United Kingdom — The burning of moorland by shooting estates could contribute to global warming, ecologists have warned.
Gamekeepers, who are preparing for the start of the grouse season on Saturday, burn moorland to encourage the growth of heather to feed the birds. It also provides a better habitat for rare birds and other wildlife.
However, Dr Adrian Yallop, an ecologist of Cranfield University in Bedfordshire, said peat moors were important stores of carbon and burning surface vegetation caused them to dry out, releasing carbon into the environment.
“In terms of carbon storage, the moors can be thought of as Britain’s rainforests. Where burning occurs, the hydrology changes and the peat is open to decomposition and erosion,” he told New Scientist magazine.
“This strips the moor of carbon as surely as setting fire to the Amazon rainforest.”
It is unclear how much carbon is released. Carbon in the sea can be absorbed by animals and plants there. But it can also make the water more acidic, which then eats away at shells and the bones of dead creatures, thus releasing more carbon.
According to a study of English uplands by Dr Yallop, the amount of land subject to controlled burning has doubled over the past 30 years.
However, in Scotland, there has been concern that the amount of burning by gamekeepers is declining, and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) encourages the practice when carried out in a responsible way in order to encourage biodiversity.
Dr Richard Dixon, of the environmental group WWF Scotland, admitted it was difficult to choose between promoting local diversity and not contributing to global warming. “If anyone was suggesting SNH should propose radically increasing the amount of burning, we’d probably think that’s a bad idea. Clearly, a balance needs to be struck,” he said.
“But we should err on the side of keeping carbon in the soil, and Scotland’s peat bogs are really quite important.”
Davie Thomson, the vice-chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, who works on an estate near Inverness, said: “To be honest, I think it’s a lot of piffle. We have been burning heather for hundreds of years and we have probably more peatland here than anywhere in Europe. It hasn’t damaged the peat bog as far as I can see. I think it’s scaremongering.”