RSPB SCOTLAND has launched a fierce onslaught on the practice of muirburn, saying that it is 'incompatible' with Scotland's efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

Muirburn is the controlled burning of old heather and grass to promote new growth, and while it has some agricultural purpose, it is most associated with moorland management for grouse and deer.

As such, the conservation charity has long campaigned to have muirburn controlled by license, and argued against the current arrangement whereby a voluntary code of best practice – the Muirburn Code – holds sway.

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This week, with a month to go until the UN Climate Summit COP26 takes place in Glasgow, the RSPB renewed that effort, publishing a report that explicitly links muirburn to the hot topic of atmospheric carbon. The report – 'How to prevent nature and carbon going up in smoke: Licensing Muirburn' – calls on the Scottish Government to introduce licensing and do so before the start of the next muirburn season in October 2022.

The report warned that any burning on peatland can lead to a rapid release of stored carbon and a drying out of peatland soils, whereas healthy wet peatlands continually store carbon.

It also noted that, in November 2020, the Rural Affairs and Natural Environment Minister, Mairi Gougeon, gave an official statement to the Scottish Parliament promising that ‘in future' muirburn will only be permitted under licence from NatureScot, and there would be a statutory ban on burning on peatland, except under licence for strictly limited purposes such as habitat restoration.’

At the time RSPB Scotland strongly supported this announcement – and stated that action to implement this commitment must be taken now, with legislation and an operational licensing scheme in place by this time next year.

The report also highlighted examples of muirburn which appear to show burning on steep scree slops, burning of regenerating trees and juniper, and burning close to nests of protected birds such as golden eagles and peregrine falcons, and asserted that these are all likely of contraventions of the current voluntary Muirburn Code, and evidence that self-regulation is failing and that the Scottish Government must urgently intervene.

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Head of Species and Land Management, Duncan Orr-Ewing, said: “In the current nature and climate emergency, it is now widely accepted that all land uses will need to change to play their part in addressing the climate challenge we are facing. In this context, and as part of a wider package of change in land use practices, we believe that muirburn must now be properly regulated. The Scottish Government proposes to licence muirburn and to ban burning on peatlands, which we strongly support. However, this should be done urgently and be in place before the muirburn season of October 2022.

“In this report, various recent cases are highlighted of what RSPB Scotland perceive to be contraventions of the existing voluntary Muirburn Code," said Mr Orr-Ewing. "Where self-regulation is failing, it is right that the Scottish Government should intervene. We hope that the Scottish Government will take heed of the recommendations in this report and move swiftly to implementing licensing for muirburn and a ban of burning on peat in line with their commitment last year. The upcoming COP in Glasgow next month will surely reinforce how urgently actions like this are now needed."