Legislation to prevent the burning of heather and other vegetation on protected blanket bog habitats has been brought forward by the government.
The new regulations will prevent the burning of any specified vegetation on areas of deep peat (over 40cm depth) on a Site of Special Scientific Interest that is also a Special Area of Conservation or a Special Protection Area, unless a licence has been granted or the land is steep or rocky.
This statutory instrument will be laid before Parliament for approval before it comes into force.
Environment Secretary George Eustice commented on the announcement: “Our peatlands have great potential as a natural store of carbon, as well as protecting habitats, providing a haven for rare wildlife and being a natural provider of water regulation.
“We want to work with land owners to restore the natural hydrology of many of these sites through our new agricultural policy to support our ambitions for the environment.
“The burning of heather on these sites makes it more difficult to restore their natural hydrology, which is why we are taking this step.”
‘Rotational’ burning is used as a management tool on moorland and blanket bog.
Land managers use controlled burning on patches of heather during winter months typically on a 8-12 year rotation.
According to the government, there is a consensus that burning of vegetation on blanket bog is damaging to peatland formation and habitat condition, as this makes restoring these habitats to their natural state and to restore their hydrology more difficult or impossible.
Blanket bog, a type of peatland, is a delicate habitat of international importance, with the UK having 13% of the world’s blanket bog.
If moorland is unmanaged, there is a risk of wildfire, and these risks have grown due to climate change.
Therefore, the government intends to work with land owners and managers to develop local wildfire control plans.
There will be specific circumstances where the ban does not apply, such as on steep land or where scree makes up half the land area.
In addition, the Secretary of State may also issue licences for the burning of heather on blanket bog for the purposes of wildfire prevention, for a conservation purpose or where land is inaccessible to cutting or mowing machinery.
These licences may cover several years so that they can be aligned with coherent management plans for sites.
Natural England Chair Tony Juniper added: “This is a hugely welcome announcement which will see better protections for our globally important peatlands.
“Blanket bog is an amazing habitat that provides essential environmental benefits, including carbon storage, a home for wonderful wildlife, clean drinking water and flood mitigation.
“This is why it is vital we ensure these systems are healthy with peat-forming species, such as Sphagnum mosses, thriving in water-logged conditions.
“We will continue to work with Defra and land managers to help with the successful implementation of these measures, including by providing advice on good upland management and leading a new peatland restoration grant scheme as part of the Nature for Climate programme.
“This will provide funds to carry out restoration work on these precious ecosystems, ensuring their recovery and protection for the benefit of both present and future generations.”
The government has stated to be setting out further measures to protect England’s peatlands this year as part of a package of measures to protect the country’s landscapes and nature-based solutions.
The £640m Nature for Climate Fund also includes funding to kick-start a programme of peatland restoration over the next five years.