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Controlled burning is ‘shielding’ Strathspey moorland from rising temperatures, says BASC

By Louise Glen

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Ross Ewing, Public Affairs Manager (Scotland) for The British Association for Shooting and Conservation.
Ross Ewing, Public Affairs Manager (Scotland) for The British Association for Shooting and Conservation.

One of Scotland’s foremost carbon stores is being protected from an increasing wildfire risk by traditional land management practices, according to the UK’s largest shooting organisation.

As the practice is expected to come under heightened scrutiny in this parliamentary term, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) is highlighting the role played by muirburn – the controlled, rotational burning of heather – in making moorland more resilient to wildfires ahead of the start of the grouse shooting season, known as the ‘Glorious Twelfth of August’.

The traditional technique is primarily employed by gamekeepers, hill farmers and crofters.

The association argues that muirburn is an effective means of reducing fuel loads and creating fire breaks, which it says will be critical if peatlands – which hold 53 per cent of Scotland’s carbon store – are to be adequately protected from an increasing wildfire risk associated with global temperature rise.

Muirburn – which is carried out in the cooler, wetter months between October and April – burns through the upper layers of wind-dried heather in a controlled setting on small patches of moorland. The practice brings diversity to the heather, encouraging the vegetation to regenerate which provides an optimum food resource for grouse and sheep.

A recent study commissioned by the Scottish Government found that muirburn also benefited a litany of other species including curlew, golden plover, merlin, lesser redpoll and whinchat. Despite this, the Scottish Government have committed to regulating the practice, and will bring forward legislation to ensure that it can only be undertaken "under licence from NatureScot".

BASC rejects the need for licensing, instead arguing that muirburn should be ‘front and centre’ of efforts to tackle both the climate and biodiversity emergencies alongside mowing, grazing and re-wetting.

The calls come following the publication of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on Monday which warned that global temperatures would rise by 1.5C by 2040 under all emission scenarios. It also concluded that the last five years were the hottest on record since 1850, exacerbating the risk of extreme events such as wildfires which have gripped parts of Europe and North America in recent months.

BASC’s public affairs manager in Scotland, Ross Ewing, said: “The heart-breaking impacts of the latest spate of wildfires in Greece highlight the need to make our precious, carbon-rich moorlands more resilient to climate change.

“In Scotland we are lucky to have a diverse range of dedicated moorland managers taking care of our uplands, employing different techniques to protect this internationally rare ecosystem and helping wildlife to thrive. All too often it is them – in conjunction with Scotland’s firefighters – on the frontline of extinguishing wildfires.

“Wildfires - such as those seen recently in Caithness, Easter Ross and Dumfries and Galloway - have the capacity to decimate our carbon-rich peatlands, not to mention the diversity of wildlife reliant on the heather moorland habitat.

“Following the publication of this week’s damning IPCC report, we must recognise that traditional practices like muirburn are actually playing an increasingly pivotal role in shielding our moorlands from wildfire risk.

“Controlled burning is employed around the world in various guises. In Australia, hazard reduction burns are on the front line against bush fires, and are actively supported by the Australian Green Party.

“The climate and biodiversity emergencies are unprecedented global challenges, and we strongly believe that muirburn can play a front and centre role in tackling these issues head on.

“Those advocating for an end to controlled burning are often driven by a malevolent campaign against grouse shooting that is rooted in classism. However, in the face of a growing climate crisis, it is clear that muirburn, mowing, grazing and re-wetting have never been more important, and should be welcomed by all.”

READ: Science backs muirburn traditional land management technique, says Scottish Land & Estates as season opens

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