I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of moorland burning.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the important issue of moorland burning. I hope no one in this House would dispute that we are in a climate and nature emergency. That means we have not only a moral imperative to ban this destructive practice, but environmental, ecological and existential imperatives to protect and restore our precious peatlands.
The UK peatlands contain an estimated 3,200 million tonnes of carbon, more than the forests of the UK, France and Germany combined. There is no way that the Government can tackle the climate crisis without ensuring that our peatlands continue to store that colossal quantity of carbon. It would be a catastrophe if it were released and, yet that is exactly what is happening.
While upland peatland should be a net carbon sink, continued mismanagement means that the UK’s peatlands are a net source of emissions. When they could and should be being used for carbon sequestration to safely store carbon, our peat bogs are instead releasing huge quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reports that that is equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide released by 140,000 cars a year. The cause is moorland burning.
Between the 1940s and the present, there has been a sevenfold increase in burning on peatland in England alone. In Great Britain, between 2001 and 2011, burning increased at a rate of 11% per year. The more we allow that to continue, the greater the acceleration in the climate crisis we will see before our eyes. We will also see impacts on our environment.
Britain’s blanket bogs make up 10% to 15% of the world’s entire resource. Burning peat bogs dries out peat soil and lowers the water table, changing the flora and fauna to advantage species such as grouse, and transforming these rich, biodiverse habitats into distorted ecologies suitable for only a few animals and plants. We have a duty to preserve their vast biodiversity.
The dried peat soil also negatively impacts our water quality by releasing soil carbon into watercourses, which degrades their quality and increases the expense of cleaning our drinking water. That is because the burning harms the sphagnum mosses, which hold water in the peatlands. While the mosses recover, grasses and heather replace and out-compete them, which means that the water runs off down the hills, taking carbon from the peat with it and leading to polluted water. Burnt bogs are consequently less able to slow water flow, which leads to heavier flooding after rainfall.
I am sure my South Yorkshire colleagues will remember the terrible flooding our region suffered last year: 90% of the homes in the village of Fishlake near Doncaster were flooded last November, and, unfortunately, over a year on, some still have not been able to return to their homes. Funding for flood defences is a pressing issue, particularly when the south-east gets double the funding per person of Yorkshire and the Humber and more than five times that of the north-east. We need the Government to deliver fairer funding for flood defences, but we also need to move the debate away from mitigating the effects of the climate and environment emergency to tackling the causes. That means locking carbon in the ground by restoring our upland peat bogs, slowing the water flow, soaking up heavy rainfall and preventing the next flooding crisis before it occurs.
Peatlands also play a vital role in UK water security and must be protected to preserve the UK’s water supply in the coming years. Researchers at the University of Leeds estimate that 72.5% of the storage capacity of reservoirs in the UK is peatlands-fed water. That demonstrates the crucial role that peatlands play in our water security.
In January, the Committee on Climate Change recommended that peat burning should be banned by the end of 2020. The Government have routinely committed to ending the burns, but we have yet to see any legislative progress towards that. Instead, the Government have asked landowners only to sign voluntary agreements not to burn, and they simply are not working. For the sake of our environment, the Government must announce an immediate ban on this destructive practice and restore our peatlands to their natural bog habitats, so that they can deliver for biodiversity and carbon sequestration.
But that is only the first step. Announcing a ban is not the same as enacting one. For example, in my constituency, the moors at Stanage and Strines are both sites of special scientific interest, which means they should be protected areas, yet both regularly see burning. Due to the lack of proper resourcing and maintenance, too many of our protected areas are protected in name only. This Government’s record on maintaining existing areas of environmental protection shows a sustained failure to protect those protected sites.
In 2010, 43% of SSSIs in England were in favourable condition; by 2020 that had dropped to 39%. The condition of SSSIs in England is actually worse in our national parks and areas of natural beauty than outside them. That is a direct consequence of under-resourcing and underfunding conservation—yet another devastating consequence of the last 10 years of austerity. The Government’s own figures show that public sector spending on biodiversity in the UK fell from £641 million to £456 million between 2012 and 2017—a drop of 29%. The RSPB argues that the Government’s approach to achieving nature targets has completely failed due to
“neglect of basic monitoring and compliance, a reliance on voluntary approaches and unwillingness to regulate, and dwindling public resources for action”— a damning summation.
As well as committing to banning peatland burning and giving a firm date on which that will come into effect, Ministers must commit to properly resourcing conservation bodies so that they are able to monitor and clamp down on any illegal burning and ensure that peatlands are rewetted and restored. That is why I am so pleased to support Labour’s plan for a national nature service.
An expansion of spending on maintaining or restoring our peatlands is vital if we are to maintain our zero carbon commitments, but it is also a way of providing the employment stimulus we need in the wake of the pandemic; protecting and maintaining our peat bogs and our natural environment in all its diversity goes hand in hand with creating good-quality public sector jobs.
