COP 26, Muirburn & Packham’s Odd Little Moment


In the closing days of the COP26 gathering of World leaders in Glasgow last month, the deliberations of our political masters were assessed by BBC Presenter Chris Packham in this video. Clearly, Mr Packham is disappointed with the results that emerged from the great and the good, who collected in their fleets of private planes and limousines. In many ways, we cannot blame him. The stark, blazing hypocrisy of these people whose intention is to get us all to reduce our carbon footprint and thus impoverish ourselves, whilst they jet around the world being terribly important, seems to be obvious to everyone except themselves. Unless, of course, the real reason is that they don’t believe a word of this anthropogenically generated climate change nonsense. Whatever the explanation, the whole thing is an obvious act of virtue signalling and hot air.

And so all this political flatulence has upset Mr Packham, who obviously expected to get something tangible out of the event – some kind of commitment to massive economic restraint perhaps. Rationing on travel maybe. Eradication of the internal combustion engine, certainly. Population reduction by any means, possibly. But oddly, none of them made any concessions towards the demands of Mr Packham, and hence his downcast demeanour.

Aside from the generalities of climate change and so on, Mr Packham went on to make a specific statement about how a recorded incident of muirburn was conducted during the conference, as if in defiance of the principles of the conference itself. He alleged that peat was being burnt during this operation, and hence carbon released into the atmosphere.

At this point, we need an explanation as to what ‘muirburn’ amounts to:

Muirburn – controlled burning of heather and grassy moorland – is a form of traditional upland management, usually used to burn heather and rank grasses. It is a practice of upland management which has been used for centuries to provide grazing for cattle and sheep; and in parts of Scotland, it is still used for this purpose.

This has been adapted for the management of grouse moors. The objective is to burn old heather which is reaching the stage of becoming long and leggy. Once burnt, the heather Calluna vulgaris and other species such as Bilberry vaccinium myrtillus, regenerate and produce short vegetation which acts as a food source for Red Grouse, other bird and mammal species, and invertebrates.

When heather is old and leggy, it no longer produces the fresh green growth which supports the grouse or invertebrates. Short, young heather does not produce the depth of cover that both adult and young grouse need to hide from predators. The answer is to have young, medium, and taller (but not rank or leggy) heather. In order to provide this mix of habitats to support both adults and young, the heather is burnt in patches, and in rotation. It is this practice which provides the characteristic ‘patchwork quilt’ appearance of a managed grouse moor.

As well as grouse, this practice provides other ground nesting birds with both food sources and cover from predators. These other species include Golden Plover, Lapwing, Curlew, Snipe, Meadow Pipit, Grey Wagtail (close to water), Common Sandpiper (close to water), Hen Harrier and Merlin. In addition, in Scotland, Mountain Hares use grouse moors as one of their two principal habitats – the other being young forestry plantations. Red Deer also graze upon the vegetation. Field Voles use the longer grass and cover provided by the variations in height of the vegetation. The main food of Hen Harriers are the voles. Merlin prey upon the Meadow Pipits and Golden Eagles and Buzzards prey upon the Mountain Hares. The additional protection provided by gamekeepers in reducing numbers of Foxes, Stoats, Weasels, Magpies and Carrion (or in Scotland, Hooded) Crows means that these characteristic upland species also thrive on managed grouse moors.

The burning of heather in this way has become controversial because of the risk of setting light to and depleting the peat (and therefore carbon reserves) which may underly the heather.

The potential for burning peat is related to the severity of the fire and ground moisture conditions. This is determined by a) above ground fuel load b) time of year and ground moisture c) wind. A high severity fire occurs when the fuel load is high and when the ground has dried in warmer weather. Wind speed and direction can increase the severity of the burn, giving rise to the potential for the burning of peat.

There are three layers to the moor: the upper layer comprises the heather and other vegetation. The next layer is the leaf litter, and the bottom layer is the peat. The objective is to avoid burning down into the third level. A good muirburn will only take off the surface level and may burn some of the litter layer, but leaving mosses, etc either untouched or in a state which is able to regenerate quickly. The peat is then the level below this. It is only a wildfire in dry conditions (usually summer) with high fuel loads, that will burn below ground level and into the peat.

A gamekeeper will undertake muirburn when the ground has moisture. The Muirburn season in Scotland respects this requirement by burning at a time when upland ground tends to be wet.

On unmanaged moors, the heather grows very long, the stems become woody and dry – and a lot of detritus accumulates. This provides a considerable fuel load. When long, rank heather is set alight by a wildfire, it burns slowly, very hot, and then goes deep into the peat below and sets it alight. It can then burn for days or even weeks afterwards. This is clearly a very damaging situation.

By contrast when the heather is managed in the patchwork of grouse moors, the heather does not become long and leggy. The fuel load of the heather is therefore very low, the fire passes rapidly over the top of it and does not set light to any peat which may be below.

The objective of responsible grouse moor burning is therefore to maintain a low fuel load and also to conduct the burn on days when there is a breeze in the right direction and the ground is wet. This all helps the fire to progress rapidly without heating any peat which may be below.

A useful general description from the Muirburn Code of the purpose and style of burning on grouse moors is here.

