It’s been dry for days. The breeze gently ruffling the tops of maroon-coloured heather and clumps of tall, pale grasses is neither too strong nor too weak. There is a pleasing squelch to the moss-covered peat below. These are the perfect conditions for burning.
Three gamekeepers from the Bingley Moor grouse estate in West Yorkshire begin their final burn of the afternoon – on land the government’s nature protection agency, Natural England, classes as blanket bog.
These bleak, treeless upland bogs, made up of the deepest, wettest peat, are the country’s most important carbon stores, as well as vital natural water filters and rare wildlife havens.
When this burn took place, it was perfectly lawful. But from today, by Defra’s assessment, it will be illegal; burning on peatlands such as this, known as blanket bogs, is now banned in protected areas in England. Ministers have acknowledged that these moors are, in effect, the “nation’s rainforests”, and for the first time have accepted that there is scientific consensus that burning heather damages peatland formation, making it “difficult or impossible” to restore these habitats to their natural, waterlogged state, capable of storing vast quantities of carbon, about as much as all the forests in the UK, France and Germany.
Here, the patch of heather in question is about the size of a five-a-side football pitch. One keeper mows around it, the blades on his tractor chewing up the woody vegetation. Then another, with a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, nonchalantly swings a blowtorch back and forth along the line of the newly hewed heather. It catches instantly: flames rip through the crisp leaves and spindly branches, sending giant wafts of bittersweet smoke across the moor.
“We’ve done about 20 fires today,” says Simon, the head gamekeeper for the estate, who asked that his full name not be used. He gestures to the chessboard of charred, smouldering patches stretching back up the hillside behind him. “We’ve got to do it while the heather is dry.”
It’s the same story on the surrounding moors. Plumes of smoke drift over the former mill towns in the river valleys below. There must be five or six large fires in every direction.
“Without burning you wouldn’t have the grouse estates: you would have bogs, you’d have rushes and nothing else,” says Simon, who has worked on the moors for 25 years. “I can understand why people look at it and think it is really destructive – but without burning it wouldn’t be like this.”
The estate denies the burn is on deep peat. “Defra have no idea. The whole moor is mapped completely wrong,” Simon says. “We are on shallow peat.” Either way, these moors have been set ablaze by gamekeepers such as Simon ever since wealthy Victorians first developed a liking for driven grouse shooting, which entails producing thousands of birds and then driving them into the line of fire of shooting parties hidden in camouflaged butts. It runs from the so-called “Glorious 12th” in August until just before Christmas.
Burning older heather creates tasty young shoots for the grouse to eat and removes cover for predators such as foxes and stoats. The estates also claim it creates natural wildfire breaks and a habitat that benefits other birds. Yet the way grouse estates manage the nation’s uplands has now come under intense scrutiny, as scientists and, belatedly, ministers have realised the vital role the peat that covers much of the country’s moors could play in sequestering carbon.
The government’s new partial ban will still leave almost 40% of blanket bog in England vulnerable to burning and about 70% of shallower, already degraded upland peat – which scientists believe also needs to be restored where possible to take full advantage of its unrivalled capacity to soak up carbon – at risk of further damage.
There will also be a range of exemptions for English estates keen to carry on burning on blanket bogs, including areas that are steep or inaccessible for mowing. This contrasts with Scotland, which announced last year it was planning to impose a complete ban on burning on all types of peatland, with licences granted only for limited purposes, such as habitat restoration. It also falls short of the recommendations of the government’s climate change committee, which has called for a total ban on burning on peatland as part of a wider package of changes to the way land is managed, in order to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
Burning, however, is not just a national political and scientific controversy: it is also bitterly divisive for local communities in grouse-shooting counties such as Yorkshire, bringing to the fore age-old class tensions over the use of the moors. On one side are the area’s grouse estates (mostly owned by business tycoons and aristocrats), their gamekeepers and remote moorland villages. On the other is a citizen army of walkers, wildlife lovers and environmentalists, sometimes known as the moorland monitors, as well as townsfolk fed up with the devastating flash flooding they partly blame on the speed at which rainwater comes off bare, damaged upland peat.
Retired air force engineer Mick Bray looks through his binoculars at multiple fires smouldering on the Duke of Devonshire’s Bolton Abbey estate in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales. He watches as blurry figures blowtorch the heather, and gently shakes his head at what he sees as needless destruction.
“I live here and I love running on the moors. But I hardly ever see any wildlife apart from grouse. It’s a monoculture,” he says. “I want it to be what it could be. I want it to be reborn. I want to see all the raptors coming back and nature doing its thing.”
Hen harriers, peregrine falcons, short-eared owls and red kites should all be common sights on the dales. But a report for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority found that many raptors were diminished or absent from suitable habitats.