We should take inspiration from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps between 1933 and 1942, whose workers planted 3 billion trees and paved the way for America’s system of national and state parks, which were also a central part of the new deal. The national nature service should be at the heart of the green new deal for workers, creating a zero carbon army. We need to manage our moorlands effectively and to lock CO2 into the ground. At the same time, that would provide a host of secure jobs and benefit many people, including young black, Asian and minority ethnic workers, who have been hit hardest by the employment crisis. It would also help to diversify the conservation sector.
Nobody in this debate supports the deregulation of moorlands. The idea that setting fire to large swathes of our countryside is a responsible form of regulation and management is completely incredible. It releases millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, making the climate emergency worse. It destroys habitats and damages the ecosystem and ecologies. As fires rage on our uplands, they increase the threat of floods from our lowland rivers.
We cannot rely on the good will of landowners to stop the burning—just ask the residents of Hebden Bridge and the Calder valley. We all saw on our TVs the damage done to those communities by last year’s flooding, and many now attribute those floods to heather burning on Walshaw moor. Instead, we need to restore and re-wet our peatlands, using them as one of the many natural solutions to the climate crisis. To do that, we must end the year-on-year cuts to spending on the environment and set out a plan for investing in nature. That means having a national nature service to create well-paid, secure, unionised jobs. We need to lock CO2 into the ground and to protect biodiversity and our natural environment’s fragile ecologies. We also need to ensure that those who seek to burn protected peatlands face the full weight of the law.
I hope the Minister will take this opportunity to outline the timetable for bringing forward legislation. It is time to end the fires, floods and climate chaos. It is well past time we banned the burn.
May I remind colleagues that there are five minutes for the Opposition Front Benchers and 10 minutes for the Government. This debate is due to finish at 17.32 pm. I am not putting a time limit on speeches, but we have eight other speakers apart from the Front Benchers and the mover of the motion at this point. Please bear that in mind.
Two thirds of the North York Moors national park—that glorious countryside that many of us will have seen on the television programme “Heartbeat”—lie in the Scarborough and Whitby constituency, and 79% of the North Yorkshire moors and Pennine special protection areas are managed as grouse moors. It is vital—I agree with Olivia Blake—that we preserve that peat.
The North Yorkshire moors are not, in the main, blanket bogs. They are dry heathland peat, and different ways of management need to be conducted on different types of moorland. It is also vital that we preserve these fragile habitats, and if we are to preserve them, they do need managing.
Heather moorland is rarer than rainforest, and 75% of Europe’s heather moorland is in the United Kingdom. Of the upland SSSIs, 60% are on moorland, which has, for decades, been managed in traditional ways.
I remember, as a child, crossing the North Yorkshire moors and seeing people cutting peat for fuel. Indeed, the legendary Saltersgate Inn had a fire that never went out, because, apparently, a Revenue man was buried under the fireplace and it was the only way of preventing him from being discovered. Sadly, the Saltersgate Inn is no more.
It is important that we look at all ways of managing peat, particularly in terms of arable degradation—as a farmer myself, I understand that. We should also look at the way horticultural peat is harvested and—the Republic of Ireland is phasing out its power stations—at how we do not use peat for power.
I must make the point that the North Yorkshire moors are not a natural environment. They are a fragile environment. In the middle ages, the moors were covered in trees, which were cut down for fuel and used to smelt the iron stone found under those moors. Only in the Victorian era did management systems come in that encouraged sheep farming and grouse. That involved cool burning the heather in the winter period, between
If the hon. Lady wants to come and see what happens to moors if they are not managed in that way, she should come to Troutsdale moor just outside Scarborough, which has not been managed as a moor for about the last 30 years and has reverted to scrubland. There are none of the birds that we want to preserve on the North Yorkshire moors. If there were no sheep, who would mend the stone walls? According to her, it would be a unionised army of nature service people, but the farmers are the people who should be farming on the moorland and managing it.
If we did not manage the moorland in the way we do, we would see wildfires. Burning creates firebreaks. We have seen in the United States and Australia how, when they stopped back burning, fires got out of hand. In 2019, there was a record number of wildfires. In 2020, that record was broken, with 110 fires.
Indeed, Saddleworth moor—a moor that has not been managed in the traditional way that we use in the North Yorkshire moors—had three weeks of fires, which produced the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide as 100,000 car years and cost £20 million. That fire got into the peat, as such wildfires do, which is what damages it. I must make the point that controlled burning does not burn the peat; it burns the vegetation and allows the sphagnum moss, which forms more peat, and the young heather to regenerate.
Mowing is not practical on most of the moorland because of the topography and the amount of stones; indeed, that encourages the growth of sedges, which can release large amounts of methane, which has a carbon factor 96% higher than CO2. That is recognised by the North York Moors National Park Authority, for which it is policy to support the traditional rotational cool burning of heather to maintain the moorland in the way that wildlife, and economic activity such as grouse shooting and sheep farming, need.
