A VOLUNTARY code advising landowners not to undertake muirburn on peatland is failing to have an impact in Scotland, according to new research.

The latest edition of The Muirburn Code came into effect in Scotland in 2017 and advises against burning on deep peat soils.

However, unless land is part of a Site of Special Scientific Interest, there is currently no legal prohibition of muirburn on peatland, which is known to store vast amounts of carbon.

Researchers at the University of Leeds undertook an assessment of peatland burning in Scotland between 1985-2022 in an attempt to understand whether the rate of muirburn had changed over the past four decades.

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Speaking to The National, Professor Dominick Spracklen said the evidence showed little change in the amount of muirburn taking place in Scotland during that time period.

“We used data from a series of satellites from NASA called Landsat, which have orbited the planet since the late 1980s,” he said.

“They take high resolution images of the earth every few days, giving us a consistent picture of changes taking place over time.

“Fires change the appearance of land surface, allowing us to track where muirburn has been taking place. What we found is that the amount of burning has roughly stayed the same over the past 37 years.

“The Muirburn Code was revised in 2017 and contained guidance suggesting landowners shouldn’t burn on peatland, particularly on deep peat soil.

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“We thought that might have resulted in a reduction in burning since 2017 but the evidence suggests that is not the case. Indeed, we didn’t see any reduction.

“It suggests that the voluntary code isn’t being followed at a large scale and that landowners and land managers aren’t changing their practices based on the code”.

It comes as MSPs prepare to debate amendments to the Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill, which seeks to impose a licencing scheme on muirburn.

The National:

Gamekeeping organisations say that muirburn on peatland has positive impacts for the environment, particularly in reducing fuel load for wildfires.

The practice is also used in order to maintain habitat for red grouse and keep bird numbers high for shooting parties. 

However, Spracklen said its impact on carbon storage was clear.

“There’s been lots of studies published on this and the big body of work suggests that burning on peat has a negative impact on carbon storage and sequestration,” he said.

“The counter argument is that you have to burn on peatlands to try and prevent wildfires.

“But the complexity lies in the fact that some areas are more prone to wildfire because they have been degraded and need to be burned because they’ve become too dry.

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“We’ve trapped ourselves into a cycle of burning degraded land when a better approach would be to wet up those areas by restoring the peatland, making them a lot less flammable.”

Stage 2 amendments to the bill were due to be debated by the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee in Holyrood on January 24.

However, the proceedings were delayed at short notice until February 7 by Tory MSP and committee convener Finlay Carson due to “the weather”.

The delay was criticised by two SNP MSPs, who said hybrid meetings were common practice and made clear the decision was that of the convener alone and not the committee as a whole.