Burning peatland and the complexity of socio-ecological systems

Back on the 14th January this year George Monbiot published an article in the Guardian entitled ‘Meet the conservationists who believe that burning is good for wildlife’ see here.


He argued that burning (also known as swaling on Dartmoor) is bad for wildlife as it destroys habitats and stops scrub and trees from growing. George had previously been on Dartmoor the previous October where he was invited to address the UK National Parks at their biennial meeting – he talked about re-wilding, how the moors of the UK had been ‘sheepwrecked’ and why he thought swaling was a bad idea – you can watch his talk here.

Burning as a management tool has been used on Dartmoor for over 8000 years – it was the burning of the forest by Mesolithic Man and the subsequent grazing that followed that has in part created the cultural landscape that we know today. Tom Greeve has published a historical review of swaling on Dartmoor – see here and you can also download a report of a training day  held on Dartmoor between English Nature and the National Trust in 1998 here.

In March Monbiot was further incensed as a paper ‘The role of fire in UK peatland and moorland management: the need for informed, unbiased debate‘ (see here) which was to be published by the Royal Society in May unexpectedly got into the public domain. The paper criticised Monbiot’s article on swaling on Dartmoor – in addition the ‘leaked’ paper was hijacked by a group called ‘You Forgot the Birds’ which had been set up by pro grouse moor advocates to attack the RSPB. He responded to the paper in an article entitled ‘Bonfire of the Verities’ – see here. What a muddle and how ironic!

Well, on the 16th December the same group of authors who wrote the original paper have published a second one to address the issues raised by Monbiot in March. That paper is titled ‘Informed debate on the use of fire for peatland management means acknowledging the complexity of socio-ecological systems‘. You can download that paper here. It is definitely worth reading. I have provided the abstract of the paper below.

The effects of fire and its use on European peatlands and heaths are the focus of considerable research and debate due to the important services these ecosystems provide and the threats they face from climatic and land-use change. Whilst in some countries ecologists are actively promoting the restoration of historic fire management regimes, in the UK the debate has become increasingly acrimonious. Positions seem entrenched between continuing the intensive form of management associated with grouse moors or ceasing burning and seeking to eliminate fire altogether. In a recent paper we argued that participants’ positions appeared influenced by political and philosophical beliefs associated with, for example, private land-ownership, hunting, and associated conservation conflicts such as raptor persecution. We also suggested there was inadequate engagement with key concepts and evidence from fire and peatland ecology. We argued that management debates should aim to be inclusive and evidence-based, and to understand the benefits and costs of different fire regimes. In a strongly-worded critique of our paper, George Monbiot (author of “Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding”) suggested we: i) framed our research question too narrowly; ii) made the implicit assumption that moorlands were the “right” ecosystem for the UK countryside; and iii) failed to adequately engage with arguments put forward for cessation of managed burning. Here we critically examine each of these issues to provide further insight into how adaptive, participatory land-management could develop. We argue that a productive debate must acknowledge that complex trade-o s are inevitable during ecological management. Choosing the “right” ecosystem is difficult, especially in a landscape with a long history of human influence, and the answer depends on the values and ecosystem services we prioritize. Natural resource management decisions will be improved if based on an understanding and valuation of the multiple scales and levels of organization at which ecological diversity exists, the role of disturbance in controlling ecosystem composition and function, and the need for participatory action.

I suspect Monbiot will pen a response to this paper.

Monbiot’s January swaling piece in the Guardian also included my data of heather and blanket bog deterioration in the Plym Valley in south west Dartmoor. The authors of the second paper say of this ‘we would suspect the inappropriate combinations of burning and grazing are more likely to be to blame than the use of burning as part of the management system per se’. I would agree with that.

The original May paper is very focused on the northern heather moors where fire is being utilised to manage heather to encourage high density populations of red grouse. It addresses issues such as the severity and frequency of burns but it doesn’t talk about the timing of burns – on Dartmoor swaling can be carried out as late as the 31st March by which time some moorland ground nesting birds have already got nests.

On Dartmoor swaling is used to manage heather, gorse and particularly purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea). Unfortunately the paper makes no reference what so ever to Molinia which is now a major problem in many upland areas. It has spread into heather communities and has become dominant. Molinia is palatable to cattle in the late spring and early summer but after that it is generally avoided and the autumn it has turned white creating huge areas of what Ian Mercer described as ‘rafia’.

Much of the swaling on Dartmoor now is used to burn off the ‘rafia’ in an attempt to produce flushes of palatable grass the following spring. These new flushes of grass growth attract in the grazing animals both sheep and cattle. This practice in the past led to intensive grazing in these areas which led to the reduction of heather which I referred to in the Upper Plym.

Trying to re-establish heather stands in these Molinia dominated grasslands has proved to be very difficult. It has also been established that if Molinia is burnt and then not grazed heavily the following spring by cattle the abundance of Molinia is likely to increase. On Dartmoor today the numbers of cattle have reduced considerably and in most areas where Molinia is burnt the grazing intensity by cattle is now not great enough to reduce it and indeed may be encouraging it.