Bray, 51, and his wife, Diane, are two of the 100 or so volunteer moorland monitors in Yorkshire who carefully log fires and keep a close eye on the grouse estates. “Tourists wander around and think they are in a wilderness,” says Bray, who grew up nearby and first went walking in the moors with his dad. “But they don’t see the traps everywhere and the persecution of raptors. There is no real nature here.”
The information recorded by the volunteers is collated by a group called Ban Bloodsports On Yorkshire’s Moors. This burning season, which starts in October and ends in April, volunteers have recorded more than 700 fires, including 55 on the deepest, most valuable peatlands and 646 on mixed deep and shallow peatland. This is a 27% increase on last season, when 550 fires were reported. Only 61 of this season’s fires would be illegal under the government’s new partial ban. At the end of each burning period, the data is passed to the government and its nature protection agency, Natural England.
Seasoned campaigner Luke Steele, Ban Bloodsports’ director, is also on the Duke of Devonshire’s land. He marches ahead of Mick and Diane Bray through the thick vegetation to investigate the closest burn. “We’re in the middle of a climate emergency and this is one of the UK’s largest natural carbon stores – and we are setting fire to it for grouse shooting,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense.”
He pauses when he reaches a large square of scorched peatland. It looks as if a small bomb has dropped. “You can see here that the bare peat is exposed and the moss has been burned away,” Steele remarks, kicking at the dry, soot-covered soil, where the blackened stumps of burnt heather stand.
The density of birds on grouse moors can be many times greater than natural levels. “You would expect about 200 to 500 grouse per square kilometre, which is about 100 times natural densities. The only way to do that is to sacrifice heather so you’ve got the younger, fresher shoots for the grouse, and killing off all the foxes and other predators,” he says, as a pair of plump, dozy-looking grouse emerge from the heather.
Steele finds a tunnel trap for stoats and weasels before coming across a live crow, which can eat grouse eggs and chicks, stuck in a large trap. “That fact that the bird is distressed invites other birds in, because they are territorial. The gamekeepers will come along later and break their necks,” Steele says. “It is an endless cycle of damaging the environment and wildlife so that more grouse can be shot.”
Britain’s notoriously wet climate provides an ideal environment for peat formation, which develops over thousands of years in waterlogged conditions that slow the decomposition of dead plants. The UK has nearly 3m hectares of peatland – more than the vast majority of countries in the world. This includes 13% of the world’s entire blanket bog, an internationally rare type of usually upland peat watered by all the drizzle and rain rolling in off the Atlantic.
Richard Lindsay, head of the University of East London environmental research group and an international authority on peatland conservation, could talk for hours about the remarkable qualities of peat, but he also has a succinct way of summing up complicated issues. “We live on a damp rock,” he says, drolly.
These vast mantles of dark, compressed plant matter, which are found in lowland fens and upland bogs, hold huge quantities of carbon because, when healthy, they are almost permanently wet. Dead vegetation decomposes extremely slowly in the waterlogged conditions: this is because the fungi and bacteria that break down plants fast need oxygen, which moves through water 10,000 times slower than it does through the air. Whereas plants rot relatively quickly in dry forests or grasslands, sending the carbon dioxide they have absorbed during their lifetimes back into the atmosphere, in peatland their carbon is held securely below saturated carpets of moss.
Lindsay is quick to point out that they are even more impressive carbon stores than the rainforests to which they have been compared. “A peatland that is 10 metres deep can have 30 times the amount of carbon stored in the same area of tropical rainforest.” However, this carbon is not currently locked away safely, because approximately 80% of the UK’s peatland is in a degraded, damaged state. As soon as the peat loses its watery protection, the carbon in the millennia-old rotted plant matter starts to oxidise and is emitted as CO2. Every year the nation’s dried-out peatland releases more carbon per year than all of the oil refineries in the country, with research showing that burning hinders the regrowth of mosses that play a vital role in keeping moors waterlogged.
The huge gaps in the English ban trouble scientists such as Lindsay, as estates appear keen to continue burning. “I’m glad the government has recognised burning on peatland is damaging. But there is no logical reason to restrict the ban to protected areas, or just to deeper peat for that matter. Peat is peat. It is clearly more of a political decision than a scientific one,” he says.
Smoke could well fill the skies above England’s moorlands as more than 200 world leaders gather to discuss how to prevent runaway climate change in November. “The UK government could be wagging its finger at other countries about peatland burning and they could turn around and say: ‘Why are you allowing yours to burn?'” Lindsay says, despairingly. “It completely undermines our position as president of Cop26.”
