burning moores revealed by satellite

Revealed: widespread burning of peatlands despite government ban

As an avid hiker, I sometimes stumble across scorched earth in the middle of nowhere: heather moorland deliberately burnt by landowners for grouse shooting. And as an animal rights activist, I’m acutely aware of the way the shooting industry uses vast swathes of land for hunting and shooting.

So new statistics about the extent of the burning of our moors don’t surprise me, as terrible as the figures are. On 30 May, Greenpeace Unearthed revealed that between 1 October 2021 and 15 April 2022, England’s precious peatland was set on fire 251 times. This is likely to be a small fraction of the burning that actually took place, as these were only the incidents that the team could identify.

Grouse like to eat the young shoots of new heather that sprout up after burning. And more grouse means more targets to shoot. All in the name of ‘sport’, of course.

A shoddy law full of loopholes

Greenpeace Unearthed found that:

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

These rich landowners continue to get away with this, despite the fact that the government introduced a new law last year, partially banning the burning of our peat moors. But the law has many loopholes.

Landowners can still burn their moors if the peat is shallow (less than 40cm), if it isn’t within a conservation zone such as an SSSI, or if it is very steep or rocky. 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.

The Unearthed team stated:

“One in five of these burns (51 out of 251) was on land protected by multiple conservation designations, and which Natural England’s latest available map identifies as deep peat. Unearthed understands that no licenses were issued for burning on deep peat during the past season, so all of these instances warrant investigation as potential breaches of the ban.”

But it also 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.”

This goes to show that, just like other laws such as the Hunting Act, the legislation isn’t worth the paper it is written on.

Photo: Steve Morgan/Greenpeace

Another cruel sport for the rich

It is, of course, unsurprising that Greenpeace Unearthed and mainstream news outlets have focused on the environmental effects of grouse shooting. After all, Greenpeace argues that our peat bogs “may store more carbon, acre for acre, than tropical rainforest.” The burning of the moors also means that the peat loses some of its ability to retain water, which can lead to flooding in surrounding towns.

But less people are talking about the cruelty of killing and maiming grouse for fun. Nor are they talking about the bigger picture of our absurd land ownership laws that allow millionaires to use our earth as their very own blood-sporting playground. These land owners allow affluent shooting parties, which travel from all over the world, to pay as much as £14,000 a day to murder grouse.

Animal Aid points out that:

“As well as the half a million grouse nurtured for shooting each year, grouse moor operators snare, trap, poison and shoot vast numbers of other animals and birds labelled as ‘pests’ or ‘vermin’ in order to keep their quarry ‘safe’ for wealthy guns.”

And according to Chris Packham:

“Legally they are allowed to get rid of weasels, stoats, foxes, and they do this relentlessly. And we have no idea how many of these animals are killed, but we know that obviously it runs into the hundreds of thousands.”

He continued:

“If you abide by certain rules and if you own the land or have the landowner’s permission, then you can trap those species at any time of the year – there’s no closed season. And that’s what they do 365 days a year. They purge those predators.”

Birds of prey are particularly at risk of persecution, and are often killed or disappear in areas that are dominated by grouse shooting.

End all blood sports

It isn’t just grouse-shooting that drastically changes the land for the worse.  Pheasant-shooting is another cruel ‘sport’ that messes with the ecosystem.

50 million pheasants and 11 million red-legged partridges (both non-native, introduced species) are released into the countryside each year, and around 30% are shot for ‘sport’. The others die of disease, starvation and are taken by predators, such as foxes. As with the grouse-shooting industry, wild birds are murdered in the name of protecting pheasants.

A Labour Animal Welfare Society (LAWS) report about pheasant shooting states that:

“Financial interests override the environmental, ecological, conservation and animal welfare and public health impacts of the industry.”

On top of all this, the shooting of grouse, pheasants and partridges also leads to lead being leaked into our environment. LAWS states that:

“2500 tonnes of lead shot is fired into the environment by game bird shooters representing billions of individual pellets, generating high levels of risk in local areas.”