Urra Moor, North Yorkshire, England. Photo Rosemary Evans.
Prescribed Burning in Britain as a Moorland Management Technique: Analysis from a Rewilding Perspective
December 2021 | Volume 27, Number 3
The year 2020 saw the introduction of localized bans on the use of prescribed burning as a moorland management technique in Britain and growing calls for a nationwide ban. Opponents to managed burns argue that a ban is an integral part of the country’s climate change and flood defense strategy and a way to improve the quality of drinking water. However, vocal supporters of this traditional land management practice provide contradictory evidence. Prescribed burning advocates highlight its economic value for the grouse shooting industry and the benefits of managed fires for maintaining biodiversity and a healthy, functioning peat layer. They also describe the associated benefits for ecosystem services such as water catchment and carbon storage. This article examines both sides of the debate regarding prescribed burning in the moorland of Britain and proposes a new angle for the debate by using the principles of rewilding.
Moorland is an upland ecosystem, found above the limit of enclosed agricultural land. It is typically an open, uncultivated landscape, dominated by low-growing vegetation such as heather, gorse, and juniper. In Britain, the term “moorland” covers a spectrum of conditions including dry and wet heath, blanket bog, and grassland, reflecting the country’s North-South temperature gradient and East-West moisture gradient. The archetypal moorland scene would be an underlying layer of peat, formed from dead and decaying plant material under waterlogged conditions, covered by the dwarf shrub species heather. Peatland covers 11% of England’s landscape (The Uplands Partnership 2020), and more heather moorland is found in the British Isles and Ireland than anywhere else in the world (Wildlife Trusts 2020).
Moorland provides a range of critical ecosystem services. Peat is widely recognized as the country’s largest carbon store, although estimates vary as to how many millions (or billions) of tons of carbon are stored within our peatland. It also has a crucial role in water catchment, with 70% of the UK’s drinking water coming from upland areas dominated by peatland (Moors for the Future 2020). Moorland also provides a valuable wildlife habitat, especially for birdlife including skylarks, golden plover, curlew, lapwing, and ring ouzel. Much of Britain’s moorland was brought under tillage during the Second World War, while other large swaths of land have been sealed off for military use, planted with conifers for commercial gain, or impacted by quarrying (Macfarlane 2010, 78–79). Today, British moorland is dominated by two commercial activities: sheep rearing and gamebird shooting.
For hundreds of years, prescribed fire, also known as managed or controlled fire, has been used as a land management technique for the moorland. For example, peat samples taken from Exmoor provide evidence of regular burning dating back to medieval times (Exmoor National Park 2020). Today, the practice is governed by a voluntary code of practice published by the government (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [DEFRA] 2007a). Prescribed fires rely on a technique known as a “cool burn.” This removes surface vegetation without damaging the underlying peat. Controlled fires are scheduled to take place during winter and early spring in the absence of ground-nesting birds and when the soil conditions are generally wetter.
The topic of moorland burning has been heavily scrutinized in recent years. In late 2019, the environment minister announced the government was working on a law to prohibit the repeated burning of heather as a land management practice. The government’s position was strengthened in January 2020 with the publication of a Committee on Climate Change report (Committee on Climate Change 2020). This influential report called for a ban on damaging land management practices, including rotational burning on peatland and blanket bogs. According to the report, moorland burning is highly damaging to water quality, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration. Shortly after this report, the country entered lockdown in response to the global Coronavirus pandemic. The Moorland Association asked its members to put any planned burns on hold to reduce pressure on the emergency services. Scotland introduced emergency legislation to ban moorland burning for recreational grouse shooting for the same reasons. And in April 2020, three of the largest landowners in Northern England (Yorkshire Water, United Utilities, and The National Trust) also announced a ban on routine burning of heather to mitigate the risk of out-of-control fires and to minimize the risk of smoke affecting people with respiratory problems. These actions sparked a fresh debate about the impact of controlled moorland burning.
The Case for Prescribed Burning
One of the most cited reasons for prescribed moorland burning is an economic one. Across Britain, an estimated 1.3 million hectares (3,212,369 acres) of moorland are managed for recreational grouse shooting (Rewilding Britain 2020a) – an industry estimated to be worth £67.7 million a year to England’s economy alone (The Moorland Association 2020). On grouse shooting estates, burning is scheduled on a rotational basis, occurring on long, narrow strips of land, designed to create a patchwork effect of young and old heather growing near each other, as it goes through cycles of recovery and maturity. The young heather provides a palatable food source for young birds and the older shrub cover serves as nesting sites and as refuge from predators. An estimated 500,000 wild red grouse are shot per year over the four-month shooting season in England alone (The Moorland Association 2020).
