Following the publication of a new study on the effects of upland burning, The Scottish Moorland Group has set out the benefits of well managed muirburn - a natural management tool that has been used for centuries and is highly effective.
By regenerating heather in a mosaic pattern on a 10-25 year rotation, it makes it palatable to sheep and grouse and provides the right mixed habitat for a wide range of upland birds. Many of these birds, such as the lapwing and curlew, are in decline elsewhere in Scotland and managed moorland is a significant refuge for them. The golden plover also benefits, particularly from short heather. Birds such as red grouse need open areas in which to feed, dry off and shelter.
Muirburn is a well tried and tested method of providing that habitat. The process of burning off old rank heather has the added advantage of preventing build-up of woody fuel which is a big factor in out-of-control wildfires, and it also maintains the bright purple landscape so loved by visitors to Scotland by reinvigorating the flowering heads of the plant – a process any gardener will be familiar with. These are the public benefits arising from a management operation carried out by landowners.
Some organisations criticise muirburn in order to increase the number of grouse on a moor but such regeneration of working moorland has been at the heart of economic revival of parts of rural Scotland, such as the Angus Glens, in the last 10-15 years. Muirburn is rarely practised in Scotland on deep wet blanket bogs because they are generally not in grouse shooting areas and it would not be cost effective. Where it is done on a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), it is by agreement with Scottish Natural Heritage on a long rotation which limits the frequency of muirburn. We are not aware from Scottish Water of problems for drinking water quality because of muirburn in Scottish reservoir catchments but all moorland managers are aware of the potential problems if muirburn is not done correctly. Therefore moorland keepers work under the Muirburn Code to ensure that the process does not harm the environment, and we are involved in a Moorland Forum initiative to update the Muirburn Code to take into account new scientific knowledge and developments in muirburn practice.