The Moorland Association has defended controlled heather burning after the RSPB called on Natural England to bring an end to the practice on protected uplands. The society claims that, along with draining to improve grazing for sheep, rotational burning, employed on many grouse moors, has led to a decline in the condition of much of Britain?s peatland. It suggests the practice damages the delicate habitats of rare plants and birds, prevents the re-growth of vegetation, releases stored carbon and contributes to increased flooding. The organisation?s chief executive, Dr. Mike Clarke, said: ?For the benefit of wildlife, the environment and wider society, there is an urgent need to restore these landscapes by blocking drains, revegetating bare peat and bringing an end to burning.?

Amanda Anderson, director of the Moorland Association, whose members are responsible for around 90 per cent of the heather moorland in England and Wales, rejected the RSPB?s claims, telling Shooting Times that: ?Best practice heather burning does not prevent the restoration of peatland habitat. The key to improving the condition of blanket bog is to raise the water table, and this type of work is already being carried out across grouse moors. This involves blocking up the ill-advised drainage ditches cut under government incentives to improve grazing in the 1950s and ?60s. More than 2,000km have already been blocked on our members? land, with a further 1,000km planned. Raising the water table will slow down the growth of shrubs such as heather, reducing the need for burning, and improve conditions for peat formation. Peat hags and bare peat ? created by natural causes ? are by far the greatest causes of carbon dioxide emission on moorland, and these are being restored through revegetation and reprofiling with help from grouse moor managers.

?In the meantime, burning remains a vital tool to protect the hugely valued moorland landscapes from the increasing threat of wildfire, and to provide food for sheep and grouse, which in turn fuel the local economy in these remote areas. Grouse moors, thanks to their 200-year management practices, are designated as important for their flora and fauna at a European and national level. Ninety-six per cent are recovering towards a favourable condition, and they are at the heart of many of our treasured northern National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Many of the millions of visitors to these places will be angry at the ?most damaged habitats? label given to them by the RSPB.?

Mrs Anderson also explained that putting an end to controlled burning would leave the landscape at increased risk from potentially devastating wildfires, which are more likely to damage the underlying peat, because they burn more fiercely and are harder to put out: ?Where heather moorlands are managed by rotational burning, there is less fuel load for a wildfire. If you double the biomass available for a fire you quadruple the intensity at which it burns. Vegetation of different ages and heights across the moor reduces the fuel load and burnt patches act as a fire-break. Estates that are well-equipped to manage heather burning following best practice guidance are also well-equipped to fight wildfires, often providing the skill and resources that Fire and Rescue Services lack.?

For details on the Moorland Association and its conservation work on heather moorland, visit www.moorlandassociation.org.