Another argument for the use of controlled fire is that it modulates subsequent wildfire behavior. This has become increasingly important because of climate change. Warmer temperatures and increased precipitation create more vegetation, thereby increasing fuel loads. A prolonged fire season and more combustible material exacerbate the risk of wildfire, and numbers have surged in recent years. In 2018 and the first half of 2019, more damage was caused by wildfires in England than in the entire previous decade (The Moorland Association 2019). Wildfires burn with more intensity than a controlled, cool burn. They produce more greenhouse gas emissions and burn into the underlying peat, damaging the soil and moorland habitat. The availability of biomass on the surface is a key factor contributing to the severity of wildfire. Doubling the quantity of ground biomass can quadruple the intensity of a fire (The Moorland Association 2016). Research shows many wildfires in 2016 started on land without a policy of prescribed burning (The Moorland Association 2016).
Fire is a natural process that plays a vital role in facilitating plant regeneration, improving forage quality and productivity, defining vegetation composition, and controlling landscape-scale variation in habitat structure. Used appropriately, it is possible to have a positive relationship between flora, fauna, and fire. For example, research shows the breeding success of moorland birds improves on managed moorland. One study concluded that the population of upland nesting birds (including golden plover, curlew, and lapwing) could be up to five times greater on managed moorland compared to unmanaged moorland (The Moorland Association 2020). In another project, controlled burning was used successfully to create niche habitats for rare butterflies on Exmoor and Dartmoor (DEFRA 2007b). Other research has indicated regular burning improves the resilience of dwarf-shrub species in the face of disease and pest species (Werritty et al. 2015), and another report showed that burning can be especially beneficial for open-ground species, such as ground beetles and surface-active spiders (Natural England 2013).
There is also an argument that prescribed fires support vital ecosystem services, namely water catchment and carbon storage. Once a controlled, cool burn has removed the dense heather canopy, the underlying Sphagnum moss has enhanced access to sunlight and rainfall. The moss has a role to play in protecting the peat layer and when the peat is in a good condition, it holds more water. Sphagnum moss can also hold up to 20 times its own weight in water and slows the water flow across the surface to mitigate against flash floods downstream (The Moorland Association 2019). It has also been argued that heather burning can have a positive effect on carbon capture. The postfire recovery process, including vegetation regrowth and charcoal production, could potentially improve carbon sequestration (The Uplands Partnership 2020). It has been argued that any greenhouse gas emissions from controlled burns are relatively insignificant compared to emissions from wildfires, and that any loss of carbon through smoke could potentially be canceled out by the vegetation regrowth (The Uplands Partnership 2020).
The Case against Prescribed Burning
Up to 60% of peat can be carbon – a higher proportion than any other type of soil (DEFRA 2007b). Keeping carbon locked in organic soil is a crucial part of the government’s climate change strategy. Research shows degraded peat bogs release more carbon dioxide than they absorb. In the UK, it is estimated that 80% of peat is in poor condition and is responsible for releasing the same carbon emissions as 660,000 households every year (Rewilding Britain 2020a). Up to three-quarters of carbon loss from peat is estimated to be the result of rotational burning of vegetation (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds 2018). The 2017 Natural Environment Research Council’s report on the Effects of Moorland Burning on the Ecohydrology of River Basins (EMBER) (Natural Environment Research Council 2017) concluded that controlled fires dried out peat and deepened the water table, resulting in carbon loss into the atmosphere through oxidation. The report also associated burning with a reduction in the organic matter content of peat and the loss of chemicals important for plant growth and buffering acidic rainfall. Two other studies came to the same conclusion. The 2013 Natural England report (Natural England 2013) concluded that burning reduced the chances of maintaining healthy functioning peatland, reduced carbon storage, and resulted in carbon loss through fuel consumption. And the 2015 Scottish Natural Heritage report (Werritty et al. 2015) also found growing evidence that burning is associated with degradation of the peat-forming processes.
In the summer of 2020, the local council for the Calderdale valley in Yorkshire was preparing to ban moorland burning as part of their flood defense strategy (Greenwood 2020). The area had suffered three major floods in eight years, and previous attempts to rely on landowners voluntarily reducing the extent of burning had proven unsuccessful. There is evidence to suggest controlled burns could be linked to an increased flood risk, as found by the EMBER report (Natural Environment Research Council 2017). This is largely attributed to the fact that burning lowers the water table, reducing the potential for water catchment within the peat. In addition, burning reduces surface vegetation, exposing more topsoil, which can be vulnerable to erosion. This can lead to more water runoff, arguably making local places downstream more susceptible to flooding.