Wildlife experts also have concerns about the way grouse estates manage moors. Pat Thompson, senior policy officer at the RSPB, says the estates exterminate any threats to grouse to maximise the numbers of birds to be shot each year. “They kill almost all predators. They kill foxes, crows and stoats legally,” he says. “They’re also often involved in killing protected wildlife such as badgers, pine martens and, of course, birds of prey.” Research has shown that satellite-tracked birds of prey such as hen harriers are more likely to disappear on grouse moors.
Thompson accepts that some bird species do well on grouse moors – curlews, peewits, red kites and the like. “They are in abundance because anything that might prey on them has been removed,” he says. “These ecosystems are completely out of balance.”
Back on the Yorkshire moors, fires burn on the Walshaw Moor estate, in the south of the county. Billowing smoke can be seen rising from the 16,000-acre moor, owned by the retail tycoon Richard Bannister, during the winding, precipitous descent into Hebden Bridge.
Here, in the lush basin of Calder valley, where the water spills off the moors into fast-flowing rivers, patience with the grouse estates is running out. The town has been hit by four major floods in the last eight years, with dozens of flood warnings already issued this year.
Many in the area – as well as some scientists – partly blame intensive, seasonal burning by nearby grouse estates, which prevents the regrowth of sphagnum mosses on the moors. Unlike bare, damaged peatland, these undulating, semi-permeable natural barriers can hold up heavy rainfall, lowering dangerous peak flows in rivers.
As a windless dusk settles on the gritstone terraces and bridges straddling the gushing Hebden Water, Hazel Draper, one of the town’s flood wardens, explains how quickly the river can rise after heavy rain. “It is so changeable – the level can’t be predicted like big rivers. If the rain falls on the wrong hillside and rushes down, we can be underwater in a matter of hours,” she says, strolling past shops and pubs with piles of sandbags and metal barriers.
Draper, who is also a local teacher, stops by the cinema and runs her finger along a metal gauge showing the levels floodwater has reached in the town. “The 19th-century floods came to there,” she says, starting at the bottom, nearest to the pavement, and working her way up. “The 1946 flood came to there, and then there was 2012, 2000, 2020 and 2015. It’s getting higher and higher.”
The 2015 floods saw thousands of homes and businesses flooded and some schools closed for months when the river rose by more than three metres. It caused millions of pounds of damage and scores of jobs were put at risk. Inside the White Swan, in the centre of the town, the floor is bare. “Every time I put a lovely carpet down I get flooded,” says Liz Wood, the landlady. “You get fed up. We’ve lost thousands and thousands of pounds from flooding.”
On the other side of the river, Scott Patient, Calderdale council’s cabinet member for climate change, arrives on his bike. “We live in a valley that’s already suffering the effects of climate change. We flood all the time. We have moorland fires. These are all consequences of climate change – of hotter summers and wetter winters,” he says. “Lots of places have declared a climate emergency but we are living it already.”
Patient, who lives in the town, has little time for claims that grouse estates benefit rural economies. He points out that shooting parties rarely come anywhere near the town. “Hebden Bridge and the surroundings benefit from walkers, cyclists and mountain bikers,” he says.
At the same time, he would like what he calls a “just transition” for gamekeepers so they could be involved in managing moors in a way that benefits everyone rather than just shooting parties. “I don’t think for a minute that if grouse hunting disappeared gamekeepers would be out of work,” he says. “We need to restore deep peat. We may want to rewild areas. There are lots of possibilities.”
The next day, Bolton Abbey’s estate director, Ben Heyes, and his thoughtful head gamekeeper, Tom Adamson, climb out of their Range Rovers on to a high, blustery spot on the 30,000-acre estate, in order to demonstrate what is known as a “cool burn”, where only the tops of the heather are set alight.
It has rained overnight but the moor is still dry enough for their task. There is a steady wind sweeping over the brooding, rocky outpost of Simon’s Seat and the surrounding fells. “If it wasn’t wet this morning, it would be pretty much ideal,” Adamson says, unloading his “batter”, which is used to beat down the fire, and “scrubber”, which is used to drag over the flames. “It’s quite a good wind – about 10 miles an hour. It’s better because you know the direction the fire will go in.”
Adamson prepares for the burn meticulously, checking for fire breaks – in this case a track – and the height of the heather. “This was probably burned about six or seven years ago. It’s the right height – about a foot,” he says.
Gamekeepers like Adamson aim to give the grouse the best chances of surviving and breeding. “We want to create as many edges [of heather] for the nesting birds,” he says. “If there are any predators – owls or foxes – then the chicks like to get into the edge, where they are safe.”
Again, there is evidence of burning in every direction. Above a rippling Victorian reservoir, which provides water for Bradford, the moor is scarred with scorched squares. Adamson has not counted how many fires they have started this year: “It’s been quite a good burning season. Our best day was 100 [fires]. Our worst day was 20,” he tells me.
