Call to pay landowners to save peat

Grouse shooting

Britain’s rich landowners are fuelling climate change by clearing peat bogs for grouse shooting, according to a report by government advisers.

Landowners burn off vegetation on the peat to encourage the growth of heather, which feeds sporting birds.

The Committee on Climate Change says they should be paid to leave the bogs to store carbon and water.

If the peat is drained, the carbon stored in organic material is exposed to air, decomposing and forming CO2.

The idea may prove controversial as it could see some of the UK’s richest people who own large tracts of uplands effectively paid for doing nothing.

The report by the committee’s sub-group on adaptation says around 30% (nearly 1,000 sq km) of upland deep peat has become dominated by heather for grouse.

"It really makes no sense to be draining peat when we are trying to cut carbon emissions," Lord Krebs, the chair of the committee's adaptation group, told BBC News.

"We need to triple the area of upland peat we are restoring, and in order to do that we need to put a price on the carbon that is being stored in the bogs. At almost any price of carbon, it pays to restore bogs."

Lord Krebs said the government should examine the possibility of using funds from the Common Agricultural Policy to protect peatlands. The call for incentives was previously made by the National Trust.

The committee's report says the area of protected sites (SSSIs) on upland in a good ecological condition forming peat has declined from 210 sq km (6% of total deep peat area) to 160 sq km (5% of area) between 2003 and 2013.

The Country Landowners Association (CLA) said it expected to be compensated if it is expected to conserve peat bogs.

Derek Holliday, head of environment for the CLA, told BBC News: “It's true that in many areas there’s no good upland management plan in place – but grouse shooting brings a lot of benefit to therural economy.

"The sooner we get market-based payments for protecting peat the better.” He said the CLA was discussing the idea of payments with government.

The committee says sheep farmers are to blame, too, for draining peatbogs. The bogs also provide a valuable service in storing water, which inhibits flooding and filters water for drinking.

The Climate Change Committee's report, on how the UK should adapt to a changing climate, issues separate warnings on farm productivity and sea defences.

Echoing a call from MPs earlier in the year it says farmers must store much more water on their land and use it more carefully to cope with the levels of rainfall projected if the climate changes as expected in the next 10-15 years.

It says the shortfall of irrigation water for farmers could be as much as 115 billion litres in a dry year – that is almost as much as the entire amount currently abstracted by farmers.

Lord Krebs said: "There is an important opportunity for the UK as a food producer in a world subject to climate change. However this is at risk under current farming practices.”

Coastal defences are inadequate, the report says, because the policy of retreating from hard-to-protect coastlines is progressing at a fifth of the planned rate.

"It costs to move the hard defences back. But that allows salt flats to protect the hard defences from storm surges,” Lord Krebs said.

"Actually, it saves money in the long term as it means you don’t have to keep shoring up hard defences than are not protected by salt flats.”

Follow Roger on Twitter @rharrabin

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