LANDOWNERS in the North York Moors have come under criticism for burning large patches of moorland, as the debate over the practice continues.

Heather is burnt on the moors by landowners during the winter months in order to keep red grouse populations high for the shooting industry.

But critics of the industry say that the practice has got out of hand, that the fires are damaging the important “blanket bog” habitats, and that the moors would support a far larger diversity of species if it was managed differently.

The Moorland Association, a lobbying group which represents grouse moor owners, has said that many estates are voluntarily suspending “rotational burning” in “blanket bog” areas in favour of “restoration burns” which it says “removes the heather canopy but does not burn the underlying peat or moss layer”.

Locally, moors resident Richard Gray - who is himself an occasional shooter - said that as a boy growing up near Goathland, they would burn a few patches a year, but as the years have gone by management of the moors has become more intensive.

“In October 2017 they burnt for 20 consecutive days,” he said. “It’s a lot of moorland and a lot of smoke. I’m getting more and more people saying they can’t see down the valley or hang their washing out. It’s getting to the point where it’s just disrespectful.”

He added that he doesn’t blame gamekeepers “who are doing a job”, but instead the people who run the industry which, he says, has very little wider benefit to the communities of the moors.

Last Tuesday, five fire crews were called out to a large moorland fire. Gamekeepers on the estate called the emergency services to the scene near Hutton-le-Hole at about 1pm. Crews from Kirkbymoorside, Helmsley, Danby, Pickering and Malton responded.

The fire service said that 25 hectares of moorland were burnt - pictures from the scene show a blackened landscape. They gave the cause as “accidental”.

Amanda Anderson, director of the Moorland Association, said: “Carefully controlled moorland burning is a widely recognised, legal and valuable tool in the management of upland vegetation which can produce a range of benefits for wider society. As the past fortnight has shown our moorland habitats are particularly vulnerable to wildfire, particularly if the vegetation builds up and grows unchecked. The greater the amount of fuel for the fire in plants, the more damage it will do to the underlying peat soils. It is essential that controlled burning remains in the land management toolkit to help mitigate the potentially catastrophic effects of wildfires.

"Concerning grouse shooting’s wider impact, we were pleased to see the Government recently recognise the broad range of environmental, social and economic benefits that moorland managed for grouse shooting delivers and the reaffirmation of the mutually beneficial relationship between grouse shooting and conservation.

"This includes private investment of over £1m a week on conservation in England and in excess of £15 million injected directly into rural businesses during the shooting season. The sector supports 1,520 full time jobs and also provides 42,500 additional work days a year in remote rural communities across the north of England.”