Several ecological studies and conservation groups have raised concerns about the impact of burning on moorland biodiversity. Their argument is that burning changes the vegetation composition in a way that favors fire-tolerant species and reduces the range of habitats that would otherwise be present. The practice perpetuates the domination of fire-adapted heather at the expense of other moorland vegetation, such as grasses and mosses (DEFRA 2007b). Evidence suggests changes in vegetation composition occurring after burning can still be present up to 80 years after the last prescribed burn (Natural England 2013). Studies have also noted changes in soil water chemistry, lower soil pH levels, and reduced nutrient availability after prolonged periods of prescribed burning (Davies et al. 2016). We also know exposed topsoil is more prone to erosion. The risk of this is increased when the protective litter or moss layer is removed through fire (Uplands Management Group 2007).
Water and Air Pollution
There is also evidence of possible links between the use of controlled burns and discoloration of water supplies, which is a cosmetic concern for consumers. This is attributed to an increase in dissolved carbon entering peatland watercourses after burning. The EMBER report found deposits of particulate organic matter were four times greater in riverbed sediments within burned catchment areas (Natural Environment Research Council 2017). The discoloration is expensive for water companies to treat, and the cost is passed to the consumer. Other studies have also identified alterations in stream water chemistry after burning (Davies et al. 2016) and attributed water discoloration and a buildup of dissolved organic carbon to moorland burning (Natural England 2013).
In addition to water pollution, there may also be concerns from local residents about air quality. One of the country’s largest ever moorland fires was on Saddleworth moor in 2018. An investigation into the impact on air quality in Northern England (Graham et al. 2020) concluded the fire had produced large quantities of air pollutants including trioxygen (also known as ozone) and carbon monoxide. The fire primarily burned across heather-dominated moorland with an underlying area of dry peat. Concentrations of certain particulate matter in the air were found to be up to double the World Health Organization recommended guideline limit and therefore likely to have caused negative health impacts for individuals exposed, particularly for those with underlying health conditions.
Another common concern is the risk of a managed fire getting out of control and turning into a wildfire. It is estimated that 50% of wildfires with known causes may themselves be caused by the loss of control of prescribed burns (Werritty et al. 2015). In early 2020, the Moorland Association, an industry body for landowners, instructed landowners to stop the practice of prescribed burning after a fire on Marsden moor in Yorkshire spread out of control. Firefighters tackled a mile-long front for several days, at a time when they were trying to focus resources on supporting the national response to the coronavirus pandemic (Laville 2020). The risk is greatest when a managed burn fails to comply with the best practice guidance; for example, if it occurs in the wrong conditions, with inadequate firebreaks, staff, or equipment. Wildfires burn with more intensity than a controlled “cool” burn and often result in more widespread damage to vegetation and can burn into the underlying peat. There is also a risk to people and property and increased pressure on emergency services to bring the wildfire under control.
The Need for a New Perspective
There are many divergent opinions over the effects of moorland burning. Research so far has focused predominantly on trying to establish the effects on carbon capture, biodiversity, and other ecosystem services, but there is a lack of consensus. Whereas some studies have decisively criticized the practice of prescribed moorland burning, others have opted for a more nuanced approach, stating that trying to categorize the effects of fire as simply “positive” or “negative” is difficult (Davies et al. 2016). Nutrient dynamics are complex, evidence of vegetation succession pathways in response to burning remains in part hypothetical, and it is difficult to untangle complex interacting disturbances.
A rewilding movement is gaining momentum across Britain. From the Knepp Estate in Sussex to landscape-scale projects such as Wild Ennerdale in Cumbria and countrywide projects such as Wild East across East Anglia, rewilding is entering the mainstream of British consciousness.
Rewilding is commonly described as the large-scale restoration of ecosystems to reinstate natural processes and species. It is not geared toward reaching a human-defined optimal point but rather is about allowing an ecosystem to evolve as nature chooses. It is seen as a key part of the nation’s defense against climate change and biodiversity loss.
Moorland is intrinsically linked with wilderness in the British psyche. From the fearsome beasts in The Hound of the Baskervilles to the ghostly apparitions of Wuthering Heights and the dangerous smugglers of Jamaica Inn, moorland is often used as a hostile backdrop for daring adventures and as a literary trope for mystery and menace. It is a wilderness of vast, trackless land, leaving you at the mercy of the elements and with a sense of timelessness and loneliness. In a densely populated country, the unbroken horizons and absence of enclosures creates a sense of unparalleled freedom and openness. For many people, the moors of Britain do indeed represent wild places (Macfarlane 2010, 80). With this in mind, new areas of research need to be addressed in order to explore what rewilding could mean for moorland management.
