Muirburn, or prescribed burning, has been undertaken worldwide for centuries - deploying controlled fire to remove dying vegetation to encourage nutritional new growth for birds and wildlife.
It has also been used to prevent the build-up of combustible fuel across landscapes as a tool in wildfire mitigation.
In Scotland, it has been associated most with grouse moor management and farming and foresters can use prescribed burning to create firebreaks to protect forestry and conservationists can deploy fire to restore dead habitats.
Work covering a whole management cycle at several sites in the north of England by Peatland-ES-UK, initially funded by DEFRA, is providing new insights into management of peatlands, compared to no management.
And with Scottish Government set to ban muirburn on peatlands over 40cm in depth, unless under licence, practitioners are asking the Scottish Government to consider the new science carefully. Removing large areas from management, they say, could threaten the peat stored in Scotland’s peatlands in the longer term and make them more prone to damaging wildfires as they dry out.
Alex Hogg, Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) chairman, said: “The Peatland-ES-UK science, in conjunction with University of York, is the longest research we have. What it is showing is the need for policy makers to move on from the idea that all burning is bad. Indeed, there are many circumstances where it could be advisable, if the objective is to keep that carbon locked away in our peatlands.
“This may seem counter-intuitive to some but that is what these more nuanced, longer-term studies, are beginning to tell us. The problem in Scotland is that, if we restrict muirburn on peatlands over 40cm, this will effectively remove almost half of Scotland’s uplands from this type of management.”
A review of muirburn research by regulators NatureScot concluded that the evidence base to restrict muirburn on the basis of peat depth was inconclusive.
Instead of restricting muirburn on the basis of depth of underlying peat, practitioners say there are better regulatory options.
Mr Hogg continued: “If the licensing scheme permitting muirburn is impossible to obtain, and the latest science is correct, we will then see more of our peatlands losing moisture as the surface fuel loads build and build. Long term, this will lead to drying and carbon loss and will increase the risk of wildfires which threaten peatlands and the public. We cannot afford to be short sighted on this.”
The plea comes as Scotland’s regional moorland groups and the SGA conclude their month-long film project, ‘For Peat’s Sake’ which interviewed scientists, wildfire experts and practitioners.
Mr Hogg added: “Imposing a restriction on the basis of peat depth, which is poorly evidenced, is not good policy. If the aim is to keep carbon in our peatlands, why not make it a criminal offence to burn the peat?
“New practitioner training has also just been developed by Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, NatureScot and practitioners. Make that training compulsory. NatureScot could also have better oversight by asking practitioners for muirburn and wildfire mitigation plans.
“These measures would prevent peat damage and reflect the latest science better,” said Lianne MacLennan, Campaigns Manager for Scotland’s regional moorland groups.