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Heather Burning on Peatlands

Volume 744: debated on Tuesday 23 January 2024

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the regulation of heather burning on peatlands.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Betts.

On 9 October last year, smoke, ash and air pollution engulfed the Sheffield, Hallam constituency and beyond. A great many people contacted me on that day and afterwards to complain about the air quality, which was four times over the legal limit for air pollution. It was a relatively still day, so the smoke took a while to dissipate, and the unique topography of my constituency meant that constituents were very much affected. Constituents contacted me to say that they had trouble breathing and that it caused coughing and eye irritation. It was particularly distressing for members of my community with respiratory conditions.

The reason for the smoke was heather burning on the moorlands to the west of Sheffield. Natural England, which is investigating the burns, tells me that

“the moorland estates located within SSSIs close to Sheffield usually have Agri-Environment Higher Level Stewardship agreements that contain burning plans.”

I will not comment on the specifics of last year’s burn, because we do not know whether it was legal, but it is entirely possible that it was legal, despite the rocketing pollution levels and the damaging effects on my community.

I started with that anecdote because the fact is that this could be perfectly lawful behaviour, which highlights some of the problems with the current regulations. Burns such as these are a regular occurrence in my constituency, often with similar, if not quite so dramatic, effects. The immediate impact on air quality is obvious, but the burning also undermines our ability to address the twin climate and nature crises facing us by damaging the precious blanket peat bog habitats that would otherwise exist.

I commend the hon. Lady for bringing this issue forward. She and I agree on the importance of this subject, although we might have slightly different opinions about what is happening. Does the hon. Lady agree—I think she does, but I want to have it on the record—that those who own or manage the moors try to manage them in an environmentally sensitive way? As such, the burning of the moors is part of what happens for the purpose of shooting on the moors, as the hon. Lady will know. Burning helps to regenerate the moors for the next season and increases bird yields. Does the hon. Lady agree that we must recognise all the different factors that are important for moors? Has there been any engagement with those who manage or own the moors to find a way to do this that does not, by its very nature, cause any inconvenience to others?

That is a good point. Yes, I have been out to various moorland owners in my constituency and beyond to see regenerative projects—for example, planting sphagnum moss plugs and other things that people are doing to try to improve the quality of the moors—but I still think that further Government intervention is needed. The immediate impact of burning is obvious, but the long-term impact should concern us all. As I was about to say, we have to make sure that we take into consideration the climate and nature crises as well as the health implications of burning, which is damaging our precious blanket bogs.

The peatlands are so important. We have 13% of the Earth’s blanket peat bogs in the UK, which is the largest proportion in the world. They are essentially our rainforests, and I am proud to represent a constituency that includes some of that landscape. Unfortunately, as I have seen at first hand, the vast proportion of our peatland is degraded. It is hard to see the difference between a degraded peatland and one in good health, because there is damage to so much of our peatland, and part of that is due to the burning.

Burning not only damages the ecosystem that supports an abundance of wildlife, but is bad for the climate. In the natural and rewetted state, peatlands have the potential to store carbon dioxide on a large scale and can be a vital asset for helping us decarbonise our country, but when they are degraded, they do the exact opposite. Nationally, the damage means that our peatlands emit the equivalent CO2 of 140,000 cars per year; the burns themselves release 260,000 tonnes of CO2 annually. The burning also makes the effects of the climate crisis worse, because when the heather is burnt, the fire kills off the spongy sphagnum moss underneath that acts as a natural barrier to rain run-off. One expert described the moss to me as a Persian carpet—it is very absorbent; you can squeeze it, and if you jump up and down on a healthy bog, someone 20 metres away will be able to feel the vibration because of the water held in the moss. It is very rare to find that in the UK now.

Losing the moss means that we often see down-valley flooding, which will become more and more likely if that environment is not protected and restored. If we want to slow the flow, a good place to start would be by maintaining the sphagnum moss and making sure that it is in good condition to do the job that it has evolved to do. Global heating means that our winters are getting wetter, and we are already beginning to see the effects in floods up and down the country. Rather than destroying natural flood defences, we need to protect them to ensure that we mitigate the worst effects of the climate emergency.

