Wildfire experts, scientists and the Scottish Fire & Rescue Service (SFRS) have joined forces with land managers to spell out the importance of muirburn as a conservation tool to protect Scotland’s precious peatland.

February is the Month of Muirburn, with an insightful film and social media campaign from Scotland’s Regional Moorland Groups and the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association highlighting the importance of muirburn to support carbon capture, boost biodiversity and reduce wildfire risk on peatland.

Experts including international wildfire adviser Marc Castellnou, Associate Professor Dr Andreas Heinemeyer of the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York, Professor Rob Marrs of the University of Liverpool and Bruce Farquharson of SFRS have added their voices to the campaign.

Lianne MacLennan, National Campaigns Manager for Scotland’s Regional Moorland Groups, said:

“There is now a significant body of evidence supporting the view of land managers that muirburn is an essential tool in the uplands – reducing the risk of wildfire, creating ideal habitat for a range of species and promoting a better diversity of vegetation.

“In areas where muirburn has not been carried out, we see the vast and devastating wildfires that have released thousands of tonnes of carbon and destroyed thousands of acres of habitat. We cannot allow these devastating incidents to continue.

“By reducing the risk of wildfire, muirburn protects our precious peatlands and also enables effective carbon storage and higher water tables in the long-term. It is crucial to allow the most effective land management approach to conserve and protect these important landscapes.”

Peatland is estimated to cover around 23 percent of the land area of Scotland and, when healthy, stores and sequesters carbon while providing an important habitat for rare species from ground-nesting birds to mountain hares, insects and plants.

Muirburn helps protect this environment and creates a mosaic of vegetation of different lengths that is preferred by rare bird species such as golden plover, lapwing and curlew.

Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association Chairman, Alex Hogg MBE, said: “These films are instructive, clear and enjoyable. They also come at a time when newly published University of York research is providing fresh insights about muirburn and peatlands over the longer term. Much of what has been written about muirburn has come from short term studies and is equivocal. Scottish Government need to look at these new findings – and these films – which help shed new light on the complexities.”

Researchers at the University of York, led by Dr Andreas Heinemeyer, are conducting a 20-year-long study into the management of heather-dominated peatland at the request of Natural England and DEFRA.

The project compares the effects of muirburn with mowing, or leaving heather unmanaged. The main findings at the half-way point of the study are as follows:

  • burnt plots had the highest net carbon absorption in the long-term, becoming carbon sinks within 5-7 years;
  • mown and unmanaged plots both absorbed about half the carbon per year of burnt plots;
  • unmanaged plots released by far the most methane;
  • burning, in particular, was good for nutrient content for grazing animals, likely due to the fertilization that ash provides;
  • unmanaged heather dried out the underlying peat and increased risk of wildfire, with the potential of triggering ‘catastrophic’ carbon loss as well as the destruction of wildlife and habitat.

Controlled burning takes place in cycles of up to 20 years, with small patches burnt at different times then left to regenerate. This creates the patchwork hill sides we see around Scotland, providing food and shelter for game and moorland birds, helping boost the wild populations.

Muirburn helps prevent wildfires and reduce their impact by creating natural fire breaks and reducing the mass of dry vegetation which would otherwise burn in a wildfire.

Unlike muirburn, wildfires generate high temperatures and set the peat itself alight, destroying habitat for moorland species and releasing the carbon stored in the ground.

The vast wildfires in Moray and at Forsinard, both landholdings where there is no controlled burning, between them released almost a million tonnes of CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere.

The extensive wildfire between Strathy and Melvich in 2019  required the combined effort of five fire crews and a helicopter and resulted in power cuts to properties in the area.

A code regulating muirburn in Scotland has been in place since 1424 but the revised Muirburn Code published in 2017 is a comprehensive document setting out all aspects to be considered when using fire or cutting on moorland.

The University of York research can be found here: https://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/195295/1/Peatland_ES_UK_UoY_SHORT_SUMMARY_Jan23.pdf

*Image credit, Kirk Norbury  

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