IUCN UK Peatland Programme Position Statement: Burning and Peatlands V.4 April 2023.
The topic of burning was a key consideration in the IUCN UK Peatland Programme (IUCN UK PP) Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands (Bain et al., 2011) and led to a summary briefing on Burning on Peatbogs (IUCN UK PP, 2011). A more recent IUCN UK PP publication, Briefing Note No. 8: Burning (Lindsay et al., 2014), summarised the scientific evidence from an ecological perspective, following Natural England’s Review of Upland Evidence NEER004 (2013) on managed burning and Peatbogs and Carbon (Lindsay, 2010). This updated Position Statement (version 4) takes account of the Natural England Evidence Review NEER014 (Glaves et al., 2020).
This Position Statement should be read alongside a summary of key papers available below.
The IUCN UK Peatland Programme reaffirms that, while there are some dissenting voices, the IUCN UK PP remains committed to the broad consensus of the science arrived at by the majority of acknowledged peatland specialists.
Key points, which are addressed in our full position statement (originally produced in 2017, updated in 2020, 2021, and 2023) include:
- The overwhelming scientific evidence base points to burning on peatlands causing damage to key peatland species, peatland ecosystem health, and the sustainability of peatland soils.
- Burning vegetation on peatland brings no benefits to peatland health or sustainability.
- Evidence points to peatland restoration management not requiring burning; burning is harmful to the prospects of peatland restoration.
- Misleading interpretations of some scientific work point to methodological inconsistencies in defining peatlands and assessing impacts of burning management; there is no evidence that peatland ecosystem health in the UK benefits from burning.
- The most effective long-term sustainable solution for addressing wildfire risk on peatlands is to return the sites to fully functioning bog habitat by removing those factors that can cause degradation, such as drainage, unsustainable livestock management and burning regimes. Rewetting and restoring will naturally remove the higher fuel load from degraded peatland vegetation.
- Further research and good practice guidance is required for managing wildfire risk on peatlands.
Studies that use the apparent rate of carbon (C) accumulation (aCAR) reconstructed from peat cores are, in our view, unable to say if land use or climate has had a positive or negative effect on peatland net carbon accumulation. This is based on Young et al. (2019, 2021): they show that aCAR can differ significantly, in both magnitude and sign, from the actual uptake or loss of C that occurred at the time (the net C balance). Instead of aCAR, Young et al. (2021) propose that peat core data should be used alongside carbon balance models to produce reliable estimates of how peatland C function has changed over time. Although Young et al. (2019) was criticised by Heinemeyer and Ashby (2020) in a Matters Arising submitted to Scientific Reports (and published as a pre-print here), their criticisms were rejected by two independent reviewers who upheld the arguments made in Young et al. (2019). The rebuttal by Young et al. can be found here.
Recent scientific peer reviewed publications on this topic include:
Peatland carbon stocks and burn history: Blanket bog peat core evidence highlights charcoal impacts on peat physical properties and long‐term carbon storage
- (Heinemeyer et al. 2018): https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/geo2.63
- (Evans et al. 2019): https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/geo2.75
- (Heinemeyer et al. 2019): https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/geo2.78
- (Young et al. 2019): https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-53879-8
- (Young et al. 2021): https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-88766-8
Prescribed burning impacts on ecosystem services in the British uplands: A methodological critique of the EMBER project
- (Ashby & Heinemeyer, 2019): https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1365-2664.13476
- (Brown & Holden, 2019) : https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/731117v1
- (Ashby & Heinemeyer, 2019): https://ecoevorxiv.org/68h3w/
- (Brown & Holden, 2020): https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13708
A report by The Uplands Partnership (Peatland Protection The Science: Four key reports, 2020) with reference to the above is also available.
A Critical Review of the IUCN UK Peatland Programme’s “Burning and Peatlands” Position Statement (Ashby and Heinemeyer, 2021) https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s13157-021-01400-1.pdf
The causes and prevention of wildfire on heathlands and peatlands in England (NEER014), (Natural England, 2020) https://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/4741162353295360
IUCN UK Peatland Programme video series on the effects of burning on blanket bogs
Burning on Blanket Bogs Part 1: Effects of fire
Burning on Blanket Bogs Part 2: Recovery Pathways
These animations are based largely on evidence from the experimental plots established on blanket bog at Hard Hill, Moor House National Nature Reserve, in 1954 (Hard Hill experimental plots on Moor House – Upper Teesdale National Nature Reserve - A review of the experimental set up (NECR321), Natural England, 2020). All the experimental plots were burnt at the start of the experiment in 1954. Some plots have since been left unburnt (but grazed or ungrazed) for the intervening 66 years, others have been burnt (with or without grazing) approximately every 20 years, while some have been burnt (with or without grazing) every 10 years.
Some of the ground outside the experimental plots is estimated (in 2020) to have been free from burning for around 100 years and appears now to be showing substantial signs of recovery from past burning events (all ground at Moor House is considered to have been subject to managed burning in the past). These recovery times are more akin to those of woodland restoration, though recovery times can be shortened substantially through the use of Sphagnum plug-planting.
Most of the images of actual sites used in the animation are from Hard Hill or from other areas of blanket bog subject to managed burning. Three of the images used are from examples of wildfire. References are available at the end of the video.
See also: The causes and prevention of wildfire on heathlands and peatlands in England (NEER014), Natural England, 2020