wrong. I am surprised that she was allowed to table it because the statutory instrument does not relate to peat burning; it relates to the rotational burning of heather and grass. This is not a trivial point. The Motion talks about “peatland burning” and “peat burning”. It seems to be a deliberate attempt to mislead the House. I trust that your Lordships will reject such an inaccurate and loaded Motion.

The distinction between heather and peat burning is crucial. Heather burning is carried out, among other purposes, to protect peat from being burned. It significantly reduces the risk of wildfires and is the best way to maximise biodiversity, from insects to reptiles and mammals to birds, by providing the full range of habitats that they require. The cool burning of heather, done in winter, does not significantly affect the moss and litter layer beneath the heather, as shown by the Mars bar test.

The new regulations have already led to an increase in cutting, as a substitute for burning, in large areas of blanket-bog moorland, in anticipation of their coming into force. Aside from the fact that cutting is not possible on rocky or steep ground, it is a less effective method of ensuring renewed, healthy heather and grass growth. The brush left behind is a wildfire risk, and other unintended consequences include the fact that, as it rots, it releases high levels of carbon dioxide and phosphorus—as shown by the recent research by the University of York, referred to by my noble friend Lord Ridley. High phosphorous loading in reservoirs can lead to toxic algal blooms and taste and odour problems in drinking water. At least the statutory instrument allows some sensible and pragmatic exceptions to the new restrictions.

I look forward to the Minister’s reply to this debate.

Photo of Lord Berkeley of Knighton Lord Berkeley of Knighton Crossbench 5:35 pm, 18th March 2021

My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, made some interesting points there. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, told us that 13% of the world’s blanket bogs are here in the UK. That is a pretty amazing figure, given how relatively small that area is in this country. As such, it is clearly important that we have this debate and consider the dangers of burning.

Living on a farm surrounded by a shoot, I want to argue for an alliance between ecologists and landowners; I think that it is possible. For centuries, farmers here have burned or laid low bracken and areas like that to help the wildlife we have been hearing about to prosper. I draw particular attention to the comments of the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, and the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, because we need information from people who have direct experience. Let us not forget that, biblically, fire purifies and can allow plants to grow. I have seen extraordinary examples of that in Australia.

I have taken from this interesting debate the fact that, if we can agree to limit—and somehow do so —surface material to protect the peat bog, we should be able to make progress. I encourage the Minister, who cares passionately about these matters, to see whether he can draw these two sides together in that way. I wish him the best of British luck.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

I call the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich. Lord McColl? We can see you, but, regrettably, we cannot hear you. We will move on to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 5:38 pm, 18th March 2021

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for this Motion, but I begin my two minutes by regretting that it is only a Motion to Regret. This House should be acting like an old-fashioned movie schoolmaster—that is, theatrically tearing up the Government’s homework, throwing it back in their face and saying, “Do it again, and do a proper job this time”.

This statutory instrument is a tiny nod to the public desire to end the disastrous management of land for driven grouse shooting. It is clear that, behind closed doors, the Government are still sitting around in comfortable armchairs, whisky glasses in hand, guffawing loudly and toasting their shooting mates—which, of course, means toasting themselves.

A few benefit from this land management; the rest of us, in the UK and around the world, pay. Whichever way you turn, as on any moor in the Peak District National Park, there is destruction. Look north, and this statutory instrument shows just how little this Government actually gets that this is a climate emergency: they are prepared to allow the driven grouse shooting industry to set fire to the planet—literally. Some say, “Oh, it’s protecting 40% of upland peatlands”. Yes, but it is leaving 60%, or 213,000 hectares, for the shooting industry’s convenience.

Look south, and the regulation means that, in one of the worst countries for nature on this planet, many millions more mammals, reptiles and insects will die a fiery death so that—the industry hopes—there will be a few more grouse to lumber before the guns on the Inglorious Twelfth.

