Last week Natural England ‘reached an agreement’ with the Walshaw Moor estate which is feared by some to be a euphemism for caving in to intense pressure from grouse shooting interests.
The joint statement, which reads to me as though it were made through clenched teeth, from NE and the estate, reads as follows:
“Walshaw Moor Estate Ltd and Natural England are pleased to confirm that they have resolved their ongoing dispute regarding management activities conducted on the Moor, and confirm that they have entered into a new management regime which is considered beneficial to the environment and biodiversity of the Moor as well as the economic interests of the Estate.
Walshaw Moor Estate Ltd and Natural England look forward to working together in a constructive partnership to further the interests of both conservation and the Estate, to the parties’ mutual benefit, and in the public interest.”
The dispute centred around the management of moorland for grouse shooting – how much burning can the internationally important blanket bogs take? This land is part of the Special Area of Conservation designated under the EU Habitat Directives – the implementation of which, in England, the coalition government is reviewing as we speak.
There are at least two areas of concern here. The first is the ongoing debate over whether heather burning in order to produce unnatural and artificially high densities of red grouse harms or benefits other wildlife and the habitat on which all upland species survive. And part of this debate is the role of regular burning in carbon balance, water discolouration, water flows off the uplands etc. In other words there are a whole bunch of questions about whether this form of upland management is ‘a good thing’ or not. These questions can be answered by science – at least to start with.
The second area of concern is why NE caved in so suddenly and spectacularly. Given that NE’s role has been revised by the coalition government (including the almost completely useless Liberal Democrats) there is a fear that the game-shooting-friendly Defra Ministerial team might just have had a word in NE’s ear. Let us hope that this fear is misplaced. Does anyone out there know by any chance?
It’s very surprising that we don’t have the scientific evidence on which the first set of questions can be settled. Or maybe we have? Maybe all the relevant information would have come out if NE had not ‘reached an agreement’ with the Walshaw Moor estate? The critical issue is not heather burning on dry(ish) ground but on the blanket bogs, which are formed by Sphagnum mosses over thousands of years. Notice, in the Guardian’s coverage of the story, two academics, Mark Reed from Aberdeen University and Joseph Holden from Leeds University, speak out about their worries about burning of blanket bogs.
Clearly the RSPB are a bit puzzled by what is going on too. The RSPB Chief Executive Mike Clarke has written to Natural England’s Chair Poul Christenson asking for some explanation of NE’s sudden exit from the scene.
This seems a very murky business – maybe it is shrouded in the smoke of heather burning. What would Emily Bronte make of it – wuthering indeed. More on this tomorrow.