Ministers were planning to ban environmentally harmful practice of burning old heather.
Owners of large grouse moors threatened to take legal action against government ministers who had started developing plans to ban repeated heather burning, Whitehall documents have disclosed.
The landowners issued the threat after ministers started working on producing a law to ban them from carrying out the environmentally damaging practice on their moorland estates.
The old heather is burned to expose new shoots – a source of food for grouse, whose numbers are boosted.
The estates then charge people who want to shoot grouse.
They said they were upset with the way the government was consulting with them and others who would be affected by the proposed ban.
The government started to draw up a compulsory ban after unsuccessfully attempting to persuade the landowners to end the practice voluntarily.
Green campaigners have been calling for an end to the practice as they argue it harms the environment and wildlife by releasing climate-changing gases into the atmosphere, worsening flooding and degrading a precious habitat.
They criticised the landowners for threatening legal action. Guy Shrubsole, a campaigner with the Friends of the Earth group, said: “Why are a small elite of landowners still allowed to get away with these damaging slash-and-burn practices, and throwing their weight around in this way?”
The documents, which relate to meetings between the government and the Moorland Association, a lobbying body which represents landowners controlling a million acres of upland moorland in England, have been released to Friends of the Earth under the Freedom of Information Act.
Last summer the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) told the Moorland Association that it was beginning to develop legislation to ban the rotational burning of heather on peatland known as blanket bog.
Defra officials said they had started a consultation to gather evidence to evaluate how the proposed ban would affect the owners of grouse moor estates and others.
On 21 August Nick Downshire, the association’s chairman, wrote to Defra to say that the landowners were “alarmed” at the “shortcomings” of the consultation and wanted it to be widened and reissued.
He said a meeting the association had with Defra three weeks earlier appeared to be “something in the manner of a box-ticking exercise, rather than genuine engagement”.
“It also exposes Defra to further legal challenge in respect of the validity and lawfulness of the consultation as a whole – a challenge the association would take forward if … members’ concerns and feedback are not taken into account as this process unfolds”.
He outlined a series of steps that Defra needed to implement to take into account the views of the landowners and others when the government formulated the proposed ban.
“Each of these steps is, in our view, imperative to guard against the impression, or indeed the reality, that Defra’s commitment to the consultation process is half-hearted or legally inadequate.
A failure to take any of these steps will require the association to consider legal intervention”.
He said the landowners and others should be given more time to respond to the consultation.
On 30 August, a Defra official told the association that the consultation would not be reissued with its suggested changes, although the deadline would be extended for a short period.
Defra says it intends to ban the burning of heather and will publish its plans shortly. When questioned about its intentions last month, Zac Goldsmith, a junior environment minister, said “one way or another this needs to stop”.
According to the documents, the government decided, in 2017, to give the landowners two years to voluntarily stop the practice before deciding whether a ban was needed.
Amanda Anderson, the Moorland Association’s director, said: “Our members had very serious concerns over the structure of the consultation, which we raised with Defra.
“In particular, we were deeply worried, and still are, about the potential environmental and conservation consequences of land being left without sustainable management alternatives.
“Since then, we have had continued to have constructive discussions with Defra and Natural England over how best to find a mutually workable solution that will help achieve the shared goal of deep peat restoration.”