I say to the Minister that we need more science before we make any decisions. The science is unfolding. We also need to understand that some people are against the burning of moorland because they are against grouse shooting. That is a perfectly respectable position to have, but they should not use it to destroy the very fragile environment of the North Yorkshire moors. If we do not have a managed moorland, we will have no grouse, no sheep, no lapwings, no curlews and no birds of prey.
When the Minister responds, I hope she will understand that we need to do more work. We do not want to destroy this very fragile managed environment, which has been kept this way for many years, and sacrifice it for some political campaign that is to do with a lot of other things, not just managing moorland.
It is a pleasure to serve under you as Chair, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend Olivia Blake on securing this important debate. Before moving on with my remarks, I will be the first to take up the offer of Mr Goodwill to come and visit his moorland to compare and contrast the differences required in managing that with what is perhaps required in my part of the world, and he has already touched on some of those elements.
Nearly a quarter of England’s blanket bog habitat is located in Yorkshire—I am pleased to see the region well represented in the debate—with about 50% of the country’s peatlands in the Pennines. Its wellbeing is, therefore, crucial for us in Calderdale on a number of fronts. If we manage our moorland and peat bogs responsibly, as we have already heard, they lock in water, which protects us from flooding, and carbon, which helps us to mitigate the extreme weather that presents such a challenge to us in a steep-sided valley. Kept wet, they will also protect us from the damaging wildfires that we have already discussed.
We have suffered devastating floods twice in the last five years—first, in December 2015 and again in February this year. In addition, there have been several significant wildfires in the same period, so the integrity of the moorland in the upper catchment is essential if we are to manage the different risks.
We have had an ongoing challenge with burning, largely undertaken by those involved in the grouse shooting industry to engineer grouse breeding habitats. I am pleased that in July, Calderdale Council supported a ban on burning in an attempt to restore the peatlands, alleviate the pressures on our fire service, enhance biodiversity and contribute to the package of measures that we need to have in place to mitigate flood risk.
It is frustrating, however, that although the potential for carbon storage is enormous, the Committee on Climate Change has estimated that 350,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide are emitted each year from upland peat in England, the majority of which is due to burning on grouse moors. I welcome its recommendation that legislation to address that should be forthcoming before the end of the year.
Last year, I visited one such moorland restoration project above Dove Stone reservoir with the RSPB, which is restoring and cultivating nature’s great super sponge, sphagnum moss, and aiding natural flood management alongside the work on leaky dams and gullies. Like the RSPB, I am really keen to know when we might see the publication of the England peat strategy, as part of the delivery of the 25-year environment plan.
The Minister will be aware that where water run-off is increased and hastened due to burning, it washes peat into our reservoirs, which has to be cleaned out of the water supply. On a related point, I will take the opportunity to remind to the Minister that I have tabled an amendment to the Environment Bill—it is up for debate in Committee next week, if I am not mistaken—that would require the Secretary of State to make regulations to grant the Environment Agency additional powers to require water companies and other connected agencies to manage reservoirs to mitigate flood risk. I will write to the Minister on that point ahead of the Committee discussion next week.
I finish with a final plea to the Minister. Moorland restoration was one of several issues that we were hoping to discuss at the promised Yorkshire floods summit. Inevitably, given coronavirus, the summit was delayed. The Minister did seem genuinely taken aback to hear that West Yorkshire and North Yorkshire were surprised that it was a South Yorkshire-only summit that took place recently. I have the letter from the Secretary of State sent to me on
Many years ago, I joined the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I did so because I understood it was a charity whose purpose was to protect birds. It is not the royal society for the politicisation of birds, but is quite clear that the RSPB has long had a campaign, motivated primarily, I suspect, by its hatred of grouse shooting. I do not shoot myself, but I live in the countryside and I see how shooting shapes the countryside and preserves it. In particular, I salute the work of gamekeepers. The fact is that the evidence does not support this campaign of the RSPB.
The recent call from the RSPB to stop burning peat—a rather emotive phrase in itself—seems to deliberately confuse controlled and uncontrolled burning. As my right hon. Friend Mr Goodwill has made clear, the press release makes six references to burning peatland and blanket bog, all in connection with management practices and consents that are actually for the controlled burning of heather, the surface vegetation, and not peat, which is the underlying soil. Controlled burning of surface vegetation is permitted only in the winter, when it is cold and wet. It is deliberately limited to small areas—the heather and grass burning code suggests a maximum of 30 metres by 600 metres, with cut margins as firebreaks surrounding them and a firefighting team of gamekeepers in attendance with fire fogging units and leaf blowers to extinguish flames quickly.
I was inspired to come along to this debate by the excellent article by Lord Botham. I always knew he was a great cricketer and I once saw him do his wonderful century, but I did not know that he was such a fine campaigner for rural issues and rural people. It is about time that people such as Ian Botham were allowed to speak up for those of us who live in the countryside.
Grouse moors are not the emissions problem. Farming and forestry produce far higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions per hectare than grouse moors. There is a risk to wildlife of not burning, as Lord Botham said in his article last week:
“For years the RSPB has been attacking the ancient practice of burning heather during damp winters. Britain’s gamekeepers use such controlled activity to reduce the risk of summer wildfires—just like indigenous people in Australia and North America.”