Some say that we need burning to control fuel loads on the moors, and that without it overgrown heather would cause wildfires, but the more heather is burned, the more it grows and the more we are locked into a cycle of burning. Is it not better to break that cycle by restoring the moorland monoculture back to its former health, rewetting the peat and reintroducing the more vibrant biodiversity that was there before the burns, and, in fact, before the draining of many of our peatlands?

That is why I was pleased, in 2020, when the Government announced that they would introduce stronger regulations to control the burns. In fact, the current licensing regime was introduced shortly after a similar debate to this that I was lucky enough to secure, in which the Minister told me that the old system was clearly

“not protecting every blanket bog site.”—[Official Report, 18 November 2020; Vol. 684, c. 216WH.]

However, the details of the 2021 regulations left a lot to be desired. Licensing is required only on peatland of a depth of 40 cm or more, and we do not have an agreed national map of that. The Wildlife and Countryside Link estimates that the current law therefore leaves about 60% of UK peatlands without any protection.

Three years on, it is useful to take stock of whether the new regulatory regime is working for the peatlands that it does include. Unfortunately, data from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds suggests that it is not. We are halfway through this burning season, so we do not have the full figures for this year, but during 2022-23, 260 records of burning in the English uplands were reported to the RSPB via its dedicated app, of which 87% took place in special areas of conservation and special protected areas. The RSPB believes that 72, or 28%, of the 260 burns reported to itmay have breached the regulations by taking place on protected areas of peat over 40 cm in depth. The year before, the RSPB received 272 reports: one in three burns took place on peat likely to be deeper than 25 cm, and four out of five took place in SSSIs, special protected areas and special areas of conservation. Although the Government issued no licences for burns in 2021, 70 reported burns took place on peat likely to be deeper than 40 cm in protected sites, violating the regulations. In the last two years, without considering the current season, it is therefore likely that at least 142 burns were illegal.

In 2023, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs successfully prosecuted two estate owners and issued a warning to a third, but that is only three cases. The level of enforcement action is not anywhere near the level of potential law breaking. The figures show that the new system is clearly not working and that the law needs to go much further to stop this damaging practice, rather than continue the partial prohibition we have seen. It is high time that there is an outright ban.

I raised this issue in the Chamber with the previous Secretary of State for Environment and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). I am sorry to say that she told me not only that she was not considering a ban, but that my constituents should be happy with the air quality they have. I hope that new leadership in the Department will produce a less disappointing and dismissive response, because it is important to get this issue right. Unfortunately, the Government are not getting it right or rising to the level of ambition required.

The latest Climate Change Committee progress report on reducing UK emissions says that restoration of peatlands is already significantly off track compared with the CCC’s balanced pathway. In 2022-23, the overall amount of UK peatlands restored was a measly 12,700 hectares. Although that is an increase on the previous year, to meet next year’s target of 29,000 hectares will require more than a doubling of the current rate. Even if the Government match that target, the CCC recommends a UK-wide rate of 67,000 hectares per year by 2025.

I know the Minister will point me to the Government’s England peat action plan, but the truth is we are not meeting the targets that we need to. We see a failure of delivery of Government policy on peatlands and, even worse, a failure of ambition. That needs to change, and change urgently. It is has been a pleasure to go out on the moors in my constituency and elsewhere in the country to see projects dedicated to rewetting and restoring peatlands. Instead of burning, we need more projects such as those, and for other degraded habitats, supported by concerted Government-led strategy to reverse the decline in nature.

The Minister lives very close to where I grew up. I recently went for a walk with the family and I tried to show them some healthy sphagnum moss on the moorlands in his constituency. It was very difficult to find some in good condition, to show what I was talking about. That shows a wider issue than in my own constituency, where we do have a lot of burning. We know that the degradation of peatlands is of great importance to communities up and down the country.

Heather burning is bad for the environment, bad for the climate crisis and, as the recent burns in my constituency have graphically illustrated, bad for the health of people in Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam in particular. I hope the Minister will consider a complete ban on burns and offer a comprehensive, joined-up plan to restore these habitats. I am proud to say that I have the support of our Mayor, Oliver Coppard, and the leader of Sheffield City Council, Tom Hunt, who have both been outspoken on their wish to see a further ban.

