SCOTS ministers' hopes of meeting climate change targets are at risk of failing unless the burning of grassland and heather moorland is more strictly regulated, and almost all burning on peat is banned, environmentalists have warned.

The Scottish Government has been warned that current muirburn practices are incompatible with Scotland’s net zero ambitions because of the importance of peatlands as carbon stores.

And a new investigation provides evidence that a current voluntary code to limit the practice is not working and urgent action is needed if Scotland is to meet its Net Zero by 2045 goal.

Muirburn is the burning of heather and grass vegetation, usually to promote new growth, and is a land management practice typically associated with managing land for game, deer, and some agricultural purposes.

In February there was concern over a wake of devastating “out-of-control” fires that swept across the Western Isles, which included at least nine fire service callouts on Skye in one day.

Experts said most of them were caused by people attempting to carry out muirburn, but who “don’t know what they’re doing”.

An examination by Scotland's biggest conservation charity RSPB Scotland uncovered examples of muirburn, provided in recent years by concerned members of the public, show burning close to nests of protected birds such as golden eagles and peregrine falcons.

They also appear to show burning of regenerating trees and juniper and on steep scree slopes.

They claim that these are all likely examples of contraventions of the current mainly voluntary Muirburn Code and is evidence that self-regulation is failing and that the Scottish Government "must urgently intervene" in this area of land management practice.

The standard muirburn season is set to begin today (October 1) and runs to April 15 inclusive in Scotland. This is mainly to avoid harm to the many moorland birds that nest in spring as well as reptiles coming out of hibernation.

The voluntary code aims to ensure that when muirburn is carried out, it avoids damage to sensitive habitats and ecosystem services and doesn’t lead to wildfire.

In November 2020, the then rural affairs and natural environment minister, Mairi Gougeon said: "In future muirburn will only be permitted under licence from NatureScot, regardless of the time of year it is undertaken. And there will be a statutory ban on burning on peatland, except under licence for strictly limited purposes such as habitat restoration."

HeraldScotland: Controlled muirburn

RSPB Scotland are calling on the Scottish Government to introduce licensing and regulate the practice to deliver on that 2020 pledge, and to implement the action before the start of the next muirburn season in October 2022.

"Without regulation the £250m of public investment in peat restoration over the next decade is at risk of being seriously undermined and cancelled out," the environmental group warned.

With a month to go until the UN Climate Summit COP26 takes place in Glasgow, the RSPB Scotland analysis highlights the changes to muirburn legislation and practices that are needed to help Scotland address the nature and climate emergency.

It says that all muirburn, whether for gamebird and deer management or agricultural purposes, should be licensed by NatureScot and decisions should have climate change and nature loss at its heart.

It says that burning should be prohibited on deep peat soils, except in exceptional circumstances.

The group says 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.

Damaged peatlands can also contribute to flooding and affect water quality with significant public costs and can negatively impact wildlife and their habitats.

Video: Muirburn: The Untold Story...made in conjunction with the Loch Ness Rural Communities and Grampian Moorland Group

Duncan Orr-Ewing, head of species and land management 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. 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”.

The Scottish Government's natural heritage agency NatureScot said: "Muirburn is a complex topic and the subject of detailed research.

"Peatlands, as a part of moorland habitats, play a vital role in helping us to achieve Net Zero targets. NatureScot actively supports restoration work through Peatland Action. "However there is also uncertainty, acknowledged by the report, around some of the impacts of muirburn, including on emissions and biodiversity. It is important we all acknowledge these uncertainties and develop understanding where we can.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We understand the urgent need for tighter regulation and oversight of muirburn, and we set out our commitment to deliver a licensing regime as part of our 2021-22 Programme for Government.

“We will also introduce a wholesale ban on burning on peatland, except in very limited cases as part of an approved habitat restoration programme, and we will review the current definition of peatland, taking expert advice on whether a stricter definition should be imposed.

“We must continue to protect and restore Scotland’s iconic peatlands which can help us fight climate change and support biodiversity. That’s why we’re also investing £250 million over ten years to support peatland restoration, with a target of restoring 250,000 hectares of degraded peatland by 2030.”

A spokesman for Scottish Land & Estates said: “It is totally incorrect to associate out of control wildfires with muirburn carried out by land managers. The huge summer wildfires we have seen in recent years in Scotland have generally been started accidentally by members of the public.

"Muirburn is a vital land management practice which burns only the upper layer of vegetation and does not affect the underlying peat. It plays a crucial role in the prevention of wildfire for two reasons – firstly by creating regular fire breaks on moorland and secondly by reducing the fuel load available to burn in a fire.

"That is why the Scottish Fire Service endorses muirburn as a tool to mitigate the spread of wildfires. Many countries around the world conduct controlled burning, funded by the taxpayer, on heathland and in forests precisely to prevent wildfires and thereby limit CO2 emissions.

“The RSPB will be aware that work has already started to implement the recommendations of the Werrity Review commissioned by the Scottish Government – this work is being led by the Moorland Forum.  Land managers in the Scottish uplands are at the forefront of ensuring that our peatlands are kept in good condition and able to keep carbon locked in the ground.

“By contrast, lowland peat is intensively cultivated for farming, as well as peat extraction for horticultural compost, and this is responsible for the vast majority of emissions from peatland. Conservation work on grouse moors plays a huge part in ensuring the peatlands maintain their function as carbon sinks. No other land use would offer the same benefits.”