Is the hon. Member aware of some the most recent research, which shows that 68% of wildfires in the higher uplands have actually been caused by so-called controlled cold fires?
I suggest to the hon. Lady that any research that comes from the RSPB or related organisations should be treated with a great deal of scepticism. I suspect that they have a political agenda. The fact is that the RSPB distorts the science on burning. The Times reported how it does so. A dozen top scientists—a dozen, I say to the hon. Lady—wrote that RSPB press releases on burning bore “only passing resemblance” to the science.
The RSPB is a charity. It has to act like a charity and not like a political organisation. It is all very well to argue, “Ban the burn”—an emotive phrase, but that is to try to simplify something that is highly complex in reality. The royal society—it is a “royal society”—makes no distinction between two different things: the controlled burning of heather for wildlife management and the burning of peatland. Shooting requires careful land management that protects the growth and survival of many species of birds. Rural people have spent decades in careful custodianship of the land and the wildlife that lives in it. Despite that, they find themselves the target of RSPB campaigns that would do serious harm to the environment.
Farmers and gamekeepers must be central to the preservation of wildlife in this country. They live and work in the countryside. There is simply no way around that; nobody else has the resources to protect our countryside. As Lord Botham pointed out, the seed gamekeepers put out for pheasants also feeds lapwings, yellowhammers and corn bunting. I live in the countryside, in a cottage on a shooting estate, and I see how the gamekeepers preserve our wild birds.
What about thinning out the canopy of trees, so that the branches do not close in and deprive bushes and shrub life of much needed sunlight? Will the RSPB do that? No. Will Members of Parliament do that? No. Gamekeepers and farmers do that. Without managed burns, we increase the risk of uncontrolled wildfires, as has already been argued. As a result, nature and biodiversity suffer, plant life dies and habitats for species wither away. The richness of countryside is dulled, if the knowledge of people who work in the countryside is doubted.
Grouse managers aim to burn the surface biomass, heather and other plants, not peat. Controlled fires are excellent for that, but without them there is a danger of wildfires. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby said, that cannot be denied. Wildfires, by their nature, are uncontrolled; they can become very hot and spread the fire to burn the underlying peat, rather than just the surface. The bigger picture here is a massive gap between rural England and urban England. Such a simplistic statement as, “Ban the burn”, shows an ignorance and neglect of rural issues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank my hon. Friend Olivia Blake for excellently setting out the science for us today. The Minister has a clear choice to make. We need progress and we need decisions, because we have been here many times before, not least as we are heading into COP26, where this kind of issue will be on the table.
The Minister knows that I frequently speak about flooding—York floods—but the frequency and height of the flooding is worsening. Two weeks ago, we had our second flood this year—the river rose to 4.22 metres—following one in February. We have had others since the devastating floods of 2015, when 453 households and 174 businesses in my constituency flooded.
In 2017, I held a debate in this Chamber on the research carried out by the University of York to improve moorland management. I made the case that ending moorland burning would improve our climate and biodiversity and vastly reduce flooding and the need for expenditure downstream on floodwalls and barriers. Last weekend, yet again, I met with businesses and heard their stories once more about the devastation that flooding brings. I spoke to people who still experience stress every time those rivers rise. One, already struggling after the lockdown, was no longer able to get insurance. There was a flood in February at the start of the lockdown. York’s economy has been devastated this year because of this. The cost is there for all to see.
I say to the Minister, it is five years since we heard promises that these issues would be addressed. We do not need more surveys, questions and debates; we need action. The research undertaken by the University of York looked at the restoration of blanket bog vegetation for biodiversity, carbon sequestration and water regulation. The evidence was powerful, proving strongly that mowing, not burning, moorland curbed water run-off and could remove 20% of excess flow, dropping the flood level in York by 40 centimetres. That would be really significant to our city.
With further investment in slow the flow schemes, planting and adjustment to farming, even greater gains could be made. That would militate against the soil degradation and loss of absorption that burning and the consequential drought bring. It would improve air quality, water quality, soil quality and biodiversity. It would cut costs and improve our climate.
Currently, York is having to build higher and higher barriers, at the cost of £45 million. That is not what our city wants. We want to stop the water coming down at its current pace. The national flood resilience review said that upper catchment management would be covered in the next comprehensive spending review, which is due a week today. I trust that I will see lines in the Budget that will enable proper upper catchment management, or will that be another broken promise? Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us this afternoon.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Pritchard.
I agree with much of what my right hon. Friends the Members for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), and for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), have said. No one wants to see peat burning, but that is not what is actually on the table here. This process is about heather being managed as part of a perfectly reasonable package of measures that are taken in our uplands, including in my constituency of North West Durham. That package also includes cutting and huge amounts of re-wetting of areas.
