Why calls for a ban on heather burning in North York Moors are growing louder

A campaign group dedicated to safeguarding the North York Moors has reignited the dispute over heather burning on the protected landscape by suggesting alternative methods should be used to encourage grouse breeding.

By Rob Parsons
Tuesday, 31st March 2020, 5:45 am
Updated Tuesday, 31st March 2020, 9:17 am

Tom Chadwick, chairman of the North Yorkshire Moors Association, wrote in its magazine 'Voice of the Moors' that there was “gathering moment of opinion” that moorland burning was no longer an acceptable form of moorland management.

Mr Chadwick, who lives in the moors village of Castleton, said there had recently been a rise in complaints due to "very intensive periods of heather burning with a pall of smoke stretching for many miles".

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5 March 2020.... A heather beater keeps a close watch on a controlled heather burn on the moors above Castleton in the North Yorkshire Moors National Park. Technical details Nikon D3s wuith a 28-70mm lens and an expoure of 1/2500th @f9, 200 ISO. Picture Tony Johnson

He wrote: "The towering plumes all too often have reached an inversion layer which has forced the smoke down and filled up the dales, most noticeably Danby Dale, Westerdale, Glaisdale, Rosedale and Farndale.”

Mr Chadwick added: “The weather obviously plays an important part as to when it is a suitable time to carry out burning and there have been times over the years, when gamekeepers supervising burning, have misjudged changes in wind speed and direction to give rise to fires which have got out of control.”

And he pointed to the report published in January by the influential Committee on Climate Change which calls for a ban on rotational burning, including burning for grouse shooting, to be introduced this year.

The committee's report says: "Burning heather promotes young shoots, which grouse feed on, but it is highly damaging to the peat, and to the range of environmental benefits that well-functioning peat can deliver.

"A voluntary cessation of this activity by landowners has not produced the desired outcome so the practice should be banned across the UK with immediate effect."

The North York Moors National Park Authority is supportive of the practice but bird charity the RSPB says burning damages important habitats and contributes to climate change.

Mr Chadwick wrote in the magazine that though there were conflicting views on the issue, one answer is the use of use of horizontal chain flail cutting, a technique already used elsewhere.

He said this method achieves the same end of short, medium and long heather to encourage grouse to breed and prosper but without harming the environment.

He told The Yorkshire Post: "I can understand that landowners who have grouse probably don't like this, particularly because it will cost them more money to do it, that is understandable.

"Some areas lend themselves better to these cutting procedures than others because of the unevenness of the ground and it being strewn with rocks."

He added: "Our view is that we recognise the commercial importance of grouse moors and grouse shooting and that it is an important part of the rural economy in national parks.

"At the same time, if it is not any longer acceptable to burn the heather then I think landowners are obliged to look at the alternatives that are available, and strip cutting is an alternative.

"It would be better for everyone if it worked for them and it works in a way that helps the climate."

The Moorland Association, which represents grouse moor owners and managers in England, says the Government should not rush into an outright ban on controlled heather burning over peatland.

In a statement on its website, director Amanda Anderson says: "Burning is only used in the right areas and for the right reasons to enhance conservation and protection.

"The science and evidence on heather burning and greenhouse gas emissions is far from clear and we need trials to guard against unforeseen consequences."

it has asked its members to put any planned controlled burning on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic and “the overstretched status of our emergency services fighting the virus”.