We must now return to Mr Packham and examine precisely why his statements about the burning of peat during a controlled muirburn, are so extraordinary. The dates and timings of the claim are given below:

  1. 31/10/21 to 11/11/21 – COP 26 international conference held in Glasgow.
  2. 27 & 28/10/21 – Two legal muirburns were conducted at Allargue and Edinglassie estates in Cairngorms National Park, Aberdeenshire. Theses were approved by NatureScot and carried out in accordance with the Muirburn Code. The events were filmed without permission using a drone, by the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS).
  3. 1/11/21 – The film footage was edited by LACS and then screened at a fringe event during COP 26. The short film and statement accompanying it is here:
  4. 11/11/21 – The Daily Record published an article: “Scots shooting estate toffs accused of ‘putting two fingers up to COP26’ by burning grouse moors”
  5. 11/11/21 – Chris Packham then tweets (see above) the article headlines and image from the Daily Record adding his own commentary: “…grouse moors burn peat during @COP26…”
  6. 14/11/21 – Mr Packham repeats this statement in a YouTube video (7 mins 20 secs – 7 mins 32 secs).
  7. He says: “… And whilst this has been happening, symbolically they’ve been spitting in our faces. Grouse moors burning here, in Scotland. Peat going up in smoke, carbon, going up in smoke.”
  8. Some days later, Mr Packham spoke at a Revive meeting in Perth. He referred, again, to this story and asked attendees to imagine smoke (from Allargue and Edinglassie in Aberdeenshire) passing over the very building where delegates were discussing climate change (SEC in Glasgow). A distance of approximately 130 miles by road

But all this is countered by the background context of his story, and which he carefully omitted to mention:

  1. The muirburn at the centre of this controversy was conducted in accordance with the Muirburn Code, well within the permitted season for muirburn (1st October to 15th April inclusive), in good weather conditions with a light breeze, probably on the 27th October 2021 – see Daily Record article).
  2. During this exercise, the LACS filmed using a drone, and then appeared to return the following day to fly the drone over the burnt areas.
  3. The LACS film of the event clearly shows the muirburn being carried out by people with the necessary equipment and the fires under close control. The leading edge of the strip fires is seen advancing in an ideal rapid or ‘cool’ burn.
  4. The drone footage, perhaps taken on the following day and skimming over the top of the burnt areas (0:46 secs to 0:59 secs) shows the heather blackened, but mounds of moss sticking up above the charred heather, and thereby demonstrating that the underlying peat had not even been touched.
  5. LACS edited the film on 1st November 2021 and it was shown with an accompanying statement. This stated: “The practice [of muirburn] is an issue of growing concern due to the increasing extent and intensity of burning on grouse moors, and particularly the effects of burning over deep peat.”
  6. There is no suggestion from LACS, Revive or the Daily Record article that this particular incident involved peat being burnt, or that the fire was in any way illegal or improperly managed. They are merely saying that muirburn carries with it a risk of burning peat – a fact which all grouse moor managers are acutely well aware of and hence the advice in the Muirburn Code.
  7. However, Chris Packham clearly embellished the original LACS statement with his tweet saying “…grouse moors burn peat during @COP26…”. This statement, linked as it is to the Daily Record article, is referring specifically to the muirburn portrayed in the LACS video taken at the end of October 2021 on an estate near Donside. The tweet is therefore unequivocal. He is saying that this incident burnt peat when it did not.
  8. His repetition of the statement in an emotionally charged video on the 14th November only serves to underline his departure from the facts expressed in his original tweet on the subject. He says: “…And whilst this has been happening, symbolically, they’ve been spitting in our faces. Grouse moors have been burning here in Scotland. Peat going up in smoke. Carbon going up in smoke.” (7 mins 20 secs to 7 mins 32 secs).

Mr Packham had only to look at the film to see that it was not a deep, hot fire and that no peat had been burnt. He is an intelligent and informed person who knows that there is another side to the argument. He just will not acknowledge it, because it conflicts with the narrative that LACS, Revive and others have developed for public consumption. In this video, Packham is emotional, almost hysterical, and clearly propelling himself into ever greater levels of extremism. There is a huge and growing movement to stop grouse moor shooting. It is extremely well funded. They will make any misleading claim they can to gullible politicians and public alike. Mr Packham is a central part of that movement.

UPDATE: The following video is an excellent demonstration of how a fast-moving muirburn leaves an iPhone 11 unharmed as the flames pass over it:

1 Revive is an anti-grouse moor coalition comprising: OneKind, a Scottish animal rights group; League Against Cruel Sports, an animal rights, antihunting campaign group; Common Weal, a Scottish social and economic campaign think tank; Raptor Persecution UK, an animal rights campaign group specialising in raptors; Friends of the Earth Scotland, an environmental campaign group.

David Eyles spent the first twenty years of his career as a quantity surveyor in civil engineering. He started work on the Thames Barrier Project in the mid 1970s and from there moved on to building hardened aircraft shelters in East Anglia – those being the days of a rather warm Cold War. On RAF Lakenheath, he was once observed nearly slithering his mini under the wheels of a taxiing F111 loaded up with tactical nuclear weapons. If nothing else, it would have been one helluva motor insurance claim and a sense of humour loss by the US Air Force. Later, he went to Nigeria for two years to build roads and see first hand what corruption can do to bring down an intrinsically prosperous country. There he had his first experience of seeing British overseas aid being wasted. He returned to the UK and attempted to write a novel, but was instead diverted into bird ringing and spent far too many nights chasing radio tagged Nightjars around Wareham Forest at dangerously high speed. By a mysterious route, then fell into farming via six worn out commercial hens; and wound up with a flock of 350 Dorset Down ewes and forty Traditional Hereford cattle. He then divorced, changed his life and arrived in Cornwall to find solace in the pedantry of hard data, wonderful pubs, good people and writing. His other interest include walking; some very poor quality photography; the philosophy of consciousness as it pertains to animals and humans; and a certain amount of politics. David’s writing can be found here