I will pick up on a point that Olivia Blake made when she said we really need to manage the countryside effectively. I agree, but heather burning is an effective part of that management. I totally understand her concerns and those of Rachael Maskell regarding flooding, and I hope that, like me, they will welcome the Government’s recent commitment to huge amounts of tree planting in our upland areas, as part of the Government’s10-point plan.
Controlled heather burning from October to April is not the key issue. Heather moorland is vital for my local rural communities in Weardale, in neighbouring Teesdale and in Northumberland. It is vital to the local community, to my hospitality industry, to my rural pubs and to my rural jobs, including those of my rural gamekeepers, and to a huge amount of part-time employment for large numbers of local people.
What are the real issues at stake? I ask that question because when I took the Environment Secretary up to the moorland above Rookhope earlier this year, we saw what had happened in the 20th century, when huge amounts of grips were put into the ground to dry large areas of peatland. There had been mass-scale erosion. That was an attempt to overmanage the countryside from one side, which totally drained large areas of peat, causing huge amounts of erosion. It leads exactly to the problems being discussed today. I am all in favour of large areas having those grips removed, to allow blanket bog to return, but it must be part of a managed countryside where everybody is able to work and where the peat is able to return to areas that have been drained. That is part of the bigger picture.
Some of my hon. Friends mentioned the biodiversity elements. We have seen in a report from the Scottish Government how managed burning can really help the relationship between key species, even leading to some returning to our upland areas, which is a really important point.
This is not about the UK Government or the Scottish Government, and it should not be about party politics, but I believe that unfortunately that is where some of this debate is going. I really fear yet another cheap politicisation of our countryside by those who are more interested in ideological and identity politics than they are in protecting our communities, or indeed in the issues that they talk about relating to flooding and other things like that.
I put on the record very clearly that I am a country sports and conservation enthusiast. They both come together; I see no difference in them. I spoke to Olivia Blake before the debate, and she knows where I am coming from. We speak together about many things that we agree on, and we have done that recently, but on this we have to agree to disagree. I say that very respectfully.
In the short time that I have, I will describe some of my experiences. I have planted some 3,500 trees on my land and created pond habitats for wildlife. That is something I am extremely passionate about. I am not an expert—far from it—but I am aware of the benefits of age-old practices of land conservation such as burning. We recently watched with horror the Australian wildfires on the TV. They were horrific to watch, and the impact on wildlife and nature was gross, but when the rains came the green shoots were brighter and stronger. I sincerely believe that there is a strong case for land management in a way that is considered and well planned. It should not be like the wildfires in Australia, but well planned in the 30-metre stretches that Sir Edward Leigh referred to.
All types of moorland need some land management to maintain the protected and rare habitats and the species that thrive in them. Without any form of management, that jewel of England would be lost. Vegetation and moorland have been burned for thousands of years, and the peat below slowly locks away carbon. The ultimate aim is to protect the carbon store. Thankfully, a large proportion, though not all, of our moors are being managed as grouse moors. That safeguards them from non-native commercial forestry, peat cutting and intensive agricultural modification.
Some 90% of English grouse moors are within the national parks, and 79% of the North York moors and Pennine special protection areas are managed as grouse moors. Some 60% of England’s upland sites of special scientific interest are also grouse moors. Grouse moors contribute more than £100 million to the UK economy directly, and more than 30 million people visit national park grouse moor landscapes annually. The visual quality of those areas is always listed among the top reasons to visit, according to national park visitor data. Why is that? Because they are managed in the correct fashion.
The latest evidence shows that controlled burns can provide protection against devastating wildfires while sequestering carbon, offering a nature-based solution to our climate change emergency. Traditionally, grouse moorland has been managed for the benefit of our native wild grouse, but the mosaic of vegetation for the birds has revived the plover, the lapwing and the curlew.
Safety protocols are in place to protect wildlife, human health and monuments, and specific content is available from Natural England on burning in protected sites. There is also a detailed heather and grass burning code produced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Natural England alongside partner organisations. It clearly identifies the use of burning as a conservation management tool with widespread controlling vegetation to reduce the risks posed by wildfire.
I am very aware that Natural England has stated that only 2.36% of England peatland emissions come from grouse moors, so let us put this in perspective. The vast majority of emissions come from other practices, from both upland and lowland peat draining agriculture and forestry.
I believe, and I say this respectfully, that there is a need to carry out controlled and regulated burning to secure this wonderful area of wildlife for future generations. I want to pass on my love of shooting and the conservation of my land to my grandchildren. It is my desire that future generations match science with practice so that the moors are kept in all their natural glory for generations to come.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I previously worked as a chartered surveyor.
I will focus my contribution on conservation. I speak with some authority on the subject, having been directly involved in many moorland restoration schemes before entering this place, through interactions with landowners, farmers, conservationists and bodies such as Natural England.
As a tool among many, burning plays its part as a conglomerative measure to achieve ecological and conservational benefits. Let me explain why. The process of burning small areas of heather removes older growth and allows plants to regenerate and thrive. New heather, mosses and grass shoots follow, and they, along with the new green flushes of new growth, allow plants such as bilberry to grow, which are key to providing food diversification for many animals such as deer and mountain hares. New growth shoots are liked by many bird species, including red grouse and the golden plover, as my right hon. Friend Mr Goodwill said. It is important to note that the golden plover, like many other bird species, is often found nesting at higher densities in areas of recently burned heather.