Look east, and this regulation shows utter contempt for the people who have to live nearby and suffer the air pollution in a country where tens of thousands of people die prematurely every year as a result of it. Look west, and the employment in ecotourism and biodiversity management that could come from flourishing uplands, soaring eagles and dancing hen harriers is denied to communities that desperately need it by a criminal industry linked to the illegal slaughter of raptors.

Our Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee describes this regulation as confusing and “difficult to assess”. That is obviously deliberate. This is a disgraceful abdication of government responsibility and the obfuscation demonstrates that the Government know it.

Photo of Lord Randall of Uxbridge Lord Randall of Uxbridge Conservative 5:40 pm, 18th March 2021

My Lords, I declare my interest as a council member of the RSPB as well as my other environmental interests. These regulations have been a rather long time in coming forward. Without seeming to be too mealy-mouthed, quite frankly, they are disappointing, to say the least. I welcome them as far as they go, but they needed to be more wide-ranging. As my noble friend Lord Benyon said, the real answer to this is to ensure that the wetlands are restored to their wet state. Wetting will reduce heather growth and increase sphagnum growth. Increased wetting will also reduce the effect of wildfires. My disappointment with these restrictions is that they extend to a very limited number of areas only and even then there are potential exclusions from the banning of burning. Blanket bogs are an incredible natural ecosystem, as I think we all agree. They must be restored to their natural state. I fear we cannot do this with such a limited designation. If this ban is justifiable on SSSIs because it is beneficial, why not elsewhere?

Several noble Lords have mentioned that burning helps with the breeding success of wildlife, notably waders. However, I believe that such success is more a result of active predator control in those areas, as my noble friend Lord Robathan, observed. When it is done legally I have no great objection to it, but what I have a huge objection to is the totally illegal persecution of birds of prey which is more akin to the Victorian era, but those practices are still prevalent in pockets of our uplands. I add that those practices besmirch the reputation of the many gamekeepers who do not flout the law and manage the countryside well.

Finally, I say to those who use the burning of our precious peatlands in order to maximise the number of red grouse to shoot that I have visited uplands in Norway where such burning does not occur and which sustain healthy populations of willow grouse, which, as many noble Lords will know, is the same species as the red grouse. However, this debate should not be a dispute between those for and against grouse shooting. We need more concerted efforts to restore our blanket bogs. I do not take any pleasure in saying that if the noble Baroness pushes her Motion to a vote, I will join her in regretting that these regulations are inadequate and confusing. We should be doing far more.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative 5:43 pm, 18th March 2021

My Lords, I join my noble friend the Duke of Montrose in suggesting that it is difficult to welcome regulations when so much of the detail is in the guidance, of which we have not had sight. It would have been helpful if the guidance could have been published at the same time as the regulations so we could see how they applied.

My starting point is the fact that it takes 200 years to create a peat bog. It is obviously a cause of celebration that the UK has 13% of the world’s blanket bog and that 40% of England’s deep peat reserve is made up of blanket bog. North Yorkshire has made its contribution to creating a new peat bog when we had the Pickering “slow the flow” pilot scheme, which included, among other measures, creating dams and mini bunds, planting trees to soak up water where appropriate and creating a peat bog.

I think the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, has raised some valid points but part of the reason that I will not be supporting her Motion today is that a lot of her concerns will be addressed in the guidance, one would hope. It is important to note that burning will take place only during the burning season, from 1 October to 15 April, which is the wettest time of the year in my experience. It is very seldom that we have a drought during that time. There are powers with Natural England to take action for future events—which I realise is after the event—through Regulations 6 and 7 if a party breaches the terms of the regulations. With those provisos, I am prepared to accept the regulations before us this afternoon. It is a cautionary message to the wise that we should have the guidance at the same time as the regulations are before us.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 5:45 pm, 18th March 2021

My Lords, this is a very emotive subject and one that often generates contradictions. The subject of the SI is the licensing of heather burning on moors which are within an SSSI, an SAC or an SPA area.

