Farming land management: Heather and grass burning

Fire has been used by land managers for many thousands of years.

Carefully planned, controlled  burning can be a valuable tool if used responsibly. It is used by farmers who wish to improve grazing on rough grassland, and by game keepers to create patchworks of different-aged heather on which grouse thrive. It can be used in  wildlife conservation, to create niche habitats for rare species. However, burning is a dangerous activity. If used irresponsibly, it can cause injury and damage to people, property, and the environment.

The Heather and Grass Burning Code and the Heather and Grass Burning Regulations apply to the burning of heather, rough grass, gorse, bracken, and Vaccinium (a range of shrub species, including bilberry/blueberry). They apply in the uplands and lowlands of England.

The Heather and Grass Burning Code

The Heather and Grass Burning Code 2007 (Natural England website) is a voluntary code.

The Code outlines good practice, on planning where to burn, and how to burn safely and responsibly. The Code gives details of the Regulations and summarises the other main laws which apply to burning. It was written by Defra in collaboration with Natural England, conservationists, farmers, gamekeepers, and moorland managers. The Code is  backed by Defra,  Natural England, the Moorland Association, the National Gamekeepers Organisation, the National Farmers Union, The Heather Trust, the Country Land & Business Association, and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation.  The Code is available on-line and as a free A5 booklet from Defra.

To order free Defra publications, you can either write to: Defra Publications, Admail 6000, London, SW1A 2XX or email your order to:

The Law

The present regulations are the Heather and Grass etc. Burning (England) Regulations 2007.

Burning may only take place in the burning season, unless under licence from Natural England. Burning must be conducted safely, with care for people, property, the environment, and natural resources.

The burning season runs:

A licence is required at all other times and can only be obtained in very specific circumstances. Application for burning during restricted periods should be made at your local Natural England office.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) and the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994 make it unlawful to conduct any activity, including burning, cutting or swiping, which disturbs or destroys wild birds, or other protected animals, plants, and habitats. This applies throughout the year, regardless of the burning season. It is unlawful to carry out burning on a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) without consent from Natural England if burning has been notified as an “operation likely to damage”.

Other legislation

Other legislation affecting burning operations includes:

Various aspects of law applying to burning form part of “cross compliance” requirements under the Single Payment Scheme. The Heather and Grass Burning Code gives further details.

Page last modified: 5 February 2009
Page published: 1 July 2006