An outline summary document of the current knowledge about prescribed vegetation burning impacts on ecosystem services compared to alternative mowing or no management

Andreas Heinemeyer, Mark Ashby

Research output: Working paper


Despite substantial contrary evidence, there has been a growing tendency to present prescribed burning as a management practice that is only ever damaging to peatland ecosystems in the UK (Thompson et al. 2016; Natural England 2019; Wild Justice 2019). This is exemplified by the recently released “Burning and Peatlands” position statement by the IUCN UK Peatland Programme (IUCN 2020). Indeed, while we strongly agree with several of the statements made within this position statement, it also contains a series of unverified assertions and misleading arguments that serve to simplify the narrative and paint prescribed burning as a peatland management tool that is only ever damaging. Given that this position statement is published by one of the UK’s most prominent peatland conservation organisations, it is likely to be consulted when debating and designing upland land use policy. Therefore, for the benefit of policymakers, we provided a point-by-point critical review of the “Burning and Peatlands” position statement (Ashby & Heinemeyer, 2021). We also discuss several further points that should be considered by practitioners and policymakers when inferring the impact of prescribed burning.

We are neither pro nor anti burning; our aim in producing this summary document is to encourage robust research and evidence assessments and support the practitioner and policy community to move towards an evidence-based position about management impacts on UK upland peatlands, which considers burning as part of several options that can be deployed depending on site conditions and context (i.e. the right tool in the right place for the right reason). Given the uncertainties within the evidence base and practicalities of conducting robust experimental research, we suggest land managers follow an adaptive management approach when using prescribed burning. The fundamental tenet of adaptive management is to monitor management interventions and use the results to inform future actions (e.g. by halting any interventions that are found to be damaging) (Holling 1978). We propose that a ‘learning by doing’ approach should be endorsed within grouse moor management policy because it (i) allows various managements to continue as long as landowners monitor the environmental impacts of their interventions (ideally supported by scientific input at representative high-intensity monitoring sites); (ii) encourages landowners to adopt a more cautious approach to management (by realising the benefits and challenges of different options); (iii) potentially ensures more environmentally sensitive management techniques are trailed and tested (before being adopted in general); and, (iv) contributes to evidence base (in a real-world context).
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages11
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2021


  • Peatland
  • Land management

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