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Controlled moorland blazes are good for the environment overall, new research is showing. 

Scottish Land & Estates has today (Monday January 23) welcomed what it calls a landmark report on the impact of different land management practices on peatland, and said the research provides a “golden standard” of evidence with which to shape the future of muirburn in Scotland.

Researchers at the University of York are conducting a 20-year-long study into the management of heather-dominated peatland at the request of Natural England and DEFRA. They have reported major findings at the half-way stage of the project.

Comparing the impact of controlled burning (muirburn), mowing and leaving heather unmanaged, they found that of the three management scenarios:

  • burnt plots had the highest net carbon absorption in the long-term, becoming carbon sinks within 5-7 years;
  • mown and unmanaged plots both absorbed about half the carbon per year of burnt plots;
  • unmanaged plots released by far the most methane; 
  • burning, in particular, was good for nutrient content for grazing animals, likely due to the fertilization that ash provides;
  • unmanaged heather dried out the underlying peat and increased risk of wildfire, with the potential of triggering ‘catastrophic’ carbon loss as well as the destruction of wildlife and habitat.

Ross Ewing, Moorland Director at Scottish Land & Estates, said: “This report provides an authoritative, golden standard of evidence which demonstrates the importance of retaining muirburn as a land management tool for tackling the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss on globally significant peatland habitats.

“The debate surrounding the protection of peatland has been far too polarised - a problem partly driven by widespread misunderstanding and, in some cases, misrepresentation of muirburn by parties who have little or no experience of the practice and its impacts.

“The clear implication from this research is that the Scottish Government’s proposal to ban muirburn where the underlying peat is deeper than 40cm would remove the most effective means of maximising carbon storage on a significant proportion of Scotland’s peatlands, and in turn increase the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

“Scottish Land & Estates urges the Scottish Government to consider the findings of this research as it develops a regulatory framework for muirburn in Scotland. It is our strongest view that any depth-based restriction on muirburn would be completely meaningless and counterintuitive, and that the focus should be on specialist training for practitioners which will maximise adherence to best practice guidance.”

The University of York research can be found here: https://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/194976/