Muirburn, Moorland and Monoculture
On an unseasonably hot winter’s day, Scotland’s largest national park’s fresh air was replaced by choking smoke. These billowing clouds could be seen drifting across roads and surrounding vehicles that were passing by. As the outstanding views were blighted by countless fires burning furiously across the moorland wild animals could be seen fleeing the fires as their habitat is consumed by heat and smoke.
This, according to an eye-witness, was the product of intensive heather burning (muirburn) carried out by land managers maintaining moorland for grouse shooting. Muirburn has turned much of Scotland’s uplands into a scarred unnatural patchwork of burnt hillsides on a massive scale. Far from being the iconic image of wild beauty we often associate with Scotland, land that’s intensively managed and burnt for the single purpose of shooting grouse is bleak and baron. The fact that muirburn and grouse shooting are normal seasonal activities in Cairngorms National Park will be shocking to some, and an annual reality for the people who live there.
The muirburn season takes place across Scotland between 1 October and 15 April and newly burnt patches of ground are intended to make way for younger heather which provides a greater food source for grouse, maintaining their artificially high population levels. The patches of unburnt heather provide concealment and cover for grouse until they are flushed out and shot for fun during the shooting season (12 August – 10 December).
Besides the aesthetics, muirburn is a significant threat to the environment. Peat moorlands are internationally important resource, storing 3.2 billion tons of carbon, and much of Scotland’s peat is on grouse moors. If all the carbon dioxide from Scotland’s peatland was released at once, this would be the equivalent of well over 100 years-worth of Scotland’s annual carbon emissions. It’s vital this resource is protected.
However, despite the fact that the Muirburn Code advises against burning on deep peat, recent research has shown that 28% of all 1km squares subjected to burning in Scotland overlie deep peat and this is possibly a conservative underestimate. Muirburn has increased dramatically in recent years as the competition to produce as many grouse as possible has intensified, so it’s very likely that the damage to the environment has increased as well.
According to the Committee on Climate Change’s report (2018), while most of England’s damage to peatland is a result of agriculture, most of Scotland’s peatland is in upland areas like grouse moors. While Scotland may have the ambition to restore 250,000 hectares of degraded peat by 2030, there has been very little progress so far. The Committee also notes that Scotland has a greater capacity to switch land use to realise this ambition so it becomes clear what we must do, or at the very least not do, to reach our targets and protect the environment.
The local environment – our biodiversity and the wildlife that occupies it – needs to see an end to intensive muirburn for grouse shooting as well. The muirburn season can be extended further into spring increasing the risk to ground nesting birds and the enforcement of the Muirburn Code is limited, with suspected breaches like burning out the nests of protected birds of prey, described as ‘accidents’ by the shooting lobby.
While moorlands are of very high conservation value for their vegetation, invertebrate populations and birds, inappropriate burning is seen as one of the main reasons for the poor condition of these upland areas.
Almost a fifth of Scotland is managed for grouse shooting and a significant proportion of it is a patchwork monoculture of heather – just one of the many problematic features of the industry whose singular focus is increasing or maintaining grouse numbers to be shot. Scotland is burning and if the current trajectory leading us to climate chaos isn’t stopped soon, the world will burn too. But there’s hope and Scotland has a vital role to play.
Just by ending the practice of muirburn on peatland we can make a substantial contribution to the war against climate change. Taking proactive steps to revive the moors for the benefit of the environment, our wildlife and fauna could make an even bigger difference to the efforts to meet and surpass current climate targets. If Scotland’s progressive politics can’t deliver this then who or what can?
For some people a step like this would be radical. In this case radical is sensible, and a serious effort to reform Scotland’s grouse moors is desperately needed. When so much of Scotland is used by the grouse industry, at a huge cost, for such little societal benefit, radical reform can literally change the face of Scotland and unlock a better future for our people as well.
Max Wiszniewski is the Campaign Manager for the Revive coalition. Revive is a coalition of like-minded organisations working for grouse moor reform in Scotland. Coalition partners include Common Weal, OneKind, Friends of the Earth Scotland, League Against Cruel Sports and Raptor Persecution UK.