Skip to main content

Burning of Peat Moorlands

Volume 806: debated on Wednesday 14 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the report by the Committee on Climate Change Land use: Policies for a Net Zero UK, published on 23 January, what plans they have to end rotational burning of peat moorlands.

My Lords, the Government have always been clear on the need to phase out the rotational burning of protected blanket bog to conserve these vulnerable habitats, and we are looking at how legislation could achieve that. However, real progress is being made in promoting sustainable alternatives. We have urged landowners to adopt those alternatives and to continue to work with us constructively.

I thank my noble friend for his Answer and draw attention to my environmental entries in the register. I recognise that there is no consensus about this issue, so can my noble friend tell us what the scientific advice from his department is about this matter?

My noble friend is right that there is much debate around the issue. That debate has prompted a great deal of research, particularly over the last decade. The Government have kept abreast of all the latest scientific evidence to inform our policy approach. However, overall, the evidence shows that the burning on blanket bog is detrimental as it moves the bog away from its original wet state and risks vulnerable peat bogs being converted to drier heathland habitat. Defra’s view is therefore that ending burning on protected deep peat is the best approach for achieving habitat restoration and maximising the full suite of ecosystem benefits that would arise.

I draw attention to my interests in the register. The Government hoped for a voluntary surrender of burning consents but no one volunteered and burning has increased. The heather and moorland burning regulations are 13 years out of date and do not meet the Government’s commitments to net zero, to biodiversity or to air and water quality. I understand that a draft of proposed new legislation has been prepared, so what conceivable legitimate excuse can the Minister give us for delaying any further the legislation that the Government promised to end the rotational burning of blanket bog by October 2019?

We are currently engaging with stakeholders on the content of the England peat strategy and we expect it to be published later this year, but, as I said earlier, the Government are committed to phasing out rotational burning. We are considering all the evidence to ensure that any legislation actually works. It is undoubtedly a complex issue and it is important that we take the right steps to restore and protect this valuable habitat.

My Lords, I refer the Minister to page 95 of the report, where the independent committee says:

“Burning … is highly damaging to the peat, and to the range of environmental benefits that well-functioning peat can deliver”.

It goes on to say:

“A voluntary cessation of this activity … has not produced the desired outcome so the practice should be banned across the UK with immediate effect.”

Does the Minister fully accept and endorse those words? If so, why in his initial Answer did he use the words “phase out” and refer to “real progress” from voluntary efforts, which contradicts what the report says?

As I have said, the Government are committed to ending this practice. We are looking actively at what the best legislative solution would be. We recognise, as does the noble Baroness, that the voluntary approach has not worked, so in that regard, yes, I agree with the statement that she made.

My Lords, we have debated our tree-planting strategy in reducing our carbon footprint many times in the House. Today’s Question brings to the fore just how important our peatlands are. Does my noble friend the Minister have the latest figures on how many managed estates have agreed to give up their consent to burn and, in turn, are managing alternatives?

The answer is that a significant number have made that decision voluntarily. I am afraid I cannot provide the precise number so I will have to write to my noble friend after this session.

My Lords, this is an issue that polarises opinion. Considerable damage was caused by the peat fires on Saddleworth Moor, the result of arson, and the wildfire on Scotland’s Flow Country. These fires were not the result of rotational heather burning, which has many benefits. Before we throw the metaphorical baby out with the bathwater, it is important to note that, despite what the Minister says about the scientific evidence, that evidence is out of date. Does the Minister agree that it would be better to update the scientific evidence before we decide about rotational heather burning on peat moorlands?

The science continues to evolve; it is not a matter of it being out of date. The Government are well aware of the wildfire risk presented by dry conditions on moorlands. Natural England has carried out a review of the causes, the severity and the management practices best placed to mitigate that risk, and we are considering that alongside other evidence. Some of the clearest evidence that we have is that ensuring that peatlands are wet and in a natural state is the best way to minimise wildfire risk. It also tells us that managed burning results in an increase in vegetation types, such as heather, which have a higher fuel load as compared with natural blanket bog vegetation.

My Lords, what are the implications for air quality in habitations following burning of nearby moorlands, and what has been the effect of such burning on the bird population?

The noble Lord raises an important point. There is no doubt that burning has an impact. If the department has precise data as to the extent of that effect, I am afraid I have not seen it. Again, I will have to get back to the noble Lord with that answer.

Does the Minister think it wise to allow heather to grow tall and become an unbroken fire hazard in dry summers? Summer hill fires can burn for months and destroy millions of tonnes of our peat. Does he also think it wise to curtail the rotational management of heather, which provides seeds and green shoots for our highly threatened curlews, lapwings, merlin, plover and dunlin et cetera? While burning heather in March, when the peat is sodden from winter rains and therefore completely safe from harm, may not be perfect, would it not be wise to find an alternative form of heather management before doing away with the tried-and-tested system we have?

I refer the noble Lord to an earlier answer I gave on wildfire risk, which he has raised again. I do not think anyone is proposing simply allowing the heather to continue growing uncontrolled. The alternative to burning is obviously cutting. The department has been looking closely at what the additional burden would be on business were cutting to be generalised. The total figure that the department has come up with is £500,000 per year for the sector. That is based on information provided to us by landowners and managers.

If the Government have not found a way to table their own legislation to ban the burning of peat by the end of the year, will the Minister agree to work with us on a cross-party basis to deliver a ban in the Environment Bill, which comes to the Lords in the new year?

I would be very happy to commit to discussing and sharing the evidence we have with the noble Baroness, and to hear whatever ideas she has on this issue, but we are determined as a Government to achieve a solution through legislation and other means. I would be very happy to have those discussions with her at any time.

My Lords, as the Minister will know, peatlands are one of the most important terrestrial carbon sinks that we have. Apart from burning, peat extraction is a major issue for the health of those peatlands. Will the Government, in their consideration of future peat management, also ban the use of peat for horticultural purposes and its import, as the climate change committee has recommended?

It is an extremely important point and an issue I have followed closely for some time. The noble Lord makes a compelling case. I shall take his remarks back to the department and share them with the Secretary of State.

On a related note, the main argument of the upland partnership, which does not favour a burning ban, is that burning sequesters carbon in the form of charcoal. That is an area of disputed science and there are strong opinions on both sides, but it does not alter our opinion that burning damages the blanket bog habitat. We think that the best way to meet our nature recovery and climate targets is through healthy habitats and well-functioning ecosystems.

My Lords, blanket bog, to which the Minister has referred on a number of occasions, is of course a great method of storing water and holding it back so that it does not go down into the valleys and flood towns and villages below. One consequence of draining sphagnum bog and turning it into heather moor or short grass is that people in the valleys suffer increased flood risk. Does the Minister have any figures to hand on the cost to this country of flood damage in the valleys to people and properties, as compared with the financial benefit of managing moorland by draining and having it as heather moor and short grass?

It is extremely difficult to attach a particular flooding event to a particular cause, because there are so many causes, but the noble Lord is absolutely right that damage to the natural environment exacerbates flood risk. That is why as part of our flood strategy, which is being developed, there is a significantly increased emphasis on nature-based solutions to flooding. Part of that is planting trees in the appropriate areas; part of it also is restoring peatlands.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We now come to the fourth Oral Question. Calling him in time today, Lord Faulkner of Worcester.