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Scars on the landscape that can be seen from space

Scars on the landscape that can be seen from space
  • A new RSPB study using satellite imagery shows where sensitive habitats are being burned. 
  • More than a third of all annual burning is shown to take place on peatland. 
  • But fewer burns have taken place following the introduction of tougher regulations in England.  

A new RSPB study reveals how high-resolution imagery can help map moorland burning. The results show the extent of burning, which is often associated with grouse moor management, on sensitive peatland habitats and protected sites.  

The paper was published in the peer-reviewed journal, Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation

An average of 15,250 hectares, the equivalent of 21,350 football pitches, was burned per year during the five-year study. Around a third of the area burned each year was on sensitive peatland habitats. 

The new mapping approach also shows how the introduction of better protection for peatlands in England in 2021 may have led to significant reductions in the amount of moorland burning taking place each year. 

Mike Shewring, RSPB Conservation Scientist and lead author of the study, said: “These methods are a powerful tool for assessing where and when burning is taking place, allowing the effectiveness of regulatory action to be tracked. 

“In the first year following the introduction of the regulations, the area of land burned in England reduced by 73 per cent compared to the previous four years of the study – a reduction that was not mirrored in Scotland or Wales.” 

The UK’s moorlands are important for supporting wildlife and sensitive habitats and help fight climate change by storing large amounts of carbon in peat soils. Protecting these areas is an essential part of the UK’s efforts to tackle the nature and climate emergency.  

Despite their importance for nature and the environment, every year large areas of moorland are burnt by land managers to support grouse shooting activities and deer and livestock grazing. 

Patrick Thompson, RSPB senior policy officer, said: “These innovative techniques give us a detailed picture of what is happening in our uplands, with a bird’s eye view of the hotspots for burning nationwide. 

“Our peatlands are incredibly important habitats, the protection of which should form a cornerstone of our efforts to tackle the nature and climate emergency. We have long called for an end to inappropriate burning on peatlands and the restoration of these habitats”. 

The Scottish Parliament recently passed the Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill, which will be introduced later this year. The Bill will bring in licencing for burning and grouse shooting and is expected to have significant environmental benefits in the Scottish uplands. 

Pat Thompson added: “Decision-makers in Westminster and Holyrood have recognised the importance of these areas for halting and reversing wildlife decline as well as keeping centuries’ worth of carbon locked in the ground. The potential effectiveness of the regulation in England in its first year gives us encouragement that the legislation in Scotland will deliver similar benefits and help us reach net zero targets. If we can restore our peatlands we will be taking a major step to meeting the UK’s climate goals.” 

To find out more about this area of work and how the RSPB is working to protect wildlife and wild spaces visit: 

Main image: Blanket bog – Sphagnum cover, Tim Melling