Arguments have suggested that allowing heather and grass burning on a rotational basis leads to increased flooding and wildfires. I am not convinced by these arguments. I live close to the Somerset Levels, where the peat does not catch fire but does flood on a regular basis. Those of us living in the south-west saw extensive television coverage in February of an intense wildfire on Dartmoor which burned out of control overnight. Fire crews attended from a large area over the south-west. At the same time, there was a fire on Bodmin Moor. I cannot speak for the wildfire on Bodmin, but the fire on Dartmoor was started deliberately. Dartmoor is a site of a blanket peat bog.

Many noble Lords, including the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, have referred to the effect of wildfires. Of the wildfires in the Devon and Somerset fire authority region since 2016, 36 have been accidental, started by sparks from bonfires, chimneys, discarded cigarette ends, barbecues et cetera—the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred to this. Some 32 fires were started deliberately on others’ property, four were started deliberately on the owner’s property and 19 were started deliberately where the owner was unknown. This is a total of 91, or an average of 15 per year. However, there was only one wildfire in 2016 but a peak of 30 in 2019. There have been three so far this year; only one was accidental.

The fire that raged on Saddleworth Moor in 2018 burnt for 10 days. It was started deliberately, involved fire crews from seven counties and destroyed four square miles of moorland in an area covered by a no-burn policy. Management of the moorland is a very delicate balance between protecting the wildlife, regrowth of the heather and sphagnum moss and protection of the peat bog. It would seem to me that having well-organised and regulated cool burning is far better than leaving the heather to become old and dry and suspectable to largescale wildfires which could ignite the underlying peat, causing far more damage.

In 2019, 153 fires took place in the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service area, only four were in areas of moorland managed for grouse and none happened during the burning season. All were due to accident or arson. The issue of licencing for burning is obviously not likely to reduce the risk of wildfires.

I sit on the Secondary Legislation and Scrutiny Committee and have been involved in discussions there. The Explanatory Memorandum accompanying the SI is confusing, with inconsistencies in figures for just how much of the moorland is affected by the instrument and how much of the peatbog is covered.

However confusing the SI is, one thing is clear: blanket bog is a valuable resource for carbon storage and sequestration. As referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, the UK’s blanket bog represents 13% of the world’s resource and therefore needs protecting. There are currently consents to burn over 142,000 hectares, which is 90% of the SSSI designated deep peat and 40% of upland deep peat. Licences to burn cover peat only to a depth of 40 centimetres. This is not deep peat. This is a cool burn. Since 2017, 47% of consents have been removed. Of those that remain, 50% are in perpetuity. Can the Minister tell the House, in numbers not percentages, just how many consents to burn have been granted in perpetuity and how the Government plan to deal with these licences?

Defra has not helped itself with its answers to the Secondary Legislation and Scrutiny Committee questions. There was an element of arrogance that has not moved the arguments forward, in particular in relation to the blurring between what constitutes guidance and what is legislation. Today the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments published its report; it also had difficulty in getting elucidation from Defra on access to the map referred to in the instrument. I regret that I found the comments by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, unnecessarily offensive.

I am concerned that the peat strategy, first trailed in the 25-year environment plan, has yet to be published, and we are dealing with these important environmental issues on an ad hoc basis. It was expected that the peat strategy would be published in early 2021. We are a quarter of the way through the year—I would describe that as early, but there is no sign of this document. Will the Government continue to deal with peat on a piecemeal basis? A proper overarching strategy is needed —and it is needed now.

My noble friend Lord Bradshaw referred to peat for horticultural use. Given the debate, the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, and the concerns of the Secondary Legislation and Scrutiny Committee and the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, I strongly suggest to the Minister that he withdraw this SI, publish the peat strategy without delay, and encourage Defra to rewrite this SI to reflect that strategy.

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 5:51 pm, 18th March 2021

I thank noble Lords who have contributed to today’s debate. As we look forward to COP 26 this autumn, it is essential that we debate such matters fully. I will address as many of the questions put to me as I can.