We have been trying to contact certain landowners about this practice, to ensure we have a way to deal with the needs of peatland owners while balancing them against those of local communities. Where air pollution levels are breached, it is important that local authorities have the powers to stop that happening, to protect people’s health and the environment in the uplands, which is so important for those who live downstream.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) for securing this important debate, and giving me the opportunity to respond to some of the points that have been made.

The United Kingdom boasts some of the world’s most extensive peatlands, with nearly 3 million hectares of peatland area. That precious habitat is of huge national importance, which the hon. Member rightly identifies. Those precious habitats are vital as we protect those sites for future generations. The Government’s commitment to the protection and restoration of those habitats achieves several environmental benefits, including cutting carbon emissions, optimising biodiversity, minimising wildlife hazards and improving water and air quality.

I will dive straight into the regulations to which the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam referred. On 16 February 2021, the Government published the Heather and Grass etc. Burning (England) Regulations 2021 to protect blanket bog habitats in England. The regulations came into force in May of that year and were introduced to prevent burning on areas of peat of over 40 cm deep on sites of special scientific interest—SSSIs—or on special protection and conservation areas, except under licence.

The regulations were seen as a game changer in protecting peat bog areas. They limited the practice of burning on protected blanket bog, except when a licence has been granted for reasons such as wildfire mitigation or supporting peatland restoration. The regulations are a crucial step forward in meeting the Government’s nature and climate change mitigation and adaptation targets, including the legally binding commitments to reach net zero carbon emissions. Data from the moorland change map suggests a decline in burning and cutting on moorland areas since the introduction of these regulations in 2021. DEFRA, supported by Natural England, has been swift to act on breaches of these regulations, and it secured two successful prosecutions last year. The low numbers of alleged offences and successful prosecutions show that compliance with the regulations is high and that stakeholders have been receptive.

However, burning can be the right tool in the mitigation and management of heather in certain circumstances. These regulations were designed to strike the right balance between protecting our habitats from harm and ensuring that our landowners and land managers have the right tools available to better protect, restore and manage heather moorland. We also need to be mindful of wildfire mitigation, human safety, conservation, and the management of our natural environment. Burning can be necessary if the specified vegetation cannot be managed through mechanical means of preventing heather growth, given the topography of the moorland. A range of measures, including burning, must be available, and the regulations give land managers the option to seek an exemption.

I want to go deeper into the regulations. They are a means to better enhance blanket bogs and to protect these valuable landscapes that we all care so deeply about. For an applicant to be granted a licence under the 2021 regulations, they must demonstrate that they have at least tried or considered alternative methods of land management and explain why measures other than burning are not possible. They must also set out how they intend to manage the land without burning in the future, and ideally facilitate peatland restoration.

May I ask the Minister how many licences have been granted? If it is truly an act of last resort, it would be interesting to know those figures, given that the number of burns on sites of special scientific interest and protected landscapes continues to be high, to determine whether the regulations are protecting and meeting the needs of those areas.

The regulations relate specifically to SSSIs, with the additional protection measures that have been put in place. The majority of licence applications under the 2021 regulations are for the purpose of reducing the risk of wildfires. With regard to the specific detail, I am more than happy to write to the hon. Lady about the number of applications received, although not all are progressed to the grant of a licence. I am sure that she will agree that having the tools available to mitigate the risks is crucial to the protection of our landscape, habitat and communities. As she rightly pointed out, I live in a constituency with moorland, where there was a fire several years ago right up to the boundaries of Ilkley, so I know that it is important that all means of managing habitat are available.

DEFRA funds a training programme designed to consolidate knowledge, skills and understanding of vegetation fires, including wildfire incidence and prescribed fire operations. The aim is to support landowners and land managers to manage their land in a way that reduces the risk from wildfire, with the expectation that that will reduce the need to burn for such a purpose. Since the development of the 2021 regulations, more than 1,000 Lantra-accredited training modules have been completed by public and private land managers.

