Regulations are to be brought in to prevent the burning of heather and other vegetation in a move to better protect peatlands.
The protection for blanket bog habitats has been welcomed as vital for globally important land, but criticised by some environmental groups.
The UK has 13% of the world’s blanket bog – a type of peatland – and restoring it will help reach the target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, as well as protecting valuable habitats and the biodiversity they support, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said.
Under the regulations, the burning of any specified vegetation on areas of deep peat – more than 40cm in depth – on a site of special scientific interest that is also a special area of conservation or a special protection area will be prevented.
The Moorland Association said heather-burning remained a vital tool and Defra said the regulations would include some exemptions.
Licences can be issued for burning as a means of wildfire prevention, a conservation purpose or where land is inaccessible to cutting or mowing machinery, and the ban will not apply to steep or particularly rocky land.
Some environmental groups said the legislation did not go far enough and argued that all burning, which they called an “outdated and damaging” practice, should be banned.
The environment secretary, George Eustice, said: “Our peatlands have great potential as a natural store of carbon as well as protecting habitats, providing a haven for rare wildlife and being a natural provider of water regulation.
“We want to work with landowners to restore the natural hydrology of many of these sites through our new agricultural policy to support our ambitions for the environment.”
Welcoming the announcement, the Natural England chairman, Tony Juniper, said it would mean “better protections for our globally important peatlands”, describing them as “an amazing habitat that provides essential environmental benefits”.
He said Natural England would work with Defra and land managers by providing advice on good upland management as well as leading a new peatland restoration grant scheme to fund restoration work on the “precious ecosystems”.
The Wildlife Trusts’ chief executive, Craig Bennett, called for a total ban and criticised the length of time it had taken the government to make the latest announcement. “Why does the ban only apply to some of our designated peatlands? It should apply to them all. It will be extremely embarrassing if we are still burning any of our peatlands when the climate conference meets at the end of the year.”
Guy Shrubsole, the policy and campaigns coordinator at Rewilding Britain, welcomed the regulations but added there were “some glaring loopholes that need closing”.
He said: “Our moorlands could be much wilder, richer environments bursting with wildlife, if upland estates move away from these outdated and damaging practices [burning] and embrace rewilding.”
The Moorland Association, whose members look after more than 400,000 hectares (1m acres) of moorland, said landowners “will be concerned over the impact new legislation and further restrictions may have on their important conservation work”.
Its director Amanda Anderson described heather-burning as a “vital tool for moor owners and managers who are heavily involved in peatland restoration and tackling climate change”.
Caroline Bedell, the executive director of conservation for the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, said: “This is not the damaging blanket ban on burning that some have lobbied for, and BASC welcomes the fact that the government has listened to land managers to ensure burning can be undertaken in the right circumstances. However, the question remains how Natural England will interpret any new legislation on the ground.
“BASC will continue to ask that consents to burn can also be obtained for scientific research. We must base our peatlands policies on comprehensive and robust research that understands the long-term impact of different forms of management on the UK’s largest carbon store.”
Defra said the plans would come before parliament for approval before coming into force.