It is not burning alone that is responsible for the spread of Molinia, since the 1900s  the aerial deposition via rain of nitrogen (from cars, industry and agriculture)  has resulted in critical loadings in the uplands. On Dartmoor between 1989 and 1992, 93.3% of one kilometre squares received nitrogen deposition above the critical threshold. The various nitrogen compounds deposited are fertilisers and encourage plant growth. It is widely acknowledged now that Molinia responds aggressively to increased levels of nitrogen while heather on the other hand does not. If we add global warming into this mix, carbon dioxide levels have now risen to over 400ppm from 260ppm prior to the Industrial Revolution and the average global temperature has increased by over 1 degree. Enhanced carbon dioxide levels promote plant growth when there is sufficient soil nitrogen – in the uplands today there now is sufficient nitrogen, whilst it has yet to be proven it is reasonable to speculate that increased temperatures and increased carbon dioxide levels will promote the increased growth of Molinia.

I would like to have seen something about fire and Molinia in the paper, especially as one of the authors is a world authority on Molinia and its control.





More, bigger, better, joined up – John Lawton comes to Exeter

Professor Sir John Lawton is a cult hero in conservation circles on account of his report ‘Making Space for Nature’ which is often simply referred to as the Lawton Report. In essence the report states that we need more wildlife sites, existing sites need to be bigger, they need to be better managed and we need to join sites together via habitat creation initiatives. This simple formula is summarised as more, bigger, better and joined up. You can download the full Lawton Report here.

Dartmoor and Devon owe a great deal to John Lawton – the acquisition of Fingle Woods by the National Trust and the Woodland Trust back in 2013 may well not have happened without his report. At the time I was the General Manager for the NT on Dartmoor and negotiated the WT partnership and the acquisition – one part of this involved getting approval from the NT’s Executive Team which included Helen Ghosh, the Director General, Simon Murray, then Director of Operations and Peter Nixon, the Director of Conservation for the £4m project. Fortunately they had read the Lawton report, had had a meeting with John and were very enthusiastic about what it meant for the National Trust. When I arrived at Heelis for the Projects and Acquisitions meeting it could not have been easier – they had, I think approved it before I even began to speak…. if only the process of getting the funding for the project to restore Castle Drogo had been so easy!

Last night I went to a lecture at the University in Exeter given by John Lawton on his vision for nature and the tactics needed to achieve it. It was well attended and very entertaining.

John Lawton 1
Lawton is a distinguished academic ecologist and is politically very savvy.

In addition to his report he is responsible for England’s 12 Nature Improvement Areas and the network of Local Nature Partnerships. His vision however goes way beyond what Government has permitted and funded to date and that was the subject of his talk.

He talked about his version and vision for a ‘re-wilded’ Britain. He compared and contrasted his ideas with those of George Monbiot. In essence he suggested Monbiot wanted to remove the people and let nature do its thing assisted by re-introduced herbivores and carnivores. His brand of re-wilding involved a ‘coalition of the willing’ who worked together skilfully using agricultural subsidies and economic benefits to achieve change at scale.

He quoted two English examples – Wild Ennerdale in the Lake District and the Knepp Estate in Sussex and he went on to compare and contrast these with the truly wild landscapes of the Okavango Delta in Botswana and Yellowstone National Park in the US, the semi wild reserve at Polessie in Belorus (created following the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster and evacuation) and Oostervardersplassen the created reserve in the Netherlands.

Wild Ennerdale is a partnership between the National Trust, the Forestry Commission and United Utilities (a water company). By reducing intensity of management by lower stocking levels peaty water no longer rushes from the fells into Ennerdale reservoir and therefore there is no need for a water purification plant. United Utilities spend 60x less funding the re-wilding project than they would have spent running a water purification plant. Nature, the economy and people all benefit.

Knepp (which I visited and written about before – see here and here) is a project set up on a 3500 acre lowland Estate in Sussex by Charlie Burrell. Formerly an uneconomic arable farm it has been allowed to re-wild over the past 15 years and is extensively grazed  by herds of long horn cattle, Exmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs and deer. The resulting ‘savannah’ of grassland, scrub and woodland has become a rare lowland haven for declining species such as the turtle dove, cuckoo, nightingale and purple emperor butterfly.

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In this slide Lawton demonstrated how management intensity (by people) decreases with scale, it also shows where UK nature reserves sit and why ‘more, bigger, better, joined up’ is needed.

John Lawton 5The direction of travel that is needed in Britain along with politics of achieving that change

John Lawton 4Lawton also made the case for re-introducing the lynx in the Lake District and challenged the audience by saying ‘why not Devon too?’  He suggested that lynx would be able to control the burgeoning population of deer.

He also re-emphasised the role of conservationists in winning hearts, minds and politics.

John Lawton 3Finally he concluded that special places needed permeable boundaries so wildlife could come and go.

An inspiring evening by a great champion of wildlife. Thanks to the Devon Local Nature Partnership, Devon County Council, Devon Wildlife Trust and the University of Exeter for organising it.

