The Wildlife Management & Muirburn Bill is currently passing through the Scottish Parliament and proposes to introduce a stronger regulatory framework for grouse moor management and the practice of muirburn. The IUCN UK Peatland Programme (IUCN UK PP) welcomes this legislation. 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. The new legislation will introduce stronger controls on the practice of burning in the uplands on peatlands. This is set out in the IUCN UK PP’s position on burning on peatlands.
The Climate Change Committee has recommended (see p561) the introduction of policy to end rotational burning on peatland across the UK, in view of the significance of Scotland’s peatlands for carbon, water and biodiversity, and the huge costs to society arising from damaged peatlands. Muirburn regulation is also important to protect the huge societal investment in the restoration of peatlands (including work undertaken on estates managed for grouse), through the Scottish Government Peatland ACTION programme, as well as significant private investment from environmental bodies, European Union funding, lottery funding and through the Peatland Code.
The Bill as drafted will potentially represent an improvement on the current position in relation to muirburn. A light-touch regulatory framework, set out in the Hill Farming Act 1946 and a largely voluntary code of conduct, means there is currently limited regulatory oversight of what we consider to be a high-risk activity. However the IUCN UK PP has highlighted concerns about how peatlands are defined in the Bill: this definition could result in more than half of Scotland’s peatlands, which are valuable carbon stores and important for peatland biodiversity, being not technically considered as ‘peatlands’ under the legislation and thus leaving them vulnerable to further degradation.
What is currently proposed?
If the Bill is passed as currently drafted, an owner or occupier of land may apply for a licence to undertake muirburn on land that is not considered to be peatland for sporting, farming, conservation, wildfire management or research purposes. Where the land is peatland, the owner or occupier may apply for a licence for the purposes of restoring the natural environment, wildfire risk management or research. In effect, burning on peatlands is restricted; land managers would not be able to burn on peatlands for sporting or farming purposes.
How ‘peatland’ and ‘not peatland’ are defined is therefore important because it determines where different sets of rules apply. At present the Bill defines ‘peatland’ as “land where the soil has a layer of peat with a thickness of more than 40 centimetres” (where ‘peat’ means soil which has an organic content of more than 60%).
It is important to recognise that these provisions in the Bill are aimed at better protecting peatlands and will provide improvements. Compared to the current situation (where, under the voluntary Muirburn Code, land managers are not supposed to burn on peatlands of a depth greater than 50cm), the new regime will require a proper assessment of peatlands before obtaining a licence and NatureScot will need to approve the licence and satisfy itself that the burning is going to be undertaken for the appropriate purposes. The regulatory, as opposed to voluntary, approach also allows for compliance to be assessed and provides a legal basis for corrective actions to be taken.
However, the definition of peat as 60% organic matter and peatland as an area of peat greater than 40cm in depth raises some serious concerns.
What is the consequence of the current proposals?
It should be noted that peatland science in the UK and internationally frequently uses 30% organic content in defining peat and many peatlands can be much shallower than 40cm.[i] However, using any depth definition is problematic as set out in our briefing Use of Peat Depth Criteria: Accounting for the Lost Peatlands. The critical issue is that depth definitions are arbitrarily established thresholds created for various purposes (including past efforts to identify deep commercial peat deposits), which do not reflect any real and meaningful threshold in the peatland ecosystem itself. On the ground, peat varies in depth from very shallow areas where peat is forming or degrading, to much deeper areas of peat. It is, however, all part of the peatland ecosystem and all areas of peat provide a functional, supporting role to other connected areas of peatland.
Establishing a definition of what classifies an area as peatland and another as not peatland on the basis of an arbitrary depth criteria can result in ‘shallower’ peatland areas being excluded from policy making and land management decisions. Such areas nevertheless continue to be substantial carbon stores, are often vital to the wider ecology and hydrological function of connected deeper peat deposits, and often have their own distinctive biodiversity as part of important areas of transitional habitat. The definition used in the Bill could leave significant areas of peat and peatland of importance for biodiversity, carbon and water vulnerable to damaging effects of burning,
The definition of ‘peatland’ in the Bill means that peat of less than 40cm will not be defined as peatland. Consequently, it will be treated as ‘not peatland’ and it would be possible for a land manager to apply for a licence to burn on it for sporting or farming purposes.
This is a concern because while the legislation is designed to offer better protection to the deeper peatlands, it effectively ignores areas of shallow peat even though these are, if anything, less resilient and more vulnerable to degradation. Directing muirburn away from deeper peat areas could also potentially create a shift in management towards increased burning on shallower peatlands.
Scottish peatland extent and carbon stocks
The area of ‘deep peat’ (primarily blanket bog and mapped as <50cm) in Scotland covers some 1.8 million hectares and equals 23% of Scotland’s land area. Shallower peat soils estimates vary but could be as much as 2.5 million ha.[ii] The carbon stock of deep peat in Scotland is estimated at 1778 million tonnes of carbon with an additional 957 million tonnes of carbon in the shallower peat soils; all in, equivalent to more than 85 years’ worth of Scotland’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.[iii]
What is the remedy?
Removing the depth definition of peatland from the Bill and treating all areas where there are peat soils as peatland, would avoid the possible perverse outcomes of excluding shallower peat.
The consequence of this change would be to expand the area of land considered to be peatland and so restrict the area where burning for sporting and farming purposes could take place. However it is important to note that land managers would still be able to apply for a licence to burn on peatlands for the purposes of restoring the natural environment, wildfire risk management or research.
Conclusion – we inadvertently risk losing peatlands at a time when we are aiming to restore them
An increasing emphasis on peatland restoration and conservation is a national and international priority. Particularly so in Scotland, where past management on peatlands has resulted in such a large source of greenhouse gas emissions. Damaged deep peatlands alone are responsible for over 14% of Scotland’s annual greenhouse gas emissions (six million tonnes CO2e).[iv] However, an approach to the regulation of muirburn that arbitrarily defines peatlands on the basis of depth potentially exposes large areas of shallow peat to damage and loss. We inadvertently risk further degrading and losing peatlands at a time when we are conversely investing to restore them, simply because of how we have decided to administratively define them.
Achieving climate change and biodiversity objectives requires a more inclusive approach. To meet climate change goals, as much peat carbon stock as possible needs to be secured, including that contained in shallower peats. Once the current peatland area is secured, recovery back to a healthy state brings with it the prize of restoring our peatlands to future carbon sinks.
Whilst it is appropriate for policy and regulation to define the areas to which they apply, we encourage that consideration is first given to the full extent of peatland. Rather than attempt to define a peatland using policy alone, regulation should start with a science-based definition, and then explain any constrained application of that policy to specific aspects of peatland management.
A copy of our complete, public response to the Muirburn Management Bill consultation can be viewed here (no. 46).
[i] Joosten et al., 2017, Lourenco et al., 2022, UNEP 2022
[iv] Scottish Government. (2018a). Climate change plan: the third report on proposals and policies 2018–2032. Edinburgh