Peatlands are more exciting than they sound. They act as huge stores of carbon, pulling our emissions back down from the atmosphere and trapping them inside of themselves. Globally, our remaining wetlands still store more than 550 gigatonnes of carbon - a greater amount than is stored in all the world’s forests. It has been estimated that rotational burning of British peatlands releases up to 260,000 tonnes of CO2 annually, and removing this source of pollution would be equivalent to taking more than 175,000 cars off the road.
Peatlands are also vital in allowing biodiversity to flourish. Restoration projects on British wetlands since 1979 have increased the UK's crane population from 0 to more than 200, and there are many more animals who rely on these habitats to survive.
Under the government’s new regulations, it is no longer legal to burn certain specified vegetation on areas of peat more than 40cm in depth (deep peat). This only applies to sites of special scientific interest that are also special conservation areas.
“Our peatlands have great potential as a natural store of carbon as well as protecting habitats, providing a haven for rare wildlife and being a natural provider of water regulation." said George Eustice, the UK environment secretary.
“We want to work with landowners to restore the natural hydrology of many of these sites through our new agricultural policy to support our ambitions for the environment.”
But other environmental groups are not as impressed by the new legislation. The RSPB have responded to the law, saying “2021 is a crucial year for the climate, and with the UK hosting the COP 26 summit our Government desperately needed to show leadership. Any action on this issue is of course welcome but this isn’t what was hoped for, promised or needed.
"several loopholes will allow the continuation of burning"
“We still need to see the details of the licensing system but unless it is tightly prescribed then several loopholes allow the continuation of burning on upland peat soils and it is unclear whether we will even see a decrease in burning as a result.”
Contrary to this, Amanda Anderson, director of The Moorland Association, claimed that landowners “will be concerned over the impact new legislation and further restrictions may have on their important conservation work”. She described heather-burning as a “vital tool for moor owners and managers who are heavily involved in peatland restoration and tackling climate change”.
Tony Juniper, the chairman of Natural England, said that his organisation would assist Defra and land managers in conserving uplands, as well as directly helping these “precious ecosystems” with a new peatland restoration grant scheme.
Despite the differences of reaction to the new legislation, it is likely this new law is a step in the right direction for a country hosting COP 26 this year, and a much-needed relief for these exploited habitats.