Corresponding author: G. Matt Davies ( email@example.com )
Academic editor: Klaus Henle
© 2016 G. Matt Davies, Nicholas Kettridge, Cathelijne R. Stoof, Alan Gray, Rob Marrs, Davide Ascoli, Paulo M. Fernandes, Katherine A. Allen, Stefan H. Doerr, Gareth D. Clay, Julia McMorrow, Vigdis Vandvik.
This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Citation: Davies MG, Kettridge N, Stoof CR, Gray A, Marrs R, Ascoli D, Fernandes PM, Allen KA, Doerr SH, Clay GD, McMorrow J, Vandvik V (2016) Informed debate on the use of fire for peatland management means acknowledging ecological complexity. Nature Conservation 16: 59-77. https://doi.org/10.3897/natureconservation.16.10739
The effects of fire and its use on European peatlands and heaths are the focus of considerable research and debate due to the important services these ecosystems provide and the threats they face from climatic and land-use change. Whilst in some countries ecologists are actively promoting the restoration of historic fire management regimes, in the UK the debate has become increasingly acrimonious. Positions seem entrenched between continuing the intensive form of management associated with grouse moors or ceasing burning and seeking to eliminate fire altogether. In a recent paper we argued that participants’ positions appeared influenced by political and philosophical beliefs associated with, for example, private land-ownership, hunting, and associated conservation conflicts such as raptor persecution. We also suggested there was inadequate engagement with key concepts and evidence from fire and peatland ecology. We argued that management debates should aim to be inclusive and evidence-based, and to understand the benefits and costs of different fire regimes. In a strongly-worded critique of our paper, George Monbiot (author of “Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding”) suggested we: i) framed our research question too narrowly; ii) made the implicit assumption that moorlands were the “right” ecosystem for the UK countryside; and iii) failed to adequately engage with arguments put forward for cessation of managed burning. Here we critically examine each of these issues to provide further insight into how adaptive, participatory land-management could develop. We argue that a productive debate must acknowledge that complex trade-offs are inevitable during ecological management. Choosing the “right” ecosystem is difficult, especially in a landscape with a long history of human influence, and the answer depends on the values and ecosystem services we prioritize. Natural resource management decisions will be improved if based on an understanding and valuation of the multiple scales and levels of organization at which ecological diversity exists, the role of disturbance in controlling ecosystem composition and function, and the need for participatory action.
Adaptive Management, diversity, heathland, managed burning, moorland, participatory, scale
The ecological effects of fire in European peatlands and heathlands are the focus of considerable research and debate due to the important services these ecosystems provide (
Notable amongst the coverage our paper received was the critique made by the respected author, journalist and commentator George Monbiot (
Given the wider issues
How scientists frame research questions within the context of peer-reviewed journal publications and why we chose to focus our paper on the ecology of peatland fires.
The ecological, social, economic and conservation importance of peatland and heathland ecosystems.
The nature of ecological diversity and the importance of considering ecological patterns and processes across multiple scales.
These misunderstandings are important as they potentially influence one’s attitudes regarding the role of science in the development of conservation policy and management decision-making, how one reads and interprets scientific literature and how one assesses the value of peatland and heathland landscapes and fire’s role in them. Our aim here is to address each of the three points above before considering how this knowledge should influence attitudes towards land-management and the character of ecological debates.
