Heather burning is bad for the environment, bad for the climate crisis, and bad for the health of people – it’s time for an outright ban

Last year, a cloud of smoke drifted from the uplands to the West of Sheffield across the city, settling in Sheffield Hallam. Numerous people contacted me to complain about the poor air quality, reporting breathing troubles, coughing, and irritation to the eyes. For members of my community with respiratory conditions, the smoke was a particular cause of worry.

The purpose of the fires, set by gamekeepers on the moors, is to burn back the heather that grows on top of the peat. The process is meant to create the ideal habitat for grouse, growing the bird population for lucrative shoots.

The antisocial and health impacts of the smoke are obvious, but the burning is also undermining action to tackle the twin nature and climate emergencies.

Without the burns, the uplands would be ecologically rich blanket peat bog habitats. The UK holds the largest proportion (13%) of blanket peat bog in the world. Not only is this a beautiful and unique natural asset, teaming with life, but it’s also a vital resource for sequestering carbon and could play a vital role in decarbonising the country.

While healthy peatlands store carbon, when they are damaged, they release it into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the vast proportion of our peatlands are in a degraded state, emitting the equivalent amount of CO2 to 140,000 cars per year, with the burns themselves releasing 260,000 tonnes of CO2 annually. Part of the cause of that damage is the burning.

Not only do the fires dry out and degrade the peat but they also kill off the spongey sphagnum moss that grows on top of it, too. The moss acts as a barrier to rain run-off and, without it, the likelihood of flooding down-valley is increased.

The climate crisis is here and, as our winters get wetter, we’re already seeing the consequences in floods up and down the country. Rather than destroy and degrade our peatlands, their restoration is a key part of naturally mitigating against the effects of the climate emergency we are living through, now.

There are some who say that we need burning to control fuel loads on the moors – that without burning, overgrown heather would cause wildfires. But the more the heather is burnt, the more abundantly it grows back, and the more locked into the cycle of burning we become. It would be far better to break that cycle by restoring the moorland monoculture back to its former health – rewetting the peat and reintroducing the vibrant biodiversity that came before.

In 2020, after a Westminster Hall debate I led in which the Minister told me the old system was ‘clearly not protecting every blanket bog site’, the Government announced it would be introducing stronger regulations to license the burns. But when the new regulations were published in 2021, they left a lot to be desired. Licensing is only required on peatlands of a depth of 40cm or more. The Wildlife and Countryside Link have estimated that the current law leaves around 60% of UK peatlands without any protection.

Three years after the regulations, the burns continue. During the 2022-23 season, 260 records of burning in the English uplands were reported to the RSPB via their dedicated app. 87% of these burns took place in Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protected Areas.

The RSPB believes that 72 of the 260 reported burns may have breached the regulations by taking place in protected areas on peat over 40 centimetres deep – that’s 28% of those reported.

In 2023 Defra successfully prosecuted 2 estate owners and issued a written warning to a third. But that’s only 3 cases – the level of enforcement action isn’t anywhere near the level of likely law-breaking.

The new system isn’t working. Heather burning is bad for the environment, bad for the climate crisis, and – as recent burns in my constituency have graphically illustrated – bad for the health of people in Sheffield Hallam. Rather than partial prohibition, it’s time for an outright ban and a serious plan to protect and restore what some have called the ‘rainforests of the UK’.

Olivia Blake MP

Olivia Blake is the Labour MP for Sheffield, Hallam, and was elected in 2019.