The ban will not make much difference, even though around a third of the estate is deep peat. “We don’t want to burn on deep peat, so it’s not going to be an issue,” says Heyes, who has managed Bolton Abbey for 30 years. The estate plans to keep burning at around the same rate next season – although Heyes might have to apply for licences to burn on blanket bog if heather grows to the point where the estate considers it to be a wildfire risk.
The threat of wildfires is often given as justification for controlled burning, as it is said to remove excessive dry heather growth and create gaps flames cannot jump. This risk is increasing as the climate crisis brings hotter summers, further drying out already-parched moors. Three years ago, a series of devastating wild moorland fires broke out across the country during a heatwave, with Saddleworth Moor outside Manchester seeing the largest wildfire in living memory.
“Heather moorland is a real headache to manage because it is a flammable environment,” Adamson says. “Left naturally, it would still burn from a lightning strike or a discarded barbecue. One way or another it will burn. We do it in the winter, when it won’t get into the peat and to stop catastrophic wildfires.” Mowing is not seen as a viable alternative to burning as much of the moor is too rocky, too steep or too wet for cutting.
Away from the smoke, a group of peewits, with their distinctive curled head feathers, hop around looking for worms. Heyes cannot understand the opposition of many wildlife groups; he claims controlled burning benefits other species as well as grouse. “We are creating a fantastic landscape with fantastic flora and fauna, which is not replicated anywhere else in the world,” he says, proudly. “You come here and you can see curlews, peewits, golden plover, merlins, red kites, barn owls, short-eared owls … the whole spectrum. But that doesn’t happen by accident.”
Heyes vehemently rejects any suggestion that raptors are persecuted on the estate. “It is just the opposite. We are carrying out merlin surveys and looking at putting in an osprey platform,” he says.
He puts much of the opposition down to class resentment. “It’s one of the main reasons: it’s them and us. But actually, anyone can grouse shoot.”
After the fire has been extinguished, they walk over the crunchy, skeletal remains of the heather. Heyes kicks into the shallow peat below the grey dust to demonstrate the outcome of a cool burn: “You can see we are not burning peat – we are burning heather.”
The estate will not know how many birds the gamekeeper’s efforts this winter have produced until the summer months. “All we are doing is helping nature create a surplus,” Heyes remarks, walking back towards his Range Rover. “If nature creates a surplus, we can harvest the surplus.”
Further along the curved Wharfedale Valley, there are communities steeped in the culture and history of grouse shooting. The bar of the Red Lion Hotel & Manor House, which nestles in a pretty village below the menacing hulk of Barden Moor, is decorated with stuffed grouse and many of the rooms have gun cabinets. In summer months the road outside is lined with gleaming new Range Rovers and sports cars.
In the Red Lion’s reception, Katy Verot, one of four sisters who run the hotel, is already booking in shooting parties. “From the Glorious 12th, it’s massive. Most are from down south. There are lawyers and banking types. There’s landed gentry, too – a lot of dukes and ladies come up to shoot grouse,” she says. “Some are extremely wealthy. They might start in Devon, shoot somewhere in the Midlands, come up to us and then go on to Scotland.”
Scrolling through a spreadsheet, Verot estimates 60 to 70 nights have already been booked by grouse shooting parties, who spend liberally while they are in the area. “You are talking GBP3,500 to shoot a day, so you have got to have the cash,” she says. “They will eat and drink here.”
Rumour has it that Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall go shooting on the moors with the Duke of Devonshire. “He’ll let it out for Charles and Camilla and his family, and they’ll just go shoot for five days,” Verot says.
The estates employ a range of people during the shoots, such as beaters, flankers, caterers and picker-uppers (collecting the dead birds). The pastry chef at the Red Lion, Fred Bosomworth, spends most of his holidays beating because he loves being outside. “The job of the beater is to push the birds over the guns,” he says. “A small day might be 25 brace [ie 50 birds]. Some of the biggest days are 300 to 400 brace.”
Bosomworth says grouse estates help keep smaller rural communities alive. “If it stopped, the people it employs would take a massive hit,” he says. “The schools that are struggling for numbers would lose the keepers’ kids. It would have huge knock-on consequences.”
As the sun begins to dip behind the boulder-strewn ridge, the gamekeepers from Bingley Moor grouse estate put out their final fire. One uses a leaf blower to extinguish the remaining flames tugging at the edges of the smouldering ground. The last splutters of bittersweet smoke fill the air, joining the other plumes rising above Yorkshire.
The estates know that they are being watched like never before, but they are defiant in the face of growing scientific evidence. “Everybody says they love going to the Yorkshire Dales because it is so beautiful,” says Simon, Bingley Moor’s gamekeeper. “If it wasn’t for the grouse moors, it wouldn’t be beautiful.”