Of course, the burnt areas also act as valuable firebreaks, and evidence upon evidence has been put before us that where dead woody undergrowth is allowed to build up, wildfire risk is dramatically increased. It might be asked why cutting should not be the preferred method for controlling heather growth. The simple answer is that, more often than not, the topography does not lend itself to that technique. It is expensive in labour resource, and often it does not have the desired positive effects that I have outlined. It is also important to note that controlled burning is a precise and professional operation. It is much more than having a box of matches and some dry weather. It involves planning, teamwork and, often, specialist kit. Land managers must understand and comply with strict burning codes, and burning is all undertaken within controlled burning seasons, which run through the wet months from October to April. Why is there a burning season, it might be asked. It is because rank vegetation is burned off when peat is holding water and before the bird nesting season starts. Those controlled, or cool, burns, as they are known, do not burn the peat or the understorey of mosses.
It is my view that heather burning plays its part as a conglomerative measure to achieve ecological and conservation benefits. We should always take an evidence-based approach, and the evidence is clear. When it is carefully managed, burning is good for moorland management and for conservation.
I thank Olivia Blake for bringing the debate today and giving Members the opportunity to discuss a critical but often overlooked element of the fight against climate change and efforts to rebalance land use.
A key issue that I want to highlight is the effect of muirburn on peatlands and peat bogs, which are critical for preserving biodiversity, minimising flood risk and fighting climate change. Peat acts as a carbon store, storing more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined. As a result, 6% of manmade CO2 emissions come from damage done to peatlands. In Scotland’s case, peatland covers more than a fifth of the entire country and stores about 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon, so it is crucial for the environment that steps are taken to protect it from deterioration. I am pleased to say that the Scottish Government have acknowledged that and the important part that peat plays in the ambition to become a carbon-neutral country. They have put 25,000 acres on the road to recovery, with a pledge of £250 million for peatland restoration over the next decade.
Unfortunately, irresponsible muirburn on grouse shooting estates can pose a major threat to the stability of peatlands. Research by the University of Leeds found that burning grouse moors degrades peatland habitat, releases climate-altering gases, reduces biodiversity and increases flood risk.
I am not saying that there is no need for land management; I am saying that we need to tackle the irresponsible land managers to make sure that that sort of thing does not happen.
Muirburn also poses a particular risk, in allowing fire to spread to highly flammable underground peat, which causes the carbon to be released, as Mr Goodwill has ably helped me to highlight. Anyone who has cooried in beside a fireplace knows how flammable peat is. It has been over a year since the Government stated that they intended to phase out the burning of protected blanket bog—a promise repeated by Ministers over the past 12 months. We have yet to see legislative progress on that, so I would welcome assurances from the Government that it continues to be treated as a priority. I also urge the Government to follow the Scottish Government’s lead and match spending commitments for the restoration of peatlands and peat bogs. Furthermore, Scotland has banned muirburn in peatlands during the pandemic, and with the second lockdown I suggest that that might be considered for the rest of the UK.
Perhaps it is time to consider broader issues to do with land use in general. On some estimates, between 12% and 18% of Scotland’s land is used for grouse shooting, making it extremely hard to ensure that muirburn is carried out responsibly and is not damaging the peatlands. We hear from some quarters that such threats to the environment are far outweighed by economic benefits. Industry figures show that grouse shooting adds very nearly 3,000 jobs to the Scottish economy, at an average salary of £11,500 a year, creating a total of about £30 million in employment. For an industry that requires more than 10% of Scotland’s entire land mass to function, however, £30 million and 3,000 jobs below the minimum wage would appear, by some suggestions, to be disproportionate. Comparing that with the £770 million from forestry and timber processing and the £180 million from forest tourism, it seems that grouse shooting’s economic contribution is slightly out of proportion.
I therefore welcome the Scottish Government’s decision to investigate these and other issues in the Werritty review. The Scottish Government are giving careful consideration to the review’s recommendations regarding introducing licensing for grouse moor businesses. If they decide to do so, they have pledged to introduce it more quickly than the five-year timescale recommended.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Olivia Blake for securing the debate. She spoke passionately, much as she did in her maiden speech, about the impact of peatland burning on the climate, the local environment and flooding.
Labour is calling on the Government to restate and act on their commitment to the legislation that they promised over a year ago. It is imperative that rhetoric on climate leadership is more than simply rhetoric, and they have an opportunity to put words into action. As part of our plan for nature, Labour is calling on the Government to help restore degraded peatlands to their natural state by ending the harvesting of peat and the burning of moors or blanket bog. A comprehensive independent review into habitats and fire risk caused by grouse shooting management arrangements, with a view to new regulatory controls, has been a long time coming.
