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Highland keepers join national call for muirburn promotion

By Tom Ramage

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Gamekeepers have written to Nicola Sturgeon asking that Scottish Government safeguards muirburn and acknowledges its role in preventing wildfires and protecting carbon stores.

Land managers from Scotland’s 7 regional moorland groups have written to the First Minister in the wake of new peatland research which shows low severity fires can help retain peatland carbon.

Muirburn makes a diference, say keepers
Muirburn makes a diference, say keepers

Millions of tonnes of carbon was released during recent blazes in Moray, the Flow Country and Galloway which were unconnected to muirburn by gamekeepers, the keepers have pointed out.

Wildlife charity WWF estimated that the wildfire which spread to RSPB-managed Flow country in 2019 doubled all of Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions (700 000 tonnes) over 6 days.

In contrast, gamekeepers say managed fires like muirburn reduce the fuel available to burn in the landscape and help to stop out of control wildfires by creating fire breaks.

A pioneering study has revealed for the first time that quick surface burning over peatlands can also help to protect the carbon locked below the surface.

The paper, published during lockdown in Global Change Biology, showed that low severity fire, like that practised by gamekeepers, enhances the long term retention of carbon in peatlands.

The US scientists found that quick surface fires made moist peat more stable, often creating a protective crust which allowed it to retain more of its stored carbon for longer.

“Controlled muirburn prevents surface vegetation, like heather and grasses, from building up. Without addressing that build-up of fuel, one match or a smouldering barbecue and you get the raging, damaging wildfires we are sadly seeing more of in Scotland today,” said Lianne MacLennan, co-ordinator of Scotland’s regional moorland groups, who have released a new film on the subject, titled: Muirburn and the Climate Emergency.

She added: “Unlike quick, controlled muirburn, these infernos can scorch everything and, if on peat, damage our efforts to control climate change because of the amount of carbon released into the air.

"This formed part of our message to the First Minister.

“In addition, what the newly published research shows is that fires with a low intensity, like managed muirburn on peatlands, actually protect the carbon below.

“This is another piece of work which refutes the assumption made by those who dislike land management that controlled muirburn is a net contributor to carbon into the atmosphere. Like any burning, some carbon will be released but, perhaps counter-intuitively, what this research show is that these low intensity fires are actually helping to protect the vast carbon stores locked in the ground below.”

On Scotland’s grouse moors, gamekeepers undertake ‘cool’ muirburn in strips or patches to provide food and habitat for grouse, sheep, and deer.

These quick burns remove surface vegetation but, unlike wildfires, do not ignite the peat below.

Recognising this the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has itself been exploring ways to reduce fuel loads as part of wildfire mitigation.

Last year, it announced that it was due to trial the burning and cutting of vegetation following research from USA, Canada and Australia.

Last year’s wildfire in Moray burnt out 10 miles of habitat over four days after starting in an area where muirburn had been restricted for 10 years and banned for three.

Over 80 firefighters including 50 gamekeepers extinguished the blaze which reignited because it burnt down into the peat, releasing hundreds of thousands of tonnes of carbon.

“Rather than being a bad idea during a climate emergency, controlled fire has an important role.

“Scotland is becoming increasingly fire prone and even wetter areas are not immune when a fire starts moving, as has been witnessed,” said gamekeeper Conor Kelly.

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