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School of Geography

River Basin Processes and Management Projects

EMBER: Effects of Moorland Burning on the Ecohydrology of River basins

PI: Lee Brown 

Co-I: Joseph Holden, Sheila Palmer

Overview: EMBER aims to increase understanding of the processes linking moorland burning, hydrology, water quality and stream biota in upland peat dominated river basins.  
Controlled burning is used worldwide for the management of vegetation, yet there is serious concern about the environmental implications of such practices. Across Northern England and parts of Scotland, moorland burning is a traditional practice for encouraging and maintaining heather growth (75% of the world's heather cover occurs in the UK uplands). However, detailed evaluations of the costs, benefits and sustainability of burning are hampered by a lack of basic scientific data. Many moorland owners feel pressured to change what they see as traditional practice despite any convincing evidence of environmental degradation and this is causing serious tension between farmers and regulators. The problem also has major financial implications because heather burning is subsidised by the government under its environmental stewardship scheme, whilst paradoxically an estimated £450-630M is being spent on trying to improve the quality of water courses to meet Water Framework Directive requirements. Unsurprisingly, evaluation of burn sustainability is one of the most pressing applied ecological issues for which upland managers are requesting evidence from the scientific community.
EMBER will address these issues by providing the first co-ordinated evaluation of moorland burning effects on river catchment hydrological and ecological processes. Case study sites influenced by prescribed burns will be established in internationally important SSSIs in the Peak District and North Pennines, UK. Without this research, our understanding of hydrological and ecological responses to moorland burning will remain poor, biodiversity will be at risk and these systems will potentially fail to meet EU and UK policy requirements with resultant implications for landowners.

Our research has increased understanding of the effects of prescribed vegetation burning on blanket peatland hydrology, chemistry and physical properties, and on the hydrology, water quality and biota of rivers in upland peat-dominated catchments. It is the first time that a systematic and comprehensive assessment of burned and unburned catchments has been carried out. The project was initiated in response to concerns over the intensification of rotational heather burning on blanket peatlands and the lack of evidence to inform various stakeholders about the environmental effects. A two page executive summary and full report of key findings are both available.

EMBER has been referred to in various press publications: Herald Scotland, The Guardian, Daily Record, New Scientist, Mark Avery, RSPB, Scotsman, Sustainable Uplands, The Times, The Independent.

Related outputs:
Brown, L.E., Johnston, K., Palmer, S.M., Aspray K.L., and Holden, J. (2013) River Ecosystem Response to Prescribed Vegetation Burning on Blanket peatland. PLoS ONE 8(11): e81023 DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0081023

Holden, J., Wearing, C., Palmer, S., Jackson, B., Johnston, K., and Brown, L.E. (2014) Fire decreases near-surface hydraulic conductivity and macropore flow in blanket peat. Hydrological Processes, 28: 2868–2876 DOI:10.1002/hyp.9875

Holden, J., S. M. Palmer, K. Johnston, C. Wearing, B. Irvine, and L. E. Brown (2015) Impact of prescribed burning on blanket peat hydrology, Water Resources Research 51(8): 6472-6484 DOI:10.1002/2014WR016782.

Brown, L.E., Holden, J., Palmer, S. M., Johnston, K., Ramchunder, S. J., & Grayson, R. (2015). Effects of fire on the hydrology, biogeochemistry, and ecology of peatland river systems. Freshwater Science 34(4): 1406-1425 DOI:10.1086/683426

Brown, L.E., Palmer, S.M, Johnston, K. and Holden, J. (2015) Vegetation management with fire modifies peatland soil thermal regime. Journal of Environmental Management. 154: 166-176 DOI:10.1016/j.jenvman.2015.02.037

For more information see

Start date: 06 July 2009

End date: 05 September 2012

Funder: Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) with additional support from Yorkshire Water, Standard Grant

Grant reference: NE/G00224X/1

Details: NERC Grants on the Web