We have had a very good debate, and there are obviously a wide range of different opinions, from those of Jim Shannon to those of Mr Goodwill, who spoke with characteristic expertise about moorland management. As my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell mentioned, Natural England recently published its position statement, which restates its commitment to end burning and to restore our upland peatlands in order to conserve wildlife and carbon. The restoration of those areas to bog habitats is also supported by the RSPB, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the majority of academics, environmental non-governmental organisations, and many northern councils and Mayors.
My hon. Friend Holly Lynch mentioned that peatland also plays an important role in water and flood management, and I commend her for all the work that she has done on this issue. Our peatlands form a significant and vital part of the UK’s carbon storage. They contain more carbon than the forests of the UK, France and Germany combined but, through the burning of peat bogs, we are releasing huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere each year—the equivalent of driving over 140,000 cars a year. In January, the Committee on Climate Change recommended that peat burning should be banned by the end of 2020 as a “low-cost, low-regret” action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
We are facing a great challenge ahead of us. We need immediate and decisive action to ensure not only that we meet our international obligations, but that we are world leaders in the efforts to tackle the climate emergency. Research by the University of Leeds has found that the burning of grouse moors not only releases climate-altering gases, but degrades peatland habitat, reduces biodiversity and increases flood risk. The Government have implicitly acknowledged the damage that burning is causing by including the restoration of peat and moors in the flood and coastal erosion risk management policy statement, and rightly so. Peatland prevents flooding downstream. It absorbs and holds back large amounts of water when there is heavy rainfall, and it releases water during times of drought.
In conclusion, we need to better manage our natural environment, not just oversee its decline. We need to improve biodiversity and reduce our carbon emissions, and we need to protect our communities that are increasingly under the threat of flooding. The Government must follow through on their commitments. It is not enough to state good intentions; we need action.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Pritchard; it is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am not sure whether I should say this, but what a fiery, hot topic this is. There are obviously diverse views on all sides, and the debate has been extremely well attended. We have heard some excellent and informed speeches, and I particularly thank Olivia Blake for securing the debate, for her interest in this subject, and for the passion with which she speaks about subjects such as climate change.
I take issue with the comments about biodiversity and the degradation caused under this Government. If the hon. Lady were following proceedings in the Environment Bill—members of that Committee are here —she would realise how committed the present Government are to the environment. It is right at the top of our agenda. Not only do we have measures in the Bill bringing forward biodiversity net gain, conservation covenants and local nature recovery strategies, but we have the £80 million green recovery fund, which the Prime Minister has topped up this week. That provides the green army that the hon. Lady was asking for, and all the jobs that go with it, to deliver the green recovery. We are all right behind that and the 10-point green plan, announced this week. I want to cover that at the beginning, as it directly relates to what we are talking about.
Moorlands are made up of a mosaic of habitat types. One of the habitats of greatest interest is blanket bog, because of its peat-forming habitats. It generates layers of peat that can grow up and be metres thick, and it covers much of our uplands. Such bogs are an iconic and important part of our landscapes, as many hon. Members explained. They are one of our largest terrestrial carbon stores, a haven for rare and common wildlife, and have natural water-holding and water-cleaning properties.
Restoring and better managing our peatlands is absolutely essential for the nature recovery, which I have just referred to, and tackling climate change. The Committee on Climate Change has highlighted the particular need to restore blanket bogs, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam said. That is why we are committed to publishing an English peat strategy that sets out our direction for restoration, protection and sustainable management. We will be providing millions of pounds to kick-start that restoration from another fund of money helping towards biodiversity, the £640 million nature for climate fund.
Among other things in that strategy, we commit to putting our peatland into good hydrological order and condition by restoring it, with a commitment to 35,000 hectares’ being restored by 2025, which is not very far away. As my right hon. Friend Mr Goodwill, who has great expertise, said, other issues must also be addressed, such as lowland peat and horticultural peat. There are a whole raft of measures in the strategy,
Blanket bogs make up around a third of England’s peatland area. They have formed over thousands of years and have created a massive store of carbon. Currently, only 18% of our protected blanket bog habitat is in good condition. That is a legacy of many things. Members might take issue with me, but it is because of a combination of draining, overgrazing, burning and gradual degradation. While upland degraded peats are responsible for only around 5% of greenhouse gas emissions from England’s peatlands, it is important that we restore and sustainably manage these areas for the other multiple benefits that they provide, as well as the carbon issue.
The impact of rotational burning of vegetation on blanket bog continues to be hotly debated by academics, scientists, land managers and everybody involved on all sides. This summer I received a dossier of the most recent scientific studies from the Uplands Partnership, which includes the Moorland Association and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, an organisation I know a lot about. In my past as an environmental reporter, I often met those organisations and reported on things that they did. I have looked closely at the issue and have met with our chief scientific adviser. I have taken advice from the Science Advisory Council. I have been at pains to analyse all the copious data, much of it conflicting.
