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Partial peat-burning ban a positive first step, but limits and loopholes leave cause for climate concern

29 January 2021

  • Nature groups welcome partial ban on peat burning, but say limits and loopholes mean this is just a first step
  • New polling shows peat burning ban is wanted by 62% of the public and opposed by just 3%

The announcement by the government today of a partial ban on the burning of blanket bogs (one of three types of peatland) across England is welcome news for nature and the climate. But conservationists would like to see the burning ban extended to all upland peat (not just protected areas), and warn that exceptions in the new laws must not be exploited to allow burning to continue. Both nature experts and the public say wider action is needed to protect peatlands, which are the UK’s biggest carbon sink.

New YouGov research[1] on behalf of Wildlife and Countryside Link shows that the public will support the move announced today by government:

  • 62% of the British public support the idea of the government brining in a peat burning ban, with only 3% opposed
  • 70% want the government to ensure our natural carbon stores, like peat, are healthy and capture as much carbon as possible. Older voters 65+ are most supportive with 8 in 10 supporting preserving and enhancing our natural carbon stores

But the new findings also reveal that the public would like further Government action to improve our carbon-capturing peatlands including:

  • More than two-thirds (67%) of the public want the government to include promises to protect peatlands included in pledges for the COP26 global climate talks, with only 1% opposed
  • British consumers want to see peat-based compost banned. Only 5% oppose the banning of peat-based compost, with 47% supportive, 22% neither opposed or supportive and 26% unsure. Over 65s are most supportive with almost 6 in 10 (59%) backing a ban (this is important to note as 65-74 year-olds also have the highest spend on gardening products see statista data)
  • 67% also support encouraging farm and forestry owners to shift from intensive practices that damage peatland areas, with only 2% opposed

Dr Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “Peatlands are deep vaults of carbon and treasure troves of biodiversity, so the restrictions on burning in protected bogs are a very positive step.

“But with 13% of the world’s blanket bog here in the UK, every acre is internationally significant. It will be essential that the exceptions to the ban are not exploited to allow the burning debate to smoulder on—this practice that is so damaging to nature, climate and communities must stop.

“We hope that this measure will be followed swiftly by restrictions on burning in peatlands outside the protected area network and by a ban on peat in horticultural compost.”

The new ban includes limits:

  • It only applies to blanket bog in a legally-protected area, missing out peatlands outside the SSSI network
  • It only applies to deep peat, missing out shallower peatlands
  • It does not apply on steep land or where scree makes up half the land area

And loopholes, with landowners able to apply for licences to burn:

  • For conservation purposes
  • For wildfire prevention
  • Where land is inaccessible to cutting or mowing machinery

So, while the ban is progress from the current situation, the Government must carefully control the use of exemptions. For example, burning for conservation purposes only makes ecological sense in exceptional circumstances as a one-off to allow blanket bog to recover and rewet. Accessibility arrangements should be tightly defined to avoid widespread continuation of burning.

Today’s announcement bans burning in blanket bog areas of peatland in protected Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) areas in England[2], which makes up around a tenth (9%) of all English peatland and around a third (32%) of upland peatland (blanket bog)[3]. This ban should be widened to all upland peat not just that within protected SSSIs.

With UK peatlands locking-in 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon, and the UK containing 13% of the world’s blanket bogs, England’s peatlands are a critical resource to be protected in the battle against climate change. They are also a vital habitat for threatened wildlife like the large heath butterfly and wading birds like the greenshank, a valuable natural flood protector storing 20x its own weight in water, and peatland river catchments are the source of 70% of our drinking water.

Yet peatlands are often called the ‘Cinderella habitat’, as despite their enormous value, they have long been uncared for, unappreciated and abused. Around 80% are in poor condition in the UK, in large part due to human activity, including burning for the game-bird industry, intensive agriculture, forestry and horticultural practices, and the impact of climate change related drought.

Agricultural, horticultural and timber industry practices also continue to harm peatlands. A voluntary phasing out of peat-based compost for amateur gardeners by 2020 failed to work, with peat-based compost still for sale. Damage from over-grazing, high livestock densities, soil-loss through tillage, and draining for agriculture and forestry have all taken their toll on our rich peatlands.

Nature groups are expectantly awaiting the long overdue England peat strategy. They will be keen to hear of a widened ban on peatland burning, an announced ban on the sale of peat-compost and moves to mitigate the damage caused by intensive farming and forestry practices within the strategy. Conservationists across the UK want to see similar moves announced in the devolved nations, this is vital considering 60% of the UK’s peatland is in Scotland alone.

ENDS

Notes to Editors:

FACTFILE:

  • Peatlands are the UK’s biggest carbon sink, storing around 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon
  • Around 80% of the UK's peatland are in poor condition (Source The Wildlife Trusts)
  • Around 260,000 tonnes of CO2 are likely to be released every year from rotational burning on peatlands in England alone (Source: Natural England). Removing this source of CO2 pollution would be equivalent to taking more than 175,000 cars off the road
  • Globally peat holds twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests (Source UN Environment Programme)
  • Greenhouse gas emissions from drained or burning peatlands are estimated to amount to up to five percent of all emissions caused by human activity globally – in the range of two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year (SourceUN Environment Programme)
  • 70% of our drinking water is from peatland river catchments (SourceThe Wildlife Trusts)


1. Wildlife and Countryside Link commissioned You Gov to run GB wide online omnibus polling. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1,671 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 22nd - 25th January 2021. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+). The full findings can be found here

2. England’s upland peatlands (where most blanket bogs are found) are mainly distributed across the uplands of the Pennines, with other upland areas such as Dartmoor, Exmoor, the Lake District, Border Moors, Cheviots, Forest of Bowland and the North York Moors. (Source Natural England p9 )

3. Peatlands cover 11% of England’s land area. (Source Natural England p6). Total land area of England is 130,279 km2 which = 13,027,900ha 11% = 1,433,069ha. Around 115,300 ha of English upland peatlands (blanket bogs) are in SACs and SPAs in England (
107,000ha in SAC and up to 8,300 ha in Bowland SPA - Source RSPB). So the maximum area protected under the Government's burn ban would be 115,300 hectares. This = 9% of England’s total peatland area.

Estimates on the extent of upland peat in England vary from 244,536 hectares (ha) according to Natural England, to 355,000 ha according to The Committee on Climate Change and RSPB, with the Great North Bog project team putting the figure significantly higher. The big differences seem to be explained by thinner heather-covered peat soils being wrongly recorded as upland heath, whereas it should be recorded as degraded upland peat.

If we take the 355,000 ha figure for total upland peatland (blanket bog) area, the 115,300ha covered under this ban, (115.3K/355K) is approximately 32% of English upland peat. At least 68% of upland peatland is excluded from the ban as it is outside protected areas.