Restoration of heather-dominated blanket bog vegetation for biodiversity, carbon storage, greenhouse gas emissions and water regulation: comparing burning to alternative mowing and uncut management: Final 10-year Report to the Project Advisory Group of Peatland-ES-UK

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report


There are many peatlands in the UK, and they are important because peat soils are extremely rich in carbon, storing it effectively for very long periods. In fact, despite covering only 3% of the world’s land surface, peatlands contain 30% of all the organic carbon in the soil. This huge carbon store makes peatlands and their management critical in addressing climate change.

Peatlands are of particular importance in the UK because we hold a large proportion of a rare type of the world’s peat bogs. Almost all UK peatlands are the types known as blanket bog or raised bog, and the UK uplands contain around 15% of the blanket bog in the world. Holding so much gives the UK a precious opportunity to preserve and protect these natural carbon stores, so that they can work for us in reducing carbon emissions and combating climate change. Healthy, active peatlands will absorb carbon, store it and build the peat, but if the balance tips and peatland is damaged or degraded, they can release that carbon back into the atmosphere. Peatlands hold such large stocks of carbon that releases could contribute greatly to carbon emissions. The balance between these scenarios is sensitive, and human decisions such as whether and how to manage vegetation on peatlands are one important factor in a much larger picture. Drainage, grazing, pollution, wildfire, climate change are just
some of the others at play.

Techniques for moorland management in the UK have developed and evolved over time, and this can be a very divisive and emotive topic. Around 5-15% of the total UK upland area, and around 30% of our blanket bog, is managed for red grouse shooting, so the topic of moorland management includes and is influenced by heather management for red grouse. Moorland management for grouse shooting includes a combination of heather burning or cutting, predator control and providing medication to help control parasitic worms in the birds. These practices can be controversial, and the association of heather management with red grouse shooting means that such questions are often linked with debates or discussions about moorland management more widely.

Despite this level of interest and the importance of the subject, there is relatively little robust scientific evidence about the impacts of moorland management, particularly grouse moor management, on biodiversity and carbon storage. As well as this lack of information overall, the pieces of evidence that are available often conflict each other and do not point to a simple answer, which serves to complicate the situation even further. For all the reasons above, moorland management is an extremely complicated area and the different perspectives held by opposing voices in the debate have often fuelled division and disagreement.

The challenge for those who manage moorland, and those such as government bodies who regulate this management, is how to develop a sensible, forward-looking, well-informed approach to peatland management in this environment of polarised opinion. The answer can only be: do the scientific research to provide the knowledge about the best way to manage these areas, considering all the different roles they play and the critical services they provide.
We need to allow scientific evidence to form the basis of decision making for moorland policy. This project, Peatland-ES-UK, was designed along with its original funding body Defra, to fill many of those knowledge and evidence gaps around heather management, especially to look at the impact of heather burning compared to cutting or no management on water, carbon storage, greenhouse gases and biodiversity, considering other issues such as physical effects on the moorland, practicality and cost.

This is the second report following the initial report to Defra (BD5104), which can be found at: .

Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationYork
PublisherUniversity of York
Number of pages188
Publication statusPublished - 18 Jan 2023

Bibliographical note

This report has been peer-reviewed in collaboration with Defra. Three independent reviews were provided. None identified any flaws or issues with the research and all three recommended the need for continuation of the research until completion (i.e. at least 20 years of monitoring post management).


  • Peatland
  • Carbon
  • Land management
  • Water quality
  • Biodiversity
  • Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions

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