The Heather Trust was recently invited by DEFRA to respond to a series of questions concerning the development of guidance around the licensing of Heather and Grass burning in England. We thought our supporters would be interested in seeing our collective response and so we have published an edited version here (with contact names removed). Please use the comments box if you would like to provide any feedback/join in with the discussion. Note that the deadline for submission of responses to DEFRA has now passed.

Download • 169KB

2 views0 comments

Updated: Mar 7

Dr Ruth Mitchell, of the James Hutton Institute, shares her reflections of treescapes

Credit: Scot Ramsey

‘Treescapes’ is a word that is being used increasingly to described landscapes in which trees play a significant role. Treescapes can include plantations, native woodlands, and smaller patches of trees in agriculture or urban settings. Many of us are aware of the value of trees and the benefits we receive from them, including the biodiversity they support, the enjoyment we get from walking through woodlands and the commercial value of the timber.

Recently an expansion in treescapes has been identified as a major part of the UK government’s plans to meet its target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The UK Committee on Climate Change has recommended planting at least 30,000 hectares per year (90-120 million trees) of broadleaf, mixed or conifer woodland – a substantial increase from the current 9,000 hectares per year, which will increase UK forest cover from 13% to at least 17% by 2050. The simple logic being that trees store carbon and reduce the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. However, it’s not actually quite as simple as that. This logic forgets the huge amounts of carbon stored in the soil in many upland areas and any impact tree planting may have on this carbon store. Recent modelling work[i] mapped potential changes in ecosystem carbon storage following woodland creation. The study predicts that conversion from semi-natural land to woodland can result in net carbon loss for the first 20 years and, in some scenarios, it may be 80 years or more before woodlands provide a carbon benefit. These predicted carbon losses result from soil disturbance, which might suggest these losses can be avoided if forests establish by natural regeneration. However, recent experimental work has also shown that soil carbon losses can occur even with minimal soil disturbance during tree establishment on heather moorland[ii]. These losses are unexplained but may be due to functional changes that occur in the soil microbial community during tree colonisation.

The other benefits associated with an expansion in treescapes, such as increased biodiversity, should also not be assumed to automatically occur once trees are planted. The value of woodland for biodiversity will depend on which tree species are planted, the structure of the woodland created and how it is managed in the long-term. We need to think beyond just establishing trees, whether by planting or natural regeneration, to their long-term management. The phrase “the right tree in the right place” is often used now-a-days, but defining what we mean by the right tree and right place will depend on peoples objectives, values and opinions.

A paper has recently been published entitled, “Ten golden rules for reforestation to optimize carbon sequestration, biodiversity recovery and livelihood benefits”[iii]. The rules are:

(1) Protect existing forest first;

(2) Work together (involving all stakeholders);

(3) Aim to maximize biodiversity recovery to meet multiple goals;

(4) Select appropriate areas for restoration;

(5) Use natural regeneration wherever possible;

(6) Select species to maximize biodiversity;

(7) Use resilient plant material (with appropriate genetic variability and provenance);

(8) Plan ahead for infrastructure, capacity and seed supply;

(9) Learn by doing (using an adaptive management approach);

(10) Make it pay (ensuring the economic sustainability of the project).

Many of us may be able to agree with these rules but the challenge is in implementing them, to think beyond a target number of trees to be planted, to think about the long-term management of the trees and how to ensure they create the desired environment for our grandchildren and great grandchildren.

I suggest that as the debate about tree planting, climate change, net zero and the biodiversity crises rages we need to be much more nuanced in our approach. While acknowledging that we do need action now to help reduce the climate emergency, tree planting is not the only action we can take. I hope that in the rush to lock up carbon we are not storing up problems for the future as we did when we planted the flow country with conifers. Woodlands are great and can bring many benefits in relation to both the climate and biodiversity crises, but as always with ecology and the intricacies of the natural world, it’s a complicated story. Tree establishment schemes shouldn’t be a one size fits all approach, they need to be flexible enough to allow a range of different tree species to be established, at different sites, using different mechanisms, without diminishing overall well-being both now and into the future.

Atlantic oak woods support a wealth of biodiversity. Credit: Ruth Mitchell

Dr Ruth Mitchell

A plant and soil ecologist at the James Hutton Institute Aberdeen.

All opinions expressed are solely those of the author not of the James Hutton Institute

Mounding for tree planting – how much carbon from the soil does this release? Credit: Ruth Mitchell

[i] MATTHEWS, K. B., WARDELL-JOHNSON, D., MILLER, D., FITTON, N., JONES, E., BATHGATE, S., RANDLE, T., MATTHEWS, R., SMITH, P. & PERKS, M. 2020. Not seeing the carbon for the trees? Why area-based targets for establishing new woodlands can limit or underplay their climate change mitigation benefits. Land Use Policy, 97, e104690. [ii] FRIGGENS, N. L., HESTER, A. J., MITCHELL, R. J., PARKER, T. C., SUBKE, J. A. & WOOKEY, P. A. 2020. Tree planting in organic soils does not result in net carbon sequestration on decadal timescales. Global Change Biology, 26, 5178-5188. [iii] Sacco, A.D., Hardwick, K.A., Blakesley, D., Brancalion,P.H.S., Breman, E., Rebola, L.C., Chomba, S., Dixon, K., Elliott, S., Ruyonga, G., Shaw,K., Smith,P., Smith, R.J., Antonelli, A. 2021 Ten golden rules for reforestation to optimize carbon sequestration, biodiversity recovery and livelihood benefits. Global Change Biology, DOI: 10.1111/gcb.15498

