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Why a handful of UK landowners hold the keys to the climate crisis

From carbon-storing peat bogs planting of new forests, the way we use our land will be a key player in the fight against climate change. Yet these vital assets remain in the hands of an elite few.

For most of the country, the seasons of the year run from winter to spring, to summer and autumn. For residents of the Aire Valley, however, the period between October and April marks a hazy season of its own: burning season. 

These months are characterised by intensive burning, as vast swathes of England’s moors are set alight by landowners to stimulate the growth of heather, which grouse populations feed on. In the process, they’re burning peat, and releasing tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

“It’s quite particular, the smell that results from peatland fires. It’s very thick, it’s very intense”, explains Luke Steele, an environmental campaigner and resident of the Aire Valley in West Yorkshire.

“You can literally see the smoke drifting down the valley – the sky turns this bizarre orange colour. It happens on pretty much every dry day [of the season] and can go on from 10am until the evening.”

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Wild Moors, a moorland campaign group headed by Steele, collects reports of burning throughout the season. So far this year, they’ve received 350 tip-offs spanning “the breadth of the country, wherever grouse moors are”, says Steele.

The burning exacerbates respiratory conditions like asthma, increases the likelihood of local flooding, and depletes the UK’s peat stores, which were recently named as one of the world’s most significant carbon sinks by researchers at the University of Aberdeen. 

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Yet beyond complaining, residents, who do not own the land, can do little. 

While public pressure amounted to a ban on burning deep peat last year, the fires still rage on so-called “shallow peat”, and locals remain largely excluded from decisions on land management. 

It serves as just one example of how the UK’s ancient, monopolised and secretive system of land ownership is hindering progress on climate change, with communities – and the wider world – relying on the benevolence of landowners to conserve and improve their portfolios. 

“The vast majority of land in Britain is fundamental to fighting the climate crisis”, says environmental campaigner Guy Shrubsole, who runs an investigative blog exploring land ownership in Britain. 

If managed sustainably, the UK’s forests, peatlands, woodland and oceans are able to store billions of tonnes of carbon. Using land for rewilding can boost biodiversity, while using it to plant trees can improve air quality, sequester CO2 and prevent flooding.

More fundamentally, decisions over how a piece of land is used has knock-on effects on the climate and environment. While an agricultural plot will generate methane emissions and pollution, a solar farm in its place could generate clean electricity. 

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Yet while the quality of our peatlands, forests, woodlands and waterways will be key players in the fight against climate change, the majority are controlled by private owners, whose management of the land will have global and potentially irreversible repercussions. 

A recent investigation by Shrubsole, for instance, discovered that 60 per cent of England’s critically-important deep peat is owned by just 124 people, while 1,000 landowners control a third of the country’s woodlands. 

This monopolised system has emerged out of centuries of aristocratic ownership, with deeds passed along the generations for so long that some ownership has become indiscernible over time. Around 15 per cent of land in England and Wales remains unregistered today.

And the other 85 per cent? With 24 million titles in the Land Registry, and each costing £3 to access, uncovering ownership of England and Wales alone would cost £72 million.

Even this wouldn’t be enough to truly uncover the mystery, explains Shrubsole, who says that titles are often divorced from maps – making it hard to match owners to their parcels of land. 

He believes this secrecy is by design. Ownership of land has traditionally been intertwined with power, and authorities wish to avoid “revealing how concentrated land ownership really is”, he says. 

This lack of transparency makes life difficult for investigative campaigners like Shrubsole. More worryingly, it also means public understanding of land ownership and its impacts is limited, with Duncan McCann of land reform group People’s Land Policy pointing to the issue as a blind spot in climate change discussions.

“The land is our overdraft facility. The whole concept of net zero relies on it – it’s the thing that will allow us to emit carbon.

“Yet the UK has a preponderance of peat bogs with global significance for the climate, and there’s no effort to protect them in the same way that we seem to care about protecting the Amazon rainforest,” he says. 

Other factors are at play in this “blind spot”, with Mark Walton of land management organisation Shared Assets citing a long tradition of viewing land as “a repository of wealth” rather than “a resource upon which we’re all going to increasingly rely” as climate change accelerates. 

Over time, the public have also become “alienated” from the land, says Shrubsole; a process starting as far back as the Highland Clearances and continuing with the erosion of rural rights of way. 

“We’ll often hear landowners assure us that they’re the custodians and have looked after it for centuries. But the land isn’t in great shape now, and if we want to fix it, maybe we should all become custodians,” he says. 

Shrubsole does add that not all landowners are wreaking havoc on the environment, with many already “doing plenty” for the environment.

Examples include billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen, who has rewilded a vast area of the Highlands, while organisations controlling a third of England’s land signed a pact to boost biodiversity just last week. 

Land campaigners remain divided on the issue of land reform, with opinions diverging on whether state, private or community ownership would be the best model for climate-friendly land management.

For Steele, it’s the lack of diversity in ownership models, rather than private ownership itself, that’s at the heart of the issue. 

Yet for McCann, “the matter of who owns the land can matter very much.”

“In Sussex for example there’s an estate owned by traditional aristocratic landowners which they’ve rewilded – and it’s marvellous – but what happens if the next generation changes their mind?”

McCann also questions the recently-updated farming subsidy system, which proposes paying landowners and farmers for sustainable land management. 

A new scheme announced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has already been blasted by environmental charities for its lack of ambition on nature and wildlife

“Landowners have to be effectively bribed, paid tonnes of money by the taxpayers just to do the right thing. Why should we have to pay them?” McCann says. 

“We need people to be able to have a say in how land is used,” he adds.

There are some encouraging signs, says McCann. Community buyouts in Scotland have led to the establishment of thriving, rewilded estates, while the Scottish government has committed to putting more land into the hands of ordinary people. 

Yet there’s still some way to go, with Shrubsole pointing out that the UK government “currently has no plan for agriculture or the management of land”.

The government’s own climate change advisers, the Climate Change Committee, recently expressed disappointment that the UK did not include such a plan in its net zero strategy, noting in its assessment of the document that “a combined decarbonisation strategy for agriculture and land is needed urgently.”

Transparency will be the first hurdle to overcome in any attempts to raise awareness of the issue, says Walton.

“The lack of transparency [around ownership] prevents us having an open conversation about it and means some people are largely ignorant or unaware of concentrated landownership and the implications of that.” 

Though attempts at reform have been made, they’ve been unsuccessful because they were piecemeal, says McCann. 

He believes that several areas of policy, including greater transparency in the Land Registry, inheritance reform and changing how profit is made from land, need addressing all at once in order to tackle the issue wholesale. 

While progress thus far has been slow, the accelerating pace of climate change provides a compelling argument for land reform  that doesn’t rely on notions of historical injustice alone, says McCann.

“For a long time land reform has been about rectifying some historical injustice. While that’s totally valid, it doesn’t bring everyone along,” he says.

“It’s much more evocative to talk about why we need reform to achieve our goals on climate change, and how addressing this issue could help us meet the present and future challenges of the 21st century.”

Update: This article has been updated to show heather burning season is October to April, not August to December, as previously stated.

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