Muirburn in the time of coronavirus

On 23 March 2020, a 'controlled' fire in Yorkshire got out of hand and damaged 200 hectares of rare blanket bog. The blaze, on a mile long front at one point, required the presence of 20 fire appliances to get under control, when all the emergency services are stretched to get the country through the Covid-19 pandemic. The West Yorkshire Fire & Rescue Service called for a stop to controlled burning on moorland after this incident.

Yorkshire Water and United Utilities responded by imposing a temporary halt to all burning on their land, while the National Trust said it would be working with estate managers and tenants to stop burning during the lockdown. Bodies representing the grouse shooting industry, such as the Moorland Association, Scottish Land and Estates and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation also asked landowners to stop controlled burning during this time.

Unfortunately, this request was ignored in several areas in Scotland (Stirlingshire, Perthshire, Moray, the Pentlands and the Borders). So Green MSP Andy Wightman inserted a clause temporarily banning muirburn into the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act, which passed with 59 in favour and 17 against. This entered into force as part of the the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill on 7 April.

Oddly, many 'sporting' and landowning groups, having previously supported a halt, called this step “completely unnecessary”, despite the evidence that the voluntary approach had failed. We wonder why: perhaps they have got too used to their ineffective voluntary agreements doing the trick whilst they continued business as usual. The new reality seems to have come as a shock to them. The UK government remains committed to legislation to stop burning because, in their clearly stated view the voluntary approach has failed. Obviously there are more important matters right now but we should reasonably expect that burning will be outlawed by the next season.

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