The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has called upon the government to take actions to reduce burning in uplands in the UK citing a study that revealed the extent of moorland burning across Britain’s upland areas.

Burning on moorlands, a mixture of bog and heath habitats, is widely used to increase the numbers of red grouse that are available for recreational shooting.

The RSPB Centre for Conservation Science study has revealed through its study that burning was detected in 55 per cent of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and 63 per cent of Special Protection Areas (SPAs). The report finds that significantly more burning took place within them than on comparable moorlands outside.

The Society notes that the SACs and SPAs are designated under EU legislation for their conservation importance, and governments are charged with protecting them from damage and ensuring that they are restored to the best condition. Despite this, quite a few SACs and SPAs are in unfavourable condition, with burning identified by governments and statutory agencies as a primary reason for this poor status.

Published in Biological Conservation, the study is the first ever to look at and map upland burning in detail across mainland Britain. Researchers used a mix of aerial photography and satellite images and mapped 45,000 1-km squares across Scotland, England and Wales.

Researchers found through their analysis that burning occurred across 8551 of these squares and in the ten year period covered by the study from 2001 to 2011, the number of burns recorded increased rapidly by 11 per cent each year.

Other studies have found that the potential number of red grouse shooting days in some areas of Britain has risen over a similar period, and moorland management has also intensified.

In Scotland and England, a third of burning took place on deep peat soils, an important carbon store. The UK has 10-15 per cent of the world’s blanket bog peatlands. Locking in 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon , this deep peat in the uplands is the largest carbon store in the UK . Upland areas are also a vital water source, supplying around 70 per cent of our drinking water . Burning has been linked to poor water quality in these areas, requiring large sums of money to treat the water.

Martin Harper, Director of Conservation at RSPB stressed the importance of uplands in the role they play for wildlife in the UK. He said that many of our uplands are in poor condition due to intensive land management practices.

“It’s very worrying that burning is increasing, given the damage it can cause and that it occurs in many of our conservation areas.”

Harper called upon the governments and statutory agencies across Britain to take action to reduce burning in the uplands rather than allowing them to be increasingly damaged year on year.