England’s protected peatlands burned for sport

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: United Kingdom

Publishing organisation: Unearthed

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 2022-05-30

Language: English

Authors: Emma Howard and Crispin Dowler are the journalists who created the project, who are bylined.

Damian Kahya was Unearthed’s editor on the project.

Alexey Drozdovskiy built the mapping platform.

Anne Harris, Edikan Umoh and Olufadeke Banjo worked with us to process the data.


Emma Howard and Crispin Dowler are investigative journalists at Unearthed, the journalism platform launched by Greenpeace UK. In this capacity they have run data-led investigations on subjects ranging from urban air pollution, to fishing rights, to the cross-border trade in hazardous pesticides, and have each previously won awards from the Association of British Science Writers.

Alexey Drozdovskiy is a web developer and GIS specialist who works for Greenpeace’s Global Mapping Hub. He built the mapping platform.

Freelance researcher Anne Harris, along with freelance journalists Edikan Umoh and Olufadeke Banjo worked with us to process the data.

Project description:

In 2021, with the UK set to host the landmark Glasgow climate summit, we started investigating the burning of England’s peatlands, a rare habitat of international importance and the country’s biggest natural carbon store. Rich landowners set the fires to encourage growth of fresh heather to feed grouse, birds that are hunted for sport. The government introduced a partial ban in the run-up to the summit, but it was criticised for being weak, unscientific and hard to enforce. We created a groundbreaking investigative methodology, combining spatial analysis, remote sensing, and eyewitness reports to document the continued burning of protected moorlands.

Impact reached:

As well as on our news site, the investigation was published on BBC News: on radio bulletins throughout the day (including three times on their flagship news programme Today and on Farming Today), online, on their app and on TV – on segments on the 1pm and 6pm news, including an interview with Unearthed’s lead reporter on the story. This led to a raft of stories in print newspapers – including a page lead in the Times as well as in the Telegraph, the i and the Mail. Online, it was covered by The Mail, the Independent and the Evening Standard. The New York Times promoted the Unearthed story in their Climate Forward newsletter and the Global Investigative Journalism network also published an article on it.

We submitted our evidence to the government agency Natural England, prompting them to launch an investigation, which is still ongoing.

There was a lot of interest in the mapping platform itself. The BBC showcased the platform on the national news and interviewed our reporter about it. Campaigners, journalists and scientists noted that the publicity of the technology itself would act as a deterrent to landowners thinking of burning on their land.

Scientists of international renown reviewed and commented on our methodology.

Richard Lindsay, a peat specialist based at the University of East London, who has been studying the UK’s peatlands for decades, said: “I think you have pushed the scientific method forward significantly in bringing together a number of techniques. In terms of scientific robustness, it’s very impressive.”

_(Unfortunately the BBC does not keep its news programmes online after broadcast and it doesn’t seem possible to attach a video in this application but do contact us if you would like to see the original broadcast)_

Techniques/technologies used:

Satellite technologies and a purpose built mapping platform were at the heart of our data gathering process.

We worked with experts at Greenpeace’s Global Mapping Hub to build a platform that uploaded daily satellite data to identify fires. We then overlaid this with several data layers to identify whether fires were covered by the new legislation – a challenge given the number of loopholes it contains. The layers included: government maps of peat depth, three sets of conservation zones, and a land gradient map. Finally, we added the database from the national Land Registry, to help us identify land ownership.

We used three remote sensing techniques. First, we used NASA satellites that show hotspots: thermal anomalies that are very likely to be a fire. Second, we used satellites from the European Space Agency and private provider Planet which show images of flames and smoke plumes.

Third, we used these satellites to identify scarring on the ground, so that by adding a sliding function to the tool we could review images from the days before and after a suspected burn to spot new burn scars.

A team of journalists and researchers used the tool to create a database, each data point a different fire.

We worked with the RSPB and campaign group Wild Moors to cross reference our results against their datasets of eyewitness reports. The satellite images enabled us to identify the exact coordinates of a fire, data which we used to make site visits to test peat depth in key locations.

We used drones to find fires and burn scars, recording them to show the scale of some fires. This worked as a powerful storytelling technique in our video and on social media. The BBC also used this footage and the satellite imagery from our mapping platform on national news.

Context about the project:

_(Please do not publish this section for legal and security reasons)_

Investigating these fires is challenging and risky for a number of reasons, which have prevented journalists and campaigners in the past from monitoring and publishing details of the fires and landowners involved.

The fires occur in remote locations, meaning that they are difficult to gather evidence of on the ground. While local volunteers have long reported fires, it is very difficult for them to pinpoint the exact locations. Meanwhile the government’s environmental regulators have been stripped of resource and power in recent years, meaning that landowners have been able to set fires without much concern that they will face consequences.

The new piece of legislation contains many loopholes, making it challenging to identify potential breaches. The ban only prohibits burning on peat if it’s unlicenced, and if the peat is more than 40cm deep, and is in a site of special scientific interest (SSSI), and is protected by one of two other formal conservation regimes, and is on ground that is not too steep and rocky to mow. This is why we had to use so many data layers in our mapping platform.

The landowners concerned include some very rich people, with the resources to access the libel courts.

The grouse shooting industry has vocal lobby groups that represent its interests to government, and push back against efforts to expose the issue and bring about change. Many landowners are not only rich, but well connected – including among them politicians, Conservative party donors and a head of state. Therefore any story will be met with significant scrutiny and resistance on publication.

We knew therefore that the data we produced had to be of very high quality; hence the use of satellite technology was essential. One type of satellite evidence alone was inadequate but combining three different techniques enabled us to reach an evidence bar significantly higher than any other attempt to monitor peat burning in the UK.

Many landowners are opaque about their connection to an estate so beneficial ownership can be challenging to prove. For example, in order to identify the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates as the beneficial owner of one estate – owned by an offshore company – we had to find documents on Companies House, obtain title deeds from the Land Registry, find news cuttings, academic papers and use Orbis, a database of private company ownership.

This also means it can be difficult to contact estates to offer them the chance to respond to the investigation, an essential journalistic practice. In some cases, it was impossible to find an email address or phone number so we had to post letters, and even hand-delivered a couple.

Gamekeepers have been confrontational and aggressive to observers on their land before, even though most of the land concerned falls within the country’s national parks. Therefore we had to take precautions when conducting our ground surveys, which we decided upon through a risk assessment.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

We have been transparent about our methodology for this project: we published an explanation of it as part of our story, and made a video (embedded in our story), meaning that anybody else wishing to do similar work can benefit from what we have learned. This includes local communities, the other NGOs we worked with, public bodies, scientists and other journalists.

Other journalists can learn about the different kinds of satellite technology available and how it can be used to monitor environmentally damaging practices and environmental crime.

They can also learn that by combining multiple different technologies and techniques, it is possible to conduct investigative work and gather evidence in the public interest that can add value to the work of scientists and public bodies.

This story also serves as an example of how collaboration can produce journalism that would otherwise not be possible. We benefited from the knowledge and expertise of leading scientists who advised us on our on the ground surveys, local campaigners who shared their data and knowledge and advised us on our risk assessment, a team of researchers using the tool to process the data and mapping experts to create a unique mapping platform.

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