When we think of using fire in land management, the most common examples are forest clearance for ranching in the Amazon, or subsistence farmers in Africa. But land is burned in Britain too. Moorland is cleared with fire in order to encourage fresh new shoots, which are a favourite food for grouse. These are reared as game birds, and will be shot later in the season.
Driven grouse hunting happens in the UK and nowhere else, and most of us never take part. It’s linked to class and land, and if you live in a city in southern England you could go a lifetime without ever knowing anything about it. But it takes a huge amount of land – including vast areas within Britain’s national parks. This burning reduces biodiversity across large areas, and it’s also a climate change problem.
Burning moorland is particularly unwise because it is peatland, and therefore stores a lot of carbon. Preserving this carbon store is an important part of our net zero plans, and setting it on fire is deeply counter-productive. It also became illegal recently – mostly. The law is riddled with loopholes and it is poorly enforced. That’s why Greenpeace’s investigative team have been developing ways to monitor burning and ensure that the laws are respected. Here’s a video summary of their innovative approach:
There’s a broader discussion to be had about the ethics of grouse hunting. Not just the matter of raising millions of birds for the sole purpose of killing them, but also the way that so much land is kept in a depleted state for the benefit of a small number of hunters. If this land were turned over to nature, rewilded or reforested, there would be dividends for biodiversity and carbon capture.
Like fox hunting though, this is a practice that people will fight for. City people like me will be accused of not getting it, which I’m not going to deny. But I do think we can do better than burning peatland in an age of climate change. And we can start by enforcing the law.