We are in a Climate Emergency. The recent reports from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tell us that the impacts of climate change are already happening earlier and to a greater degree than predicted. They say there is a narrow window in time to do everything we can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Scotland’s peaty soils contain vast amounts of carbon. Around a fifth of Scotland’s land area is covered in soils rich in peat and these contain nearly two billion tonnes of carbon. That is 25 times the amount in all the trees, shrubs and other vegetation in the whole of the UK.
When peatland areas are in good condition they form new peat and lock in carbon from the atmosphere. But when they are degraded they release carbon dioxide and methane – a greenhouse gas nearly 40 times worse than carbon dioxide in causing climate change. Around 80 per cent of Scotland’s peaty soils are degraded in some way, so how we manage them and particularly how we try to help them recover is vitally important at a local, national and global scale.
There has been much argument about the climate impact of the management of peaty areas of intensive grouse moors, particularly the issue of muirburn – routinely burning off old growth on heather moorland. A new independent report for the Revive Coalition looks in detail at the evidence and finds that there is surprisingly little information, partly because these activities on grouse moors are hardly regulated at all. We do not even know how much of our upland areas are burnt each year. There is a voluntary code on muirburn but the report reveals that actual practice is often observed to be in breach of this code.
The shooting industry claims muirburn helps prevent wildfires, which are an increasing risk because of climate change and which increase climate emissions. Revive’s report concludes, despite the paucity of evidence, that stopping even well-controlled muirburn would likely not increase overall carbon emissions and stopping badly done muirburn would be beneficial to the carbon balance. A partial ban in England introduced last year was supposed to protect areas of deep peat but a Greenpeace investigation found that 40 of the 251 fires they looked at were on areas identified by Natural England as having deep peat.
With greater global scrutiny coming on the contribution of the management of peat-rich soils to climate change, and the Scottish Government’s commitment to introduce licensing for grouse moors, this new report should be an urgent spur to make sure minimising climate emissions from muirburn and other activities should be an essential part of the new licence proposals.
Dr Richard Dixon is an environmental campaigner and consultant