Defining the Desired Condition
The term “rewilding” is used to mean returning to conditions that would have prevailed in the absence of humans, often described as the “natural” condition. This idea is supported by the “pure” wilderness philosophy, which states that the most important value of wilderness is an unmodified ecological environment, where nature has free rein (Worf 1980). This is what makes wilderness distinctive from other areas. This idea is expanded on in the manifesto of the Rewilding Britain organization, where rewilding is defined as letting nature lead and reinstating natural processes (Rewilding Britain 2020b). However, the challenge is determining what an environment, such as a moorland landscape, would look like in the absence of people.
On the one hand, it is possible to argue that the current moorland condition is a human-made landscape, substantially altered by sustained practices of deforestation, grazing, and fire (Werritty et al. 2015) and that without some degree of continual grazing and/or burning, moorland would revert to a “natural” woodland state. Woodland currently covers 13% of Britain, compared to a European average of 37% (Rewilding Britain 2020c). Expanding woodland cover not only tackles climate change by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere but protects against flooding, enriches soil, improves river health, and provides shelter and food for a range of plants and animals. This could make the case for allowing shrubs and trees to cover the open moors.
On the other hand, there are those who dispute the notion that closed canopy woodland is the natural state of the British landscape (Tree 2018, 61–64). The “closed canopy theory” says that before human impact, any land with the climate, soil, and hydrology for trees to grow was covered with closed-canopy forest. But this theory does not consider the animal disturbance of megafauna (large herbivorous mammals such as wild ox, bison, elk, boar, and beaver) who worked in opposition to vegetation succession. Fossil bones and pollen records show many deciduous trees arrived in Britain at least 3,000 years after the large herbivores, who were hunted to extinction or driven out as wildlands were converted to fields. Following this theory, open expanses of land without woodland cover could in fact be the desirable “natural” condition to preserve.
The key to resolving this conundrum lies in how one chooses to define “natural” or indeed if one declares “naturalness” to be the overriding objective. Improved knowledge of ecosystem dynamics has led to a new realization that there may be no single, definable ecological baseline to aim for. The “natural” state may be a moving target. And with novel stressors such as climate change driving changes outside an ecosystem’s normal historical range of variability, the recovery of past conditions may not always be desirable or even possible. One could rely on paleoecology to build a longer temporal perspective, reconstruct past environmental dynamics, and investigate the biotic response to change. Or one could choose to be more specific about how one defines the desired conditions. Instead of “naturalness,” the objective could be to maintain ecological integrity. This incorporates a functioning structure; healthy, unimpaired processes related to the flow and storage of energy and materials; and a full complement of native species. Alternatively, the objective could be to build an ecosystem’s resilience, referring to its ability to recover from stressors, and to persist and maintain its characteristics in changing environmental conditions. Thinking in terms of ecological integrity or resilience could therefore be a more workable and helpful objective than “naturalness,” and new research would need to define what that looked like in the moorland context.
Establishing Acceptable Levels of Intervention
Once the desired landscape conditions have been defined, the second question is the extent to which human intervention is justifiable in achieving and maintaining those conditions. In this context, the key challenge is determining whether prescribed burning is a permissible form of management intervention.
On the one hand, there is the argument that a wild ecosystem is distinct from other areas when it is free from human control and natural forces can dominate. This way of thinking would favour a “hands-off” approach that exercises restraint in respect of nature’s autonomy (Landres 2010). This acknowledges the limits of our understanding in the context of rapidly changing conditions and allows evolutionary change and adaptation to occur. By evolving and adapting under its own terms, an ecosystem may develop more resilience against future stressors. This line of argument could therefore be used to make the case that managed fires are unacceptable in a wilderness setting.
On the other hand, there is the argument that intervention, such as prescribed burning, can be a necessary part of wilderness stewardship. It can be a way to prevent an ecosystem from drifting into neglect. Heather moorland can be described as a transition habitat along the succession cycle (British Association for Shooting and Conservation 2020). Thousands of years ago, small areas of moorland would have existed where native animals had grazed or where flood and fire had removed the trees. To keep moorland at this stage of succession today, we need to implement some form of management, including controlled fire. The argument in favor of prescribed burns can be strengthened when one considers the novel stressors of climate change. With the increased risk of wildfire, there is now greater need to reduce the fuel load by routinely removing surface-level vegetation.
