Why Won’t COP26 Leaders Acknowledge Britain’s Burning Moorland?

Photo shows sheep on the hillside while fires are visible in the distance. British moorland is burning.

The long-hyped COP26 summit, hosted by the UK, is now well underway. World leaders are meeting in Glasgow, Scotland to discuss the threat of climate change. Ideally, they will also make (and keep) measurable commitments to climate mitigation and environmental protection.

But as time runs out to avoid the very worst of the climate crisis—and world leaders continue to say one thing and do another, even at the conference itself—thousands of acres of Britain’s shrinking, carbon-storing moorland have gone up in flames.

Purple heather, young saplings, ombréd grasses, thick moss, and countless unlucky animals have perished in the burning heat. Huge plumes of smoke can be seen for miles around, and the surrounding communities find themselves engulfed by the noxious clouds.

It’s a national tragedy; a step back for climate mitigation, and a huge loss for biodiversity. But unlike the increasingly catastrophic wildfires experienced in countries around the world—including the U.S., Australia, Greece, Russia, Brazil, and more—the UK’s countryside is being burned methodically, by design, and partially funded using taxpayer money.

Men with blowtorches incinerate Britain’s beloved landscape in this way every year, legally, in order to raise and hunt red grouse for sport. In fact, the UK is now the only country to practice driven grouse shooting—the avian equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel, both unsporting and cruel.

It defies belief that public money is used to prop up this industry, which exists just so that a wealthy few can participate in ritualized violence. That grouse shooting relies on the further destruction of Britain’s dwindling countryside, and that this comprehensive self-sabotage is taking place during the “last, best chance” for the environment, is particularly devastating.

Photo shows a man in old fashioned tweed walking through heather with his dog while grouse fly in front of the camera. Britain burns its carbon storing moorland every year.
The UK is burning moorland for the sake of the grouse hunting industry. | Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

Burning moorland and hunting grouse

In excess of 500,000 grouse will be killed by the end of an average shooting season, which runs from August 12 (grimly known as the “Glorious Twelfth”) to December 10.

The annual moor burn, or muirburn, follows soon after the Glorious Twelfth and strips back plant life in order to promote new growth. This creates an optimal environment for farming huge numbers of grouse quickly and replenishing the recently decimated population.

Both the sport itself and the burning take place primarily in the North York Moors, the Peak District, the Yorkshire Dales, and Scotland’s beautiful (and extremely biodiverse) Cairngorms.

Hunters, groundskeepers, and others involved in the industry would have us believe that both grouse shooting and moor burning actually benefit the environment. They claim that their impact is positive and that any negatives are offset by supposed conservational merit.

But driven grouse shooting, along with fox and stag hunting (both illegal and deeply unpopular), are reserved almost exclusively for the elite ultra-rich, aspiring aristocrats, and those in their employ. And as with other bloodsports, advocates are primarily industry-affiliated bodies with a vested interest in continuing to hunt, trap, shoot, and otherwise profit from wildlife.

These include the British Association for Shooting & Conservation, the British Game Alliance, and of course, the Countryside Alliance. Unsurprisingly, the evidence doesn’t back up their claims that the industry is a boon for the environment. In fact, it suggests the exact opposite.

Photo shows a beach with words written in the sand. They say: "COP26 Net Zero 2050, Make a plan for our future."
COP26 is all about reducing our environmental impact, so why are we still burning moorland? | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

When left to flourish, peat moorland is an enormous carbon sink. The natural flora absorbs carbon from the air like trees, and thanks to its extensive coverage and notable effectiveness it stores more CO2 worldwide than all other terrestrial vegetation combined.

Destroying it to hunt grouse hampers further sequestration and releases the stored carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and fine particulate matter into the air. Furthermore, bare moors cause chronic flooding in neighboring towns, impacting people’s livelihoods, homes, and health.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just “city folk” who oppose bloodsports, and many of those forced to coexist with such selfish, destructive practices would welcome a much-needed, outright ban. Prohibition could support biodiversity, the local community, and create green jobs.

Wild Moors, a campaign group working to restore depleted carbon-rich habitats such as peat moorland, recently reported that more than 100 fires were spotted across England’s National Parks between October 12 and 16, a fivefold increase from 2020.

Last year saw a total of 719 burns, which was itself an increase from 550 the year before. The industry’s destructive practices are spreading, despite welcome but practically unenforceable protection for the most valuable peatland (any areas measuring over 40cm in depth).

While the majority of 2021’s burns were completely legal, Natural England has said that it is investigating at least two additional locations where illegal fires may have been set. But as with so much environmental destruction that occurs in the countryside, it’s very rare that those with financial or social capital are actually held accountable for their crimes.


The grouse shooting industry also kills rare birds

In addition to their carbon-storing benefits, moors are important ecosystems. They are home to birds such as golden plovers, harriers, pipets, and curlews, along with deer, hares, rabbits, lizards, snakes, mice, shrews, and countless other animals.

Unfortunately, native wildlife perceived to “interfere” with the industry are routinely shot, snared, and poisoned to make way for yet more homogeneity; farmed grouse and burned scrub. 

Targeted animals include several protected birds, a serious point of contention between the industry and their immediate neighbors. Persecuted species include the iconic red kite, as well as golden eagles, peregrines, and hen harriers (just six pairs were recorded nesting in 2015).

The RSPB’s recent Bird Crime Report noted 137 confirmed instances of crimes against these and other protected species throughout 2020, making it the highest rate in 30 years (even without incalculable unrecorded crimes). Furthermore, the RSPB directly links at least two-thirds of recorded deaths to land used for game bird shooting.

For all our countryside’s enormous potential to support climate mitigation, biodiversity, and sustainable jobs, the grouse industry continues to devastate precious moorland. This is enough to ruffle feathers year-round, but the burning of invaluable carbon stores and the killing of animals in the lead-up to COP26 is absolutely sickening.

Photo shows British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking at COP26. The UK's carbon-storing moorland us burning.
Boris Johnson has made some big claims about climate change, but there is little evidence to show he will follow through. | Getty Images

Banning the industry could help the UK reach its conservation targets

The most recent UNEP report, published just a few days ahead of the summit, says that current national pledges will fail to keep global warming under 1.5 C. Instead, the world is on course to reach 2.7 C warming by the end of the century with absolutely catastrophic consequences.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government have said that they want Britain to lead the world in mitigating climate change and protecting the environment. They have made countless promises and attempted to rebrand as a party that cares about our futures (all while literally killing people through cut benefits and public services).

But while Johnson repeats empty slogans and attempts to shame others for their actions at COP26, his government continues the long-standing Conservative tradition of enabling hunting for the wealthy and valuing the environment solely for its financial worth.

Johnson has specifically vowed to protect 30 percent of the UK for nature in the face of rapidly falling biodiversity and climate emergency. But approximately 852 acres of the countryside (that’s twice the size of Greater London) are currently dominated by grouse moors.

World leaders arrived in a country whose waters are awash with illegally dumped sewage (endorsed by the majority of Conservative MPs). They were also met by the lingering smell of smoke from Britain’s single largest carbon store, intentionally burned, for no good reason at all. It’s hypocrisy, senseless greenwashing, and it’s exactly what we have come to expect.

Grassroots protests, activist groups, NGOs, and environmental advocacy organizations will continue to drive positive change while Johnson performs his disingenuous hand-wringing. But if the government wants to get serious about climate change, it needs to look closer to home and take action against British bloodsports.

The views expressed in opinion pieces are those of the author(s) and do not represent the policy or position of LIVEKINDLY.