Out & About …

… on the North York Moors, or wherever I happen to be.

All my life I have loved being out and about …

… in the fresh air, in the hills and mountains. Never a day goes by without my daily fix.

But the sight of blackened, smelly swiddens saddens me; just as much as the large plumes of smoke that waft across the moors. This melancholy is worsened by an increasing anxiety of the climate emergency and looming ecological disaster.

This rotational burning on Gerrick Moor is supposed to have been “controlled” but the burn clearly became out of control. It must have been very concerning for the drivers on the A171, with flames encroaching on to the verge. Facebook provided a date of 5th February for this instance.

It would seem incontrovertible that burning of heather releases carbon into the atmosphere, exacerbates air pollution, increases the runoff in times of heavy rainfall, and reduces biodiversity. And, if you happen to be downwind, a smell that is repulsive and unhealthy.

And all for the sole purpose of creating a man-made landscape purely for the benefit of one species — Lagopus lagopus, the Red grouse. Sure, certain other species may benefit, but these are merely by-products.

However, recently, a study by the University of York has been issued which is headlined as contradicting these seemingly undeniable assertions1Heinemeyer, Andreas. 2023. ‘Restoration of Heather-Dominated Blanket Bog Vegetation for Biodiversity, Carbon Storage, Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Water Regulation: Comparing Burning to Alternative Mowing and Uncut Management : Final 10-Year Report to the Project Advisory Group of Peatland-ES-UK – White Rose Research Online’, Whiterose.ac.uk <https://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/194976/23/Peatland_ES_UK_10_year_final_Report_Jan_2023.pdf>.

The University announced this study with the headline2‘No “One Size Fits All” Heather Management Method for Protecting Carbon-Rich Peatlands’. 2013. University of York <https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2023/research/heather-management-protecting-peatlands/> [accessed 17 February 2023]:

“No ‘one size fits all’ heather management method for protecting carbon-rich peatlands”

This headline was subsequently used as the Moorland Association’s first bullet point in their attempt at using the study to justify the continuation of the practice of heather burning3‘MOORLAND ASSOCIATION WELCOMES LANDMARK PEATLAND REPORT – Moorland Association’. 2023. Moorland Association <https://www.moorlandassociation.org/2023/01/moorland-association-welcomes-landmark-peatland-report/> [accessed 17 February 2023].

Now I have not read all of its 180+ pages, and freely admit to not being qualified to comment, least make any sense of it. I do, nevertheless, find it interesting and once the study is complete and has been peer-reviewed, I would have no reason not to accept the science. A mumpsimus I am not. But, in the meantime, I have some reservations.

Listed amongst its funding bodies are the following organisations:

These have some involvement in the promotion of the shooting industry. Admittedly, some other funders may be considered neutral, such as Natural England and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.

This is an interim report — half way through a twenty-year study — and the authors would no doubt have been mindful of the need to ensure continuation of funding for the remainder of the project, I am somewhat wary therefore that the published conclusions may have been drafted equivocally in the interests of these pro-shooting funders. This is in no way intended to impugn the integrity of the university or its academics.

Another reservation I have is that all three of the test areas used in the study are all designated as “Blanket Bog” in the Pennines and Yorkshire dales6Mossdale SD80959109 Blanket Bog https://magic.defra.gov.uk/MagicMap.aspx?&startTopic=GreyRasters&chosenLayers=baseIndex,bapbbogIndex&box=376130:488929:383869:493380&useDefaultbackgroundMapping=false7Whitendale SD67375481 https://magic.defra.gov.uk/MagicMap.aspx?&startTopic=Rasters&chosenLayers=baseIndex,bapbbogIndex&box=361783:453409:369522:457861&useDefaultbackgroundMapping=false8Nidderdale SE05447482 https://magic.defra.gov.uk/MagicMap.aspx?&startTopic=Rasters&chosenLayers=baseIndex,bapbbogIndex&box=401031:473421:408770:477873&useDefaultbackgroundMapping=false. The few areas of Blanket Bog on the North York Moors are confined to relatively small areas on the very highest moors around Blowith and Rosedale9North York Moors Blanket Bog https://magic.defra.gov.uk/MagicMap.aspx?&startTopic=Rasters&chosenLayers=baseIndex,bapbbogIndex&box=453560:497492:469038:506395&useDefaultbackgroundMapping=false. Most of the NYM is classified as “Upland Heathland”10North York Moors Upland Heathland https://magic.defra.gov.uk/MagicMap.aspx?&startTopic=Rasters&chosenLayers=baseIndex,bapupheathIndex&box=453236:497492:469362:506395&useDefaultbackgroundMapping=false. I have also read this referred to as “Dry Acid Heath”. I don’t honestly know enough about the subject to comment further, but I am uneasy by this extrapolation. Is there a danger here that we may not be comparing apples with apples?

It is inevitable that everyone associated with the shooting industry would advocate vehemently for the need to protect the status quo, but whether the moors are maintained by burning or mowing, it is not the natural vegetation for our moorlands. It is a landscape created and maintained by human interference. Without the hand of man, it would be a mosaic of open land, blanket bog, scrub, and woodland.

I remain absolutely convinced that this natural state would provide far greater biodiversity than the current monoculture of our moorland, be more attractive to tourism, and greatly reduce rainfall runoff reducing flood risks in river basins.

Having said that, I appreciate such a natural landscape on an overpopulated island such as ours is not without its management needs. Without the presence of large herbivores to trample bracken, the fronds need periodic slashing to control its spread; and birch and conifer saplings would need pulling to ensure the moorland does not succeed into woodland. Perhaps fire-breaks need to be cut. All completely uneconomical if the overriding intent is to make a “profit” from the land.

So there’s the rub, countryside management is dictated by both cost and value. The value side of the equation is the price that affluent clients are willing to pay for a day’s shooting, and not the value to society as a whole.

As a society, we have to be honest with ourselves. The question that needs to be asked is whether the moorlands are managed for the benefit of nature and of the whole of society, and not just for the enjoyment of a handful of wealthy individuals.

Should burning indeed turn out to be the lesser of two evils, the sight of large plumes of smoke or blackened swiddens will always remain an anathema to me.


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