Burning & Peatlands

Image: Langlands Nature Reserve, 2017
© Marc McLean

Burning & Peatlands

 

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 Peatlands. A more recent IUCN UK PP publication, Briefing Note 8: Burning, summarised the scientific evidence from an ecological perspective, following Natural England's Upland Evidence Review: Managed Burning and Peatbogs and Carbon (Lindsay, 2010).

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 and 2021) include:

  1. The current body of available scientific evidence indicates that burning on peatland can result in damage to peatland species, microtopography and wider peatland habitat, peat soils and peatland ecosystem functions.
  2. Healthy peatlands do not require burning for their maintenance.
  3. Restoration management of peatlands is widely achieved without burning. Restoration is also achieved in situations where previous burning management has been stopped.
  4. Inconsistent approaches in scientific methodology for assessing impacts of burning management on peatlands has led to difficulties in interpreting and comparing results from studies and has led to widespread misunderstandings in the wider stakeholder community.
  5. Where there is uncertainty around the benefits of burning for peatland restoration, the precautionary principle should be applied and burning avoided.
  6. 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. Re-wetting and restoring will naturally remove the higher fuel load from degraded peatland vegetation.
  7. There is a need for further research to support the development of practical guidance in managing wildfire risk for peatlands which are in transition to a wet and naturally fire resilient state.

 

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

 
Prescribed burning impacts on ecosystem services in the British uplands: A methodological critique of the EMBER project

 
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

 

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