Officials are investigating claims peatland sites described as England’s “national rainforests” have been burned on grouse moors despite a ban.
Environmental groups say satellite monitoring and reports suggest dozens of fires were set as part of grouse moor management on protected deep peat areas during the winter.
The Environment Department (Defra) said it is now investigating the potential breaches of the heather and peat burning regulations, brought in to protect what the Government described as the country’s national rainforest and help tackle climate change and nature loss.
Grouse moor managers carry out controlled burning of heather on peatland during winter months to stimulate new growth of the plants which red grouse can feed on, and say their methods do not harm the peat below.
But conservationists say burning peatland destroys vegetation, erodes the carbon-storing peat and reduces its ability to slow the flow of water and prevent flooding in the valleys below.
The UK has 13% of the world’s blanket bog, which in a healthy state is an important store of carbon and natural habitat for wildlife but produces carbon dioxide emissions when degraded.
Last May, Defra brought in a ban on burning on blanket bog with deep peat – more than 40cm – in specially protected areas of England without a licence – with exemptions for rocky or sloping ground.
Officials said there was consensus that burning of vegetation on blanket bog was damaging to peatland formation and the condition of the habitat and made it more difficult or impossible to restore them to their natural state.
An eight-month investigation by Unearthed, Greenpeace’s investigative team, used satellite monitoring and mapping data for protected areas and deep peat to assess the ban.
It identified 251 fires set over the burning season, of which 51 took place without a licence in nature sites protected by conservation designations and identified by government agency Natural England maps as deep peat – though that is based on modelling and does not conclusively mean there is deep peat.
Physical spot checks at a few estates found that while some landowners were taking care to only set fire to heather on areas where the peat is less than 40cm deep, others have burned on the deep peat covered by the ban, the campaigners said.
Separate data from campaign group Wild Moors showed there were 1,203 reported incidents of grouse moor burning on peatland, including 191 reports of suspected illegal burns in contravention of the ban.
And conservation group the RSPB said it received 272 reports of fires over the last season, 79 of which took place on areas mapped as deep peat and in a designated site.
But the Moorland Association, which represents grouse moor estates, said the investigation showed the overwhelming majority of controlled burns complied with the legislation, and on-the-spot checks found only two incidents which may have been on deep peat – and the evidence was not conclusive.
Amanda Anderson, director of the Moorland Association, said: “We are confident that our members are compliant (and) are following best practice guidelines and we are in touch with Defra on this matter.
“It is important to note that the fire and rescue service in England supports controlled burning on moorland for the prevention of wildfire, the single most serious threat to the carbon store, as wildfire ignites the underlying peat,” she said.
A Defra spokesman said: “We are investigating potential breaches of the heather and peat burning regulations and cannot comment further while investigations are ongoing.
“The Government and Natural England continue to work with landowners to promote sustainable upland management practices, backed up by a record funding to protect and restore England’s iconic peat landscapes.”
Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace UK, said the current ban is “shot through with loopholes”, poorly enforced and some landowners appear to be ignoring it.
“Peatlands are the UK’s largest carbon store on land, help prevent floods and are home to rare plants, insects and birds.
“Why on Earth is the Government allowing them to be turned into charred wasteland for the private gain of a few?
“If ministers were ever serious about protecting this vital landscape, they should make sure this evidence is thoroughly investigated, peatland burning is comprehensively banned in law and extra funding is committed to guarantee enforcement,” she said.
Dr Patrick Thompson, senior policy officer at RSPB UK, said: “It’s clear from the evidence we have collected that the new peatland burning regulations in England are not working and that burning is still taking place at a massive scale on peatland vegetation and inside protected sites.
“We are in a nature and climate emergency. Intensive and damaging land management practices such as burning continue to harm and further threaten these vital carbon and nature-rich ecosystems.”
He called for a full ban and for grouse shoots to be licensed.
And Luke Steele, executive director of Wild Moors, said: “By allowing grouse moor burning to continue in any capacity, the Government is not only permitting peatlands to be damaged, but also giving space for the existing rules, as shortcoming as they are, to be broken.
“Wild Moors is urging the Government to extinguish grouse moor fires once and for all by introducing a complete ban on burning peatlands.”