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.