This instrument—the Heather and Grass etc. Burning (England) Regulations 2021—which was laid on 16 February 2021, seeks to ban the burning without licence of specified vegetation on peat over 40 centimetres in depth on sites of special scientific interest that are also special areas of conservation and/or special protection areas.

In response to comments from my noble friend Lord Randall, I can say that its purpose is to prevent further damage to approximately 142,000 hectares of protected deep peat by clearly setting out the circumstances in which a Secretary of State, as the licensing authority, may grant a licence for burning.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, talked about the need to restore England’s peatlands. That is a priority for the Government: it will help us achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and it will protect valuable habitats and the biodiversity therein. Blanket bog is a fragile peatland habitat of international importance, as a number of speakers have said; the UK has 13% of the world’s blanket bog.

England’s peatlands store, overall, around 580 million tonnes of carbon, but they emit around 11 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents per year. Therefore, restoring our peatlands is a crucial part of addressing climate change and achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Blanket bog is a habitat at risk of being further degraded where it is not protected from damaging activity. Under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, the Government have responsibility for protecting this priority habitat—maintaining it as an active bog and restoring it to favourable conservation status.

The Government’s ambition is to have healthy peatlands that will provide us with a wealth of ecosystem services. This includes, as a number of speakers have pointed out, carbon storage and sequestration, a natural habitat for wildlife, high-quality drinking water and—as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, pointed out—flood mitigation. Blanket bog makes up around 40% of England’s deep peat reserves and is one of our most extensive protected habitats, yet only about 12% of it is in a near-natural state. The remainder is degraded by practices that impact on the natural functioning state of that habitat.

Rotational burning as a moorland management tool is carried out to manage unnaturally dominant heather species in winter months, typically on a 12 to 15-year rotation. While this activity does not have a significant impact on carbon emissions per se, there is now an established scientific consensus that burning of vegetation on blanket bog can be damaging to peatland formation and habitat condition, making it difficult or, in some cases, impossible to restore these habitats to their natural state and to restore their hydrology.

The Government recognise that by allowing repeated burning on protected blanket bog sites in England, they were not fulfilling their obligations under the conservation regulations. This instrument has been drafted to ensure compliance with our domestic obligations, as well as our international obligations under the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats.

Landowners and managers required consent from Natural England to burn on protected blanket bog. To answer the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell: since 2017, only 47% of those consents have expired or been removed by Natural England, and the majority remain in perpetuity, covering 52,000 hectares of protected priority habitat.

The Government have previously stated that if voluntary measures to cease burning on blanket bog did not work, they would look at the role of legislation. This voluntary approach has not worked, and this instrument aims to plug that gap. These regulations do not, however, simply ban the use of burning as a management practice on protected blanket bog sites. First, the prohibition does not apply on land that could never be accessed by cutting equipment by virtue of it being exposed rock or a steep slope. Such land can continue to be managed without need of a licence. Secondly, where land is otherwise inaccessible to cutting equipment, perhaps by virtue of its remote nature, then a licence may be considered to allow burning to take place.

The Government have also included in the regulations explicit reference to the objective of preventing wildfires. Wildfires can be devastating, as a number of speakers have made clear, for the environment, and this risk has not previously been given sufficient weight.

The evidence and process by which the Secretary of State will make decisions on licence applications will be set out in accompanying guidance—this point was raised by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh. The Government recognise that any application process will need to be accessible to all landowners and managers. We have extensively engaged with stakeholders, and it is clear that many agree that good-quality, cohesive management plans are the key to supporting a licence application. That is why these plans will be at the heart of the process we develop. We will continue to listen to the sector and will conduct a post-implementation review of the guidance to ensure it is right.