37 views0 comments

I recently received an email from Michael Bruce and a list of Gaelic words that he had been sent by Gaelic speakers around the subject of muirburn. Michael had also been told to look further east for cultural references to moorland and supplied me with a list of Scots terms and quotes from various publications. He is keen to promote the work of Dr Cathy Smith who is a social historian, among other things, working for the Leverhulme Centre and researching how “to represent indigenous and local knowledge in global fire models”. This blog sets out a few examples of what Michael has unearthed, so that you can get a feel for our predecessor’s understanding of their moorland environment and its management. Please get in touch if you can provide more information and examples along these lines and we will see that it gets to Dr Cathy Smith.

The Gaelic word ‘falaisg’ pertains to muirburn/burning of heather which is perhaps most commonly used but there are several derivatives such as ‘falaisgeach’, ‘falasgair’, ‘falaisgear’ and ‘falaisgeadh’. These may reflect how the word was spoken in different regions. ‘Fraoch’ is the Gaelic for Heather/heath/ling and the plural is ‘fraoich’. The Gaelic ‘riasg’ is a general word used for recalcitrant moor grasses but ‘canach’ is used specifically for Bog Cotton. The generic term for moorland grasses and sedges is ‘fianach’ in Gaelic. You may have encountered some of these terms when looking at place names within the Highland and Island landscapes shown on Ordnance Survey maps.

There are lots of terms in the Scots Dictionary around the theme of muir for moor. A ‘muir-bird’ is the term used for bird species that nest on moorland but usually refers to Red Grouse. The ‘moor-blackbird’ is the term used for a Ring Ouzel. The Meadow Pipit is referred to as the ‘moorcheeper’ and the word ‘muirduck’ is another name for Mallard. Hare’s-tail cotton-grass is known as ‘muir-crops’ and there is a cultivated pear which goes by the name of ‘muirfowl egg’. The ‘muir-edder’ seems to be an apt description for the Adder. The term ‘muir-man’ is used for someone who lives in wild, moorland country. I will stop there for the time-being and leave you with a few snippets that might help you to warm-up ahead of reciting some of Burns’ verse.

*Mry. 1764 Caled. Mercury (26 March): “They were unanimously of opinion, that the numberless instances of houses, corns, woods, etc. destroyed by moor-burn, in this and many counties of Scotland, discover the necessity of having some prudent regulations to restrain that practice”.

*Ayr.1788 Burns Bonie Moor-hen i.: “Our lads gaed a-hunting ae day at the dawn, O'er moors and o'er mosses, and mony a glen. At length they discover'd a bonie moor-hen”.

(1) *Bwk. 1809 Farmer's Mag. (Dec.) 529: “In every quarter of the country, moors occur. . . . They are composed of various kinds of soil; for the term moor is extremely vague. . . . some are of a thin poor clay, upon a bad till bottom; others of a thin surface of peat moss wasted to a kind of black light earth, often mixed with sand, upon a subsoil of impervious till, or a compacted clayey sand, apparently ferruginous, like a bad species of sandstone not perfectly lapidified. This peculiar species of subsoil is provincially called Moor-band, and . . . is absolutely impervious to water”.

*Sc. 1814 J. Sinclair Gen. Report Agric. Scot. App. I. 442: “Muirfowl egg. Often placed against walls in Scotland, but the standard fruit much higher flavoured. It is a well-known autumn pear, and keeps well. It is said to be originally Scottish”.

(17) *Ayr. 1818 Kilmarnock Mirror 111: “I've seen some o' our muirfolk keep up an argument wi' mony a fallow that's been at the college”.

*Sc. 1829 G. Robertson Recollections 20: “Every town or large village had then its own particular tract of ground in common, on which a plough never entered: this, in all landward towns, was called the Muir, and in towns by the sea-side, was called the Links”.

*Sc. 1956 Abd. Press & Jnl. (13 June): “They made muirburn contrary to the Hill Farming Act, 1946, Section 23; made muirburn and failed to provide sufficient staff and equipment to control and regulate it; made muirburn without due care, whereby damage was caused to woodlands, adjoining lands and fences”.

*Ork. 1963: “About 40 or 50 years ago the muir spade used to be taken to the hill along with the tusker. The muir spade, sometimes called the flauchter spade, was needed when yarfa peats were cut. These are not now needed in modern stoves and the muir spade has been succeeded by the ordinary garden spade”.

Oliver Moore

12 views1 comment

To view blog posts prior to January 2021, please visit:

Natural England Wildfire Evidence Review

About Us
Board & Staff
Annual Report

• Shop

Contact us

• Cookie Policy

The Heather Trust (SCIO)

PO Box 7749



DG11 9AE


Tel/Fax: +44 (0)1387 723201



Scottish Charity No: SC049374


  • s-blogger
  • s-twitter