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York heather study seeks answers to burning question

Heather burning in the Yorkshire Dales (credit: Dr Andreas Heinemeyer)

The traditional practice of heather burning to rejuvenate upland slopes for the benefit of livestock and game birds could be set for a re-think in a Government-funded study led by the University of York.

The £1m research project, Restoration of blanket bog vegetation for biodiversity, carbon sequestration and water regulation, is looking at alternatives to burning, a common sight at this time of year on moorland across the UK.

Is cutting an alternative to burning?

With the help of a large tractor-powered mower, the York team are investigating if cutting heather on three trial sites in North Yorkshire and Lancashire would be a cost effective and more environmentally-friendly option than burning.

Dr Andreas Heinemeyer from the University’s Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) explained: “Heather burning is a common practice on upland heather moorland throughout the UK. The main aim of burning is to encourage the heather to produce new green shoots to feed red grouse and livestock.

“The problem is that burning on peat soils also seems to cause discoloured water – about 70 per cent of our domestic water comes from upland areas and water companies are spending several hundred million pounds every year treating the water to make sure it runs clear when it reaches our taps.”

Myriad of mosses

Burning also threatens the myriad of mosses that form blanket bog vegetation, a vital component of healthy bog ecosystems and the key to active peat growth and regeneration.

Dr Heinemeyer said: “Currently, many of the management techniques, including heather burning, are based on custom and practice. Our research aims to provide an evidence-based approach underpinned by rigorous scientific comparison of the different management techniques.”

The project team are applying different treatments, including mowing, on test areas in the Yorkshire Dales and the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire.

Early results in the five-year trial show that patches of heather burnt and cut in spring this year, half way through the project, are already showing signs of re-growth.

“We can see there’s regeneration of the heather on the mown plots with re-growth from stems happening quicker than on the areas that have been burned, although seed germination seems to be encouraged by burning,” explained Dr Heinemeyer.

Our research aims to provide an evidence-based approach underpinned by rigorous scientific comparison of the different management techniques

Dr Andreas Heinemeyer

“However in some mown catchment areas, there are early indications of increased water colour. We think this might be because mowing occurred closer to the stream edges and may have allowed run-off to reach the streams.”

The work is funded by Defra and has the backing of water companies, landowners, gamekeepers and environmental bodies including Natural England and the Yorkshire Peat Partnership. The project partners are working closely with the York researchers in an effort to find solutions which address environmental concerns - while protecting water supplies, farming interests and valuable grouse moors.

Lessons learned

Lessons being learned in the Yorkshire Dales and the Forest of Bowland are also gaining international attention; Dr Heinemeyer recently returned from a United Nations Climate Change Framework meeting in Bonn where he gave a presentation on the current state of knowledge relating to accurate accounting for carbon budgets and greenhouse gas emissions from upland areas.

“Blanket bogs and upland moorlands are some of our most precious natural resources. They have been developing since the last Ice Age and play an important role in supporting many ecosystem services not least their role in mitigating emissions of greenhouse gases by locking away carbon,” said Dr Heinemeyer.  “Finding the best way forward for managing these iconic landscapes relies on robust evidence and a shared understanding of the problems.”

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