Restoring peatlands to a favourable condition will go a long way towards reducing the need to burn heather on land, as healthy blanket bogs pose a much lower risk of wildfire because they are wetter and have a lower fuel load. We must not forget, however—this is important—that all options are available for a land manager to explore. When heather continues to grow for many years, it comprises a heavy, woody stock, which poses its own fire risk. Therefore, with a specified burning management plan associated with many agri-environmental stewardship agreements granted via Natural England, it is important not only that those plans are adhered to, but that the relationship between Natural England and the land manager has been established, so that we can manage our peatlands as successfully as we can to reduce the risks of wildfire.

We are ramping up levels of peatland restoration through the nature for climate fund, which provides funding for the restoration of at least 35,000 hectares of peatland by 2025. A restoration grant scheme delivered by Natural England has committed financially to restoring approximately 27,000 hectares of peatland. In addition, restoration is being delivered through countryside stewardship and other Government schemes. DEFRA has also committed, through the third national adaptation programme published in July 2023, to keep the case for extending protections against burning on peat under review.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam, referred to flooding and peat restoration partnerships. Such partnerships have proved highly effective, and they are an example of stakeholders working together to restore peatland. In the north of England alone, almost 45,000 acres of moorland have been repaired and re-vegetated. I am aware that in the North Pennines area of outstanding national beauty, work to block agricultural grains through an agri-environmental stewardship scheme and a land manager working closely with Natural England has resulted in the North Pennines AONB peatland programme being awarded a climate change award at the County Durham environmental awards in 2015.

A Natural England evidence review of the effects of managed burning on upland peatland biodiversity, carbon and water concluded that no evidence had been identified relating specifically to the risk of burning for watercourse flow or downstream flood events. I therefore highlight that while Natural England has carried out that review, continued monitoring will take place.

I must also pick up on the visit of the hon. Lady to my constituency. I am not sure which moor she walked across, but if it was Ilkley moor—

The hon. Lady is nodding, but she might or might not be aware that Ilkley moor is owned by the local authority, Bradford Council, and that no burning has taken place for a significant number of years. The fact that she could not find any sphagnum moss on a moor that has had no burning for a significant period of time does not help the case that she is making. In my constituency, I have visited Keighley moor—it is not owned by Bradford Council but it has a management programme in place—and seen an abundance of sphagnum moss there, which is managed by various means.

On the points that the hon. Lady made specifically regarding her constituency, she will be aware of Sheffield City Council’s work to promote sustainable land management in the Peak district to reduce burning, with the aim of improving air quality in those areas. Poor air quality is the greatest environmental threat to human health, as we all agree, and the Government recognise the need to drive down air pollution and its impacts on human health and the environment. That is why we have set up two stretching new targets for fine particulate matter—the pollutant most harmful to human health—under the Environment Act 2021. Our dual target approach will ensure reductions where concentrations are highest, as well as reducing average exposure across the country by over a third by 2040 compared with 2018, making a significant contribution to improving public health.

We need to drive down emissions across all sectors to achieve our targets, and we have set out the comprehensive and wide-ranging action that we are taking to clean up our air in the environmental improvement plan, which came into effect last year. That includes improving our regulatory framework for industry to drive innovation and tackle our air quality and net zero goals hand in hand. The continued support to local authorities, including through our £883-million nitrogen dioxide programme, will certainly help with that. That has included funding for the hon. Lady’s constituency to support the delivery of the Sheffield clean air zone and other measures to tackle NO2 exceedances.

I recognise that the impacts of moorland burning on air quality are a concern to the hon. Lady, and for that reason she has brought this debate to the House, but I want to reiterate that moorland management has to consider all options, and the regulations that we brought in in 2021 have been well received by many stakeholders who engaged with that process. I think that we have reached a balance that can be well received by all. I want to allow the hon. Lady a chance to respond—

Okay. I will continue with another little point—I wanted to ensure that I was doing it all correctly in this Westminster Hall debate.

I am happy to tell the hon. Lady that we are committed to exploring adding particulate matter and other air pollutant emissions from moorland practices to our national atmospheric emissions inventory. That work is currently being explored by teams at DEFRA and we will continue to look at additional evidence that is put forward. I hope that that work, as well as the 2021 regulations, provides some reassurance to the hon. Lady that the Government are taking this matter incredibly seriously, along with the £883 million that we have given to local authorities, including her own, to roll out and assist with the Sheffield clean air zone. In summary, I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate and for raising her concerns today.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.