Climate change: Management of grouse hunting estates in Scotland needs to change dramatically to reduce emissions from peatlands – Dr Richard Dixon

We are in a climate emergency. 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 expected. They say there is little time to do all we can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Scotland’s peat soils contain large amounts of carbon. About a fifth of Scotland’s land area is covered in peat-rich soils and these contain almost two billion tonnes of carbon. That’s 25 times the amount of all the trees, shrubs and other vegetation in the whole of the UK.

When peatlands are in good condition, they form new peat and trap carbon from the atmosphere. But when degraded, they release carbon dioxide and methane – a greenhouse gas nearly 40 times worse than carbon dioxide at causing climate change. About 80% of Scotland’s peat soils are degraded in some way. How we deal with them, and in particular how we try to help them recover, is therefore of vital importance locally, nationally and globally.

There has been much discussion about the climate impact of managing grouse-intensive moorland bog areas, particularly the issue of muirburn – regularly burning old growth on heather moorland. A new independent report for the Revive Coalition examines the evidence in detail and finds that there is surprisingly little information, in part because such activities on grouse moorland are barely regulated. We don’t even know how much of our uplands are burned each year. There is a voluntary code on muirburn, but the report reveals that the actual practice is often observed to violate this code.

The shooting industry says muirburn helps prevent wildfires, which are a growing risk due to climate change and increase climate emissions. Revive’s report concludes, despite the lack of evidence, that stopping muirburn, even when well controlled, is unlikely to increase overall carbon emissions and that stopping poorly done muirburn would benefit the carbon balance. A partial ban in England introduced last year was meant to protect areas of deep peat, but a Greenpeace investigation found 40 of the 251 fires they looked at were in areas identified by Natural England as having peat deep.

With further global scrutiny of the contribution of peat-rich soil management to climate change and the Scottish Government’s commitment to introduce grouse moorland licensing, this new report should be an urgent spur to ensuring that climate emissions from muirburn and other activities are minimized should be an essential part of new licensing proposals.

Management of grouse hunting grounds must change due to climate change (Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Teresa H. Sadler