Moorland Burning

Part of Asylum Seekers and Permission to Work – in Westminster Hall at 5:19 pm on 18th November 2020.

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Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 5:19 pm, 18th November 2020

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.