Moorland Burning

Part of Asylum Seekers and Permission to Work – in Westminster Hall at 4:42 pm on 18th November 2020.

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Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby 4:42 pm, 18th November 2020

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 1 October and 15 April, when the fire was unlikely to get into the peat itself. That involves burning small patches of the moorland to create a patchwork of different stages of heather, some of it very tender and young. It is the tender, young heather that the sheep and grouse can feed on. The old, woody heather is no good for the grouse and is certainly no good for sheep. It is also no good, by the way, for ground-nesting birds such as the golden plover, the lapwing and the curlew.

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.