burning grouse moor UK

Paltry punishment for wealthy company that deliberately burnt moor

A company worth almost £20 million has pleaded guilty after it deliberately burnt swathes of moorland in the Peak District. Dunlin Ltd, which owns Midhope Moors, didn’t have a licence to set fire to the land but was fined just a paltry £2,645.

Dunlin’s land agents, JM Osbourne Rural and Sporting, had initially applied for a licence to burn the moor, but had been refused because it hadn’t provided enough information. Instead of applying again, gamekeepers went ahead and burnt the moor anyway, regardless of the law. The shooting industry burns our precious peatland so that fresh sprouts of heather will grow  – a favourite for grouse to feed on.

Midhope Moors is classified as a Dark Peak site of special scientific interest (SSSI). It is also part of the South Pennine Moors Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and the Peak District Moors Site of Protection Area (SPA). Under the new Heather and Grass etc. Burning (England) Regulations 2021, the law

“prohibit[s] a person from burning any specified vegetation on areas of peat over 40 centimetres deep in a site of special scientific interest that is also a European site, unless an exception applies, or the burning is carried out under, and in accordance with, a licence issued by the Secretary of State.”

Investigators discovered 30 burns across 46.06 hectares of Dunlin’s land. All burns penetrated the peat deeper than 40cm.

This case is the first of its kind since the new law came in

A spokesperson for the estate said that it had “genuinely misunderstood the updated regulations”. But the CPS thought otherwise, and said that the prosecution was a “groundbreaking case”.

Maqsood Khan of CPS Mersey Cheshire’s Fraud and Rural Crime Unit said:

“This is the first case of its kind to come to come to this unit of the Crown Prosecution Service. The legislation around this offending is relatively new. The company was clearly reckless as to the impact of their actions in burning this land.

Land agents acting for them made an application to legally burn areas of vegetation so they were clearly aware that they needed one. When the licence was refused, they simply went ahead and did it anyway. The actions damaged an area of land that is already at risk and undermined the regulatory system in place to protect areas of special scientific interest. The company is now paying the price.”


A weak law that offers no deterrent

Although the result should in many ways be celebrated, the punishment is hardly a deterrent for Dunlin. In fact, the company will likely see the fine as negligible. After all, £2,645 is nothing when grouse shooting brings in such a lucrative income. It is thought that shooting parties pay as much as £14,000 per day to UK estates to take part in a bloodsport which sees up to 500,000 red grouse murdered each year.

Much like the infamous Hunting Act, the law covering moor burning is full of loopholes. So in one sense it is a wonder that Dunlin was ever successfully prosecuted in the first place. Landowners can still burn their moors if:

  •  the peat is shallow (less than 40cm)
  • the land isn’t within a conservation zone such as an SSSI
  • if the land is very steep (on a slope of more than 35 degrees)
  • if more than half of the area is covered by exposed rock or scree


And as if these loopholes weren’t enough, a landowner could potentially still get around the law, even if their land is protected by this legislation, by applying for a special licence.

A Greenpeace Unearthed report, published in 2022, found that England’s peatland was set on fire 251 times between 1 October 2021 and 15 April 2022. The team found that:

“Most of the fires identified by our analysis were ‘legal’, because they were set on land that has been exempted from the ban – even though the majority of them were in SSSIs and other conservation areas.”

In other words, the law is about as useless as the Hunting Act, which sees fox hunters getting away with murdering foxes time and time again because of various loopholes.

The Greenpeace team said of those burning our peatlands:

“Burns took place on moors owned by rich landowners ranging from the Queen and the emir of Dubai to software millionaires and retail tycoons.”

Landowners as affluent as this are unlikely to be put off by the threat of £2,000 fines.


Grouse are not the only victims

The red grouse is one of our most persecuted birds, and receives virtually no protection from the government or NGOs, with conservation organisations arguing that they don’t have the resources to protect all species.

But grouse are not the only species who are being killed in the name of grouse shooting. Birds of prey, especially hen harriers, are regularly murdered by gamekeepers. Their crime? They feed on grouse chicks on moors where grouse are bred at up to ten times the natural density. A 2019 Natural England study found that hen harriers were ten times more likely to vanish mysteriously or die on a grouse moor than anywhere else.

In fact, in March 2023, a hen harrier went missing around the Midhope Moors area. Anu, a satellite-tagged hen harrier born in the Forest of Bowland in 2021, vanished after roosting near Upper Midhope on land managed for driven grouse shooting, although it was never specified exactly whose land he went missing on. The tag was found, but Anu’s body never was.

Just last week, Mark Thomas, RSPB Head of Investigations UK and one of the most experienced and passionate raptor advocates in the country, said: “In the past year alone we know that 21 hen harriers have been illegally killed or gone missing in Northern England, in connection with land managed for grouse shooting.”

On top of all this, mammals are also murdered to protect grouse for shooting. Gamekeepers trap, poison, snare and shoot huge numbers of animals – such as weasels, foxes, or stoats – which are labelled as ‘pests’ or ‘vermin’. These actions are often deemed legal if you own the land, or if you have the landowner’s permission, and can happen 365 days of the year.

Let’s end bird shooting for good

Protect The Wild is working hard to raise awareness about the whole bird shooting industry, and is campaigning to get it shut down for good. Unlike, say, fox hunting, there is less public awareness about this vile industry. It’s a lucrative money maker, existing so that the affluent can get their sick kicks.

We know that ending the industry will be a slow process. We are in it for the long haul, and we hope you’ll join us, too.

You can read more about how we plan to end shooting here.