At the moment, the scientific data from the experts, from DEFRA and from Natural England is that, on balance and in general, in the UK the burning of vegetation on blanket bog moves the bog away from its original wet state, and risks vulnerable peat bog habitat’s becoming drier and turning into a heathland habitat. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby is itching to intervene on me. He was absolutely right about the importance of science, as were others. That is why it is so important to look at all the data, and keep looking at it.
My right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh also referred to the need for the correct science; I support him on that, and on his support for bird life and Botham. His life, of course, started in Somerset.
We absolutely support any measures to re-wet some of our uplands, but, of course, the Minister needs to bear in mind that if we do make it more boggy, land managers would not be able to cut it with a tractor without getting bogged. The need to burn, combined with having a wetter moorland storing some of that water, is vital. As somebody who has got a tractor bogged on many occasions, I can attest to the difficulties on very wet land.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that, and I can agree because I, too, was brought up on a farm and drive a tractor, and have got many a tractor stuck. I know what he is talking about.
Since 2015, Natural England has been working with landowners and managers, as he knows, to help phase out rotational burning where possible. That has included a range of methods. Some estates have signed voluntary commitments to suspend burning—the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam was slightly dismissive, saying that that had not worked, but actually there have been some real successes with that approach. Some estates have agreed to phase out their long-term plans at estate level, and some have consented to try cutting where it is possible.
Natural England has successfully removed 47%— 189 out of 402—of the consents to burn on protected land and, where estates hold long-term consents to burn, many have suspended the practice to enter into new, extended agri-environment schemes. However, that course of action is clearly not protecting every blanket bog site.
I am going to plough on. I am very aware that moorland management communities are concerned about the restriction of burning—it has been referred to by my hon. Friend Mr Holden—not least because of the wildfire risk on the land. Fires sweep through, cause severe damage and release fine particulate matter—I am also the Minister for air quality, so I am well aware of the dangers of fine particulate matter and the impacts on local air quality—and, obviously, we want to mitigate that.
Natural England and DEFRA officials are considering all the evidence around all the different practices in relation to wildfire risk, to try to come up with the most appropriate technique to mitigate that risk. Some of the clearest evidence to date points to improving the resilience of the peatlands to return them to their wet state.
We must also remember that those who farm and manage our uplands have massive opportunities coming their way, through the new environmental land management scheme, to engage in many other projects and undertake work that will keep the wildlife there, will help to keep the moorland wet and will help to drain, control and hold the water to deal with flooding. That was eloquently mentioned by the hon. Members for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for Halifax (Holly Lynch), and I am happy to meet the hon. Member for York Central at some point to discuss her particular issues around peat and the uplands—apologies if I have not done that yet. I thought I had met her over the summer.
We are watching Scotland eagerly to see what will happen up there and how things go; we will be taking stock of that.
No, I will plough on. My officials are continuing to work out how and where we might be able to phase out rotational burning, but all these other options must be taken into account.
Next, I wanted to touch on this issue of flooding; winter is coming and we have had a very wet year. Blanket bogs are a natural sponge; they sit at the top of river catchments and are important for holding water, but that is only possible when they are kept in good condition—that is one of the key things. We have done a great project working on Exmoor—not far from me—where the water company is doing exactly that, and it is having really good results. is an important part of flood control, to which we have contributed £5.2 billion—more money than ever before. Nature-based solutions are a big part of the new systems coming down the track.
I am sorry, I did not realise the time. I just want to ask the Minister very quickly whether she might have conversations with the likes of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Countryside Alliance to gauge the opinion of those who manage the moors, to come up with a policy that everyone can agree on.
Thank you so much for raising that. I do talk to all those people. I have been out with gamekeepers to look at the land. We have to get this right; we do not want to make enemies. We have to work together. There have got to be ways. We will release our peat strategy soon and there will be some detailed information in there. It will cover all things relating to peat and these other sections, as well as the land managers. The Government have made a commitment to do something about this. We do have to do something about climate change, do we not, Chair?
Yes; sorry. And we have to do something about our carbon storage, our wildlife protection, our clean water and our flood control.
I will wind up now. I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam for raising the topic and I thank everyone for their input. It is a fiery and a heated topic, and there will be more water coming under this bridge.
For the purposes of the record the Chair is neutral in all debates, but without telling anybody, of course we need to tackle climate change. I have probably broken the rules.
I thank everyone who has taken part in today’s rowdy debate. I want to quickly clarify a few points, if I may, about the body of scientific evidence. I will quote from the International Union for Conservation of Nature peatland programme’s position statement. The first point states:
“The current body of available scientific evidence indicates that burning on peatland can result in damage to peatland species, microtopography and wider peatland habitat, peat soils and peatland ecosystem functions.”
The second point, which is what I have been getting at, states:
“Healthy peatlands do not require burning” to be maintained. I am not saying for one moment that our moorlands do not need to be maintained, but that the practice of burning creates a self-reinforcing circle. We burn the heather, it comes back, then we burn it and dry it out, and then it comes back. That is why the number of fires has been increasing year on year. Finally, just on identity politics—
Order. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. Have a good evening.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (