CONSERVATIONISTS have defended heather burning on peatlands after calls for an immediate ban on the activity.

Environmental groups and the RSPB charity said peatland burning on grouse moors, which was done to create new green shoots of heather, released carbon into the atmosphere and degrades the remaining peat - making it poorer for wildlife.

However landowners and game and wildlife trusts have moved to defend the activity.

Amanda Anderson, director of the Moorland Association which represents moor owners and managers, said controlled autumn burning of the heather was a crucial tool for the restoration and protection of peatlands, and reduces fuel loads and risk of wildfire.

“Removing the heather canopy by controlled burning does not harm the peat or moss underneath and allows more light in to the understory of vegetation. This benefits a range of peat-forming plants and also birds of conservation concern, such as golden plover and curlew,” she said.

“Burning is only carried out where there is no realistic alternative.

“We should also point out that grouse moors have been actively involved in the blocking of old agricultural drains in the uplands and planting of sphagnum, which help to mitigate flooding.”

Teresa Dent CBE, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust chief executive, said the RSPB had confused controlled and uncontrolled burning.

She said controlled burning favoured uplands birds, curlew, dunlin and golden plover, and scientists had found six times as many of them on areas subjected to controlled burning.