A scientific paper, even a review or opinion piece, aims to shed light on a particular, focused question. Debates regarding ecosystem management and restoration are inherently complex and require an integrated understanding of socio-ecological systems. However, within these larger debates one can still identify specific process and interactions each of which often require detailed study on their own before the whole picture can be constructed (Figure
Ecosystem function (including species composition and ecological processes) is controlled by a series of abiotic (e.g. soil type, temperature) and biotic (e.g. species diversity and species’ traits) variables. The abiotic and biotic controls also act as filters controlling the species found at a particular site out of those available from the regional (or historical) species pool. Disturbances, such as managed burning or wildfire, influence both biotic and abiotic variables and therefore ecosystem function. The nature of that influence will depend upon the characteristics of the disturbance regime and the particular ecosystem function of concern. Socio-economic decisions influence the system by impacting directly on disturbance regimes (e.g. via regulation of prescribed burning), the species pool (e.g. by re-introducing locally or regionally extinct species), and environmental stress (e.g. via anthropogenic climate change). Disturbance (fire) effects (orange) were the focus of
Before one proposes a shift in management regime, one ideally needs to understand the range of ecosystem effects the current disturbance regime generates, and the trade-offs any changes could produce. Where such knowledge is lacking, an Adaptive Management approach (
Monbiot’s criticism could be taken as suggesting that scientists and managers know all they need to about the ecological effects of variation in fire regimes or the ecosystem dynamics of heathlands and peatlands, but this is very clearly not the case (e.g.
Prescribed burning has long been known to influence the behaviour of wild and domestic grazing animals (e.g.
Monbiot clearly has strong views about what ecosystems are appropriate for the British uplands and he has been at the forefront of the nascent “rewilding” movement in the UK (
We would agree with previous authors (e.g.
Contrary to what
Diversity in species composition and ecosystem function is just as important as species diversity when making ecological management decisions. Temperate peatlands, including heathlands, moorlands and blanket bogs, are extremely rare in European and global terms and there have been dramatic losses in recent decades (e.g.
We of course do not suggest the above points make grouse moors, moorlands in general, or blanket bogs the “right” ecosystem for all of the uplands. However, we know of few ecologists involved in upland management who would not agree that such ecosystems have ecological value, harbor unique species assemblages and should form part of a structurally diverse, holistically-managed landscape. Managers and policy-makers need to be aware of the inevitable trade-offs involved in management change. None of this prevents, or argues against the desirability of, alterations to “traditional” fire use strategies, woodland restoration or even “rewilding” in some parts of the uplands. In some situations win-wins may exist in addition to trade-offs. For example, in a recently published study,
Finding the right balance between different habitats, such as woodland and moorland, whilst maintaining or enhancing habitat connectivity and minimizing fragmentation will require landscape-scale approaches to management. We agree with
Where there is a desire to move away from existing land-uses such as grouse moor management and driven grouse shooting, trade-offs between the benefits and dis-benefits of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ forms of management need to be considered. This will need to include acknowledgement that, whatever one’s view about hunting or the wider aspects of moorland management, the significant private financial investment required for any form of ecosystem management or restoration will need to be accounted for (
As we stated in our paper, we believe that the current tone of the debate about the use of fire as a management tool is overly simplistic. This is highlighted by the controversy that surrounded the pre-publication release of our paper, with several newspapers and organisations using it as an opportunity to selectively quote us in an attempt to further their own agendas – something we had specifically critiqued in our paper. The involvement of a Public Relations agency, for which YFTB appears to be a “front organization” (sensu
These behaviours are symptomatic of a lack of respect between different stakeholders at the more extreme ends of the upland management debate and we would urge that further discussion takes place without resorting to language or accusations that could cause offence.
We actually think that we and Monbiot are arguing at cross purposes (Figure
Unfortunately, the effect of fire on moorland and blanket bog ecosystems is likely to remain a topic of debate well into the future as its knowledge base is still far from adequate and managers are not in the position to make informed trade-offs. For instance, there is poor understanding of the complex interactions between different disturbances (such as fire, grazing, drainage, and nutrient deposition) on carbon cycling, vegetation dynamics, and wildlife habitat utilization, but management decisions have to be made nonetheless. In doing so it is vital that none of us are parochial about the evidence we use and that we do not cherry pick studies which support our own positions.
Many valuable ecosystems owe their structure, function and conservation value to human manipulation of fire regimes (
We are extremely grateful to colleagues in the UK and elsewhere who have expressed appreciation for our initial paper and provided constructive feedback on the ideas we expressed. We are appreciative of the fact that other contributors, including George Monbiot, have challenged us to develop and justify our position. Two anonymous referees provide a robust critique of this paper and helped to substantially improve it.