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.