The guidance will emphasise an aspiration that the management of the protected sites should be complementary to high-quality natural habitat restoration plans for those sites. It is hoped that through such plans, the need to manage these sites by burning will diminish and, ultimately, become unnecessary. Work to develop and produce this guidance is well under way. The Government’s engagement with the upland management sector and environmental NGOs is well established and extensive. The guidance will also set out whom the Secretary of State will consult, which will be not only Natural England but other interested stakeholders, including, for example, the local fire and rescue service when considering issuing a licence for wildfire mitigation.

The Government are very aware that the management of upland habitats, on which this regulation will have an impact, is complex and unique. They are also aware that the guidance must be capable of being understood by both large land management organisations and small estate teams. And they aware of the view, backed up by science, that there is a risk that burning heather to reduce wildfire risk could itself dry the land and exacerbate the risk. So, we are looking closely at this.

In July 2019, all consent holders on the protected sites were made aware, as part of our survey work, that the Government were considering legislation. Further targeted stakeholder engagement, as a result, was carried out in August 2019. Twenty-six key stakeholders, including environmental, shooting and conservation bodies, major landowners and protected landscape authorities took part.

The Government recognise that the new regulation may place additional burdens on some landowners and managers. However, they also recognise that inaction and the continuation of burning on protected sites will be unacceptable.

All peatland is important, and these regulations represent an important step in delivering the Government’s nature recovery and climate change mitigation targets. We will set out further measures to protect England’s peatlands this year as part of a package of measures to deliver nature-based solutions. This instrument attempts to strike the right balance between protecting our habitats from harm and ensuring that our landowners and managers have the right tools available to protect those habitats and restore them to their natural state.

A number of additional questions were raised by noble Lords. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asked about flooding, and the answer is that acting now to protect our peatlands from further degradation and investing in their restoration will mean they are resilient to further climate change and will begin to contribute to our net zero targets. In a healthy, functioning state, our peatlands will help us mitigate carbon emissions and adapt to climate change while also providing a whole wealth of public goods, including flood mitigation and provision of good-quality drinking water.

I was asked when the peat strategy will be published. We will publish it soon.

The noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, asked about monitoring. The monitoring of specific impacts from burning is not done on a granular scale. However, the Environment Agency and Natural England monitor the overall condition of our rivers and moorlands, and Natural England keeps up to date with all the latest scientific studies, which include monitoring the specific impacts of burning.

I was asked whether the Government agree with the comments of the RSPB, a comment echoed by my noble friend Lord Caithness. Some of the clearest evidence points to improving the resilience of our peatlands to wildfire by ensuring that they are wet and in a natural state. Managed burning results in an increase in vegetation type, such as heather, which have a higher fuel load compared with natural blanket bog vegetation.

I was asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, if we had been subjected to pressure from landowners. Yes, of course we have. We have been lobbied by all interest groups—everyone from the large landowners to the small and from the conservation groups to the NGOs, as would be expected. We have balanced the information that we have received from all of them.

My noble friend Lord Ridley raised a number of issues, particularly around the science. The growing evidence base shows that, on balance, the consensus of scientific opinion in the UK is that burning on blanket bog is detrimental, as it moves the bog away from its original wet state and risks vulnerable peat bogs becoming converted to drier heathland habitat. However, the Government are aware that research is ongoing and there are findings both in support of and against the practice; I am therefore happy to confirm to him that we will continue to listen to the science and keep our policy and our minds open.

The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, asked about the use of peat in horticulture. We are committed to phasing out the use of peat in horticulture in England, and we intend to publish a formal consultation shortly.

My noble friends Lord Benyon and Lord Caithness raised a number of issues around wildfire. I hope that I have addressed them. I simply say that some of the clearest evidence that we have points to improving the resilience of our peatlands to wildfire by ensuring that they are wet.

My noble friend Lord Marland, pointed out that we were lucky to live in a green and pleasant land. We do live in one: this country is among the most beautiful in the world, but it is also—we must be honest—one of the most nature-denuded. The biodiversity decline just in my lifetime—the last 45 or 50 years—is not far off 70%, so we do have a biodiversity crisis in this country and it requires us to address it.