It is now up to the Devon Local Nature Partnership, local NGOs, conservationists, land managers, farmers and the residents of Devon to come up with some ideas and projects to create more spaces for nature, which are bigger, better managed and more joined up in Devon for the benefit of wildlife, people and the economy.

George Monbiot at the Commons Environmental Audit Committee

George Monbiot was called to appear yesterday to the Commons Environmental Audit Committee to give evidence on his views regarding land use and policy re. the recent floods.

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You can watch his full appearance here – it lasts around 40 minutes.

I thought George gave a good performance – it was tailored to the audience as was his attire! He covered a lot of ground – natural flood plain management, catchment level action, slowing the flow, re-wilding, dam building, beavers, maize cultivation, land use in the uplands etc etc.

He spent quite a bit of time talking about the Basic Payment Scheme’s ‘ineligible features’ scandal and I got the feeling the Committee were very interested in what he said.

You can get another take on yesterday at the EAC by reading Miles King’s piece here – where he also covers the story that the EAC barred Richard North from giving evidence after initially asking him to speak.

Upon reflection it has struck me as rather interesting that the Committee called George Monbiot to give evidence on this topic and not a Chief Executive or Director General of one of our conservation charities. Perhaps they are giving evidence next ……

A day of George Monbiot

Yesterday was a day which had a lot of George Monbiot in it for me! I started my day drinking  coffee and scanning various websites and news items – nothing new there then. I then clicked on an article by George in the Guardian (again nothing new there) entitled ‘Scorched Earth Conservation’ – see here. The previous  evening I had watched his piece on the BBC Inside Out programme about sheep and swaling on Exmoor – see here -11 minutes 15 seconds in.

His Scorched Earth piece is all about swaling and over grazing particularly on Dartmoor and Exmoor. Half way through the piece I read my name and see a series of maps I produced last December when I worked for the National Trust – see here for the link.

“Adrian Colston, the National Trust’s General Manager on Dartmoor, has published a series of maps showing the astonishing deterioration over the past 25 years of the habitats the park claims to be protecting. As he reports: “These maps do not tell a happy tale. Our land is now in far worse condition than it was in 1990 as a result of overgrazing and burning (known as swaling on Dartmoor).”

I’ve got to say although I didn’t know George was going to use my work I’m really pleased that he did – this was a piece of work that was very important to me and the National Trust and something that the NT wants to sort out. I don’t work for the NT any more (as of the 31st December) – I am now a freelance ecologist and campaigner. I worked for the NT for 18 years – it is a brilliant organisation, we didn’t fall out in the slightest but it was just time for a change for me.

I’m currently working on a Report for the NT on the ecological changes on their Plym Valley estate over the past 25 years (updating the maps that George used) and recommending what needs to be done to turn things around. I hope to report back on this work in due course once I have completed it.

In the evening I attended a talk at the University of Exeter (where I was an undergraduate) by George Monbiot and  Alan Featherstone Watson on rewilding. If you are unfamiliar with the rewilding idea – it basically suggests that our uplands particularly, are completely over managed by sheep grazing (sheep wrecked) which George calls the white plague. It would be much better for wildlife and the ecosystem generally if the sheep were removed and natural processes were allowed to occur so that the hills could again be covered with trees and shrubs. The final part advocates that  extinct mammals such as beaver, boar, lynx and wolves should re-introduced so that they once again could play their part in managing the ecosystem. For a fuller account of the rewilding ideas of George Monbiot you can watch him speak to the UK National Parks conference last year about his ideas – see here or you can read his book Feral which sets out the entire argument.


The argument goes on to suggest that as well as providing habitats much richer in wildlife these rewilded areas would also be much better at protecting and locking up carbon, would provide better supplies of drinking water and would protect areas downstream from flooding.

The logic is perfect but the ideas deeply challenge the current status quo and what conservationists have been trying to achieve for over half a century. George Monbiot is pretty rude about what the National Parks and large conservation organisations (such as the National Trust, the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB) are up to in the uplands. Much of the UK’s wildlife now lives in what are called ‘sub climax’ communities. This means habitats that are managed  by people to ensure they don’t develop into the ‘climax’ communities, that is woodland. We are talking here about the uplands, heathlands, chalk grassland, meadows, fens etc etc. I suspect over the coming months and years this topic will be fiercely debated and a new paradigm will emerge as we re-frame the UK’s attitude to nature. You can watch the two presentations from last night here.

I am not sure that my report for the National Trust on their land in the Upper Plym will be advocating a rewilding approach because there is an awful lot of politics involved, the Commoners’ livelihoods are at stake and the rich Bronze Age archaeology of the area could be threatened. There are indeed an awful lot of vested interests and legal constraints at play in the uplands. George’s intervention however has created a space for discussion where a much better future environment in the uplands can now be discussed and more radical solutions can be debated.

George finished his piece in the Guardian thus – “There is, I discovered, a widespread sense that we cannot go on like this, that we cannot keep destroying in the name of protection. Something has gone badly wrong here, and there is an urgent need for change.” I suspect most conservation  professionals agree, most farmers fundamentally disagree and most of the general public  are oblivious.

Interesting times ahead.