One way to resolve this dilemma is to shift the stewardship focus away from the means to the outcome. In other words, managing for desired conditions regardless of whether the changes are human-influenced or not. The idealized notion of minimal human impact in the wilderness has been challenged by a growing awareness of the impact of people on landscapes throughout millennia. Whilst accepting that humans have and will always exert an influence on the landscape, it is possible to draw a distinction between human influences that have been present in the long-term evolution of ecosystems and our influences that are the result of modern, transformative technology. Whilst the modern practices based on new technology may be judged out of place in a wilderness ecosystem, the older, traditional land-management practices may still serve a role today in maintaining the conditions we strive for. Establishing to what extent managed fire qualifies as a traditional practice and whether it is the least invasive means to achieve the desired outcome would need to be the subject of new research into moorland management.
Consensus on the Values of Wilderness
An additional concern would be the impact of prescribed moorland burning on opportunities for recreational enjoyment. Without anyone to enjoy wilderness environments, they lose part of their purpose. One could argue that prescribed burning has a positive impact on recreation opportunities, because heather regeneration supports the grouse shooting industry. This line of argument relies on anthropocentric values, which view wilderness from a sociological or human-oriented perspective. It is a convenience-oriented approach, designed to maximize direct human use and recreational enjoyment. In other words, management is guided more by societal demands than natural conditions. According to this system of values, it is acceptable to change the character of wilderness to reflect human desires and contemporary standards.
Alternatively, there is a biocentric perspective, which places human use secondary to maintaining natural settings and processes. The goal is to allow ecological processes to operate as freely as possible, so the landscape reflects natural perturbations and the historical patterns of ecological succession. Following these values, one could argue that it is unacceptable to alter the landscape for the purposes of grouse shooting, as this is neither a primitive form of recreation, nor a wilderness-dependent sport.
This debate can be resolved by reaching a stewardship consensus on whether a utilitarian or ecological philosophy should be followed. The utilitarian philosophy is concerned with the values associated with human use of wilderness. It is a people-oriented approach, devoted to servicing the user and getting the maximum value out of the land. This could lend weight to the use of prescribed fire for the grouse shooting industry. The ecological philosophy is the belief that wilderness preservation is ecosystem preservation. The primary management goal is to minimize human impact on the biophysical resources and to allow nature to take its course. This could lend weight to the argument of those who want to cease the practice of prescribed burning. Gaining consensus on acceptable recreational use and which wilderness philosophy to follow will be important for future decisions.
This article examines the value of bringing a new perspective to the debate on prescribed moorland burning, by analyzing it as a rewilding opportunity. Scientific studies so far have centered mainly on the challenging research questions of comparing the impact of wildfire burns to controlled cool burns, or analyzing the effect of burning on carbon storage, water catchment, and water quality. There is a complex web of disturbance regimes to untangle and there are numerous variables to consider. By analyzing moorland as a rewilding opportunity, the focus of the debate shifts toward identifying the desired conditions we want to achieve, the means we are prepared to use to achieve that end, and the amount and type of human recreational enjoyment we want to facilitate.
This author believes the core purpose of rewilding is to let natural processes operate freely. This means moving beyond the idea of “naturalness” as a human-defined fixed condition, and allowing landscapes to evolve under their own terms, building their own powers of resilience. It means minimizing human intervention and allowing nature to drive the changes, acknowledging that they will be neither “good” nor “bad.” And it means practising a biocentric stewardship philosophy, designed to meet ecological objectives rather than satisfy human desires. Integrating these principles into moorland management would be an exciting opportunity to see a genuinely landscape-scale rewilding project in action.
About the Author
ROSEMARY EVANS is an alumna of the graduate certificate in wilderness management from the Wilderness Management Distance Education Program at the University of Montana; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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In this issue of IJW, we remember George Stankey and his contributions to wilderness research and stewardship. Mark Anderson provides a synthesis of recent findings on carbon storage in old growth forests. Rosemary Evans examines prescribed burning in Britain’s moorlands. And Tobias Nickel presents a call for a standard definition of “Natural” in wilderness stewardship.
As we transition to a post-pandemic society, demand for transformational, restorative, and education experiences in nature will not recede. Nature has demonstrated its diverse benefits to a greater constituency these past months, and we as advocates, scientists, and managers need to embrace the challenge that comes with a larger audience.
George Stankey was a critical thinker who saw the big picture and could work across disciplinary boundaries.