My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury also made the point about biodiversity. Blanket bog in favourable condition will have a minimum of six plant indicator species, including heather, cotton-grasses, feather mosses and sphagnum species. The best examples might have as many as 12 indicator species. Where bog is degraded, dry and heather-dominated, there might be only heather and a few feather mosses—in some cases only two indicator species.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, made a number of points. We, of course, recognise that the significant amounts of peat—this is in response to the noble Lord, Lord Randall, as well—will fall outside the scope of this regulation. It will enhance the protections afforded to about 142,000 hectares, but we will be setting out further measures to protect England’s peatlands this year as part of a package of measures. This is a first step.

The noble Baroness also asked whether I enjoyed doing toasts with my shooting mates while we guffawed at the ruination of the countryside. I do not have a particularly large number of shooting mates and I do not engage in shooting. As I approach these issues, I do so with a keen interest in ensuring that I am looking at the science and aiming for a balanced policy —one that is, above all, in the interests of our country and its natural environment.

I can see that I am running out of time. I hope that I have covered most—I do not think all—of the questions raised by Members. To conclude, I trust that noble Lords understand the need for this instrument. It represents an important first step in our efforts to restore, recover and protect all of England’s peatlands. All peat is important; while these regulations only extend additional protections to our most protected sites, they are just a first step. They will ensure that burning is a management technique that only takes place in the right place and for the right reasons. Once again, I thank noble Lords for their contributions and support today. I commend the regulations to the House.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 6:03 pm, 18th March 2021

My Lords, we have had a very good debate and have given the issues a very thorough airing despite the restrictions on time. I am grateful to the Minister for his response. I just make a few quick comments.

On the issue of science, which a number of noble Lords raised, the evidence has been reviewed and reviewed again. Each time it comes to the same conclusion, which is that we need to stop burning blanket bog or vegetation on blanket bog. Several people referred to the science produced by MA, et cetera, but even that has been disputed in a peer review. The Minister and I were agreed on the science issue, so I am glad that that is not really an issue for debate.

I also accept the point, which a number of noble Lords raised, that there is interesting biodiversity and a growth in biodiversity in the burned areas. But it is a very different biodiversity from that found in our historic, deep blanket bogs. You cannot equate one with the other; we need to protect both. I do not think that just replacing moorland with blanket bog is the right way to go about it. Both have their place, and we certainly need to do our best to restore what blanket bog we have or have had.

Secondly, it is true that there have been some voluntary cessations of rotational burning and there have been some partnerships on peat restoration, and I am very pleased that a number of landowners have co-operated on this. But as the secondary legislation points out, these are not on the scale needed to be effective. Thirdly, I accept that there are other initiatives running at the same time as this SI, such as the Nature for Climate Fund. But, again, this a voluntary scheme when we need firm legislative action.

Finally, we are running out of time—there is a climate change emergency. Restoring our unique and valuable blanket bog habitat has to be harnessed as part of that solution to help deliver our net-zero targets. Although it is great that the Government are addressing their conservation responsibilities, where are the regulations to meet our climate change responsibilities as set out in the Climate Change Act and, indeed, our international obligations on the same issue?

I do not detect any of the required urgency in what the Minister has had to say today, and I do not accept that sight of the guidance will give any of the answers that we are looking for, because they are predicated on the basis of the restricted land area and the loose exemptions for which our Motion to Regret is critical. So, I do not think that seeing the guidance is the answer.

On this basis, I once again regret that the Minister has not felt able to reconsider his approach to peatland burning and to come back with a more comprehensive programme of action to apply this year. Therefore, I would like to test the opinion of the House on this issue.

Ayes 252, Noes 274.

Division number 1 Heather and Grass etc. Burning (England) Regulations 2021 - Motion to Regret

Aye: 252 Members of the House of Lords

No: 274 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Division conducted remotely on Baroness Jones of Whitchurch’s Motion

Motion disagreed.

House adjourned at 6.20 pm.