If you aren’t interested in what I am beginning to think of as the ‘Walshaw Moor affair’ then come back to this blog tomorrow – but if you are, then come back to this blog during the day to see a range of blogs on the subject.
The story so far: the peculiarly British sport of driven grouse shooting depends on intensive habitat management of heathery areas so that the densities of the red grouse (the British race of the willow grouse) are at very high levels in late summer. Grouse moor management involves predator control (legally – foxes, crows etc; and illegally on some areas – protected birds of prey), medication of the grouse, drainage and burning of the heather in small patches. Red grouse nest in mature heather areas and feed on the younger more palatable heather shoots. The Glorious 12th of August marks the start of the grouse shooting season when teams of beaters drive the red grouse across the moors and over lines of sportsmen (and women) who use their marksmanship to shoot the fast-flying grouse. Red grouse taste quite nice too.
Those areas where red grouse shooting is most commonly practised are also areas which have often been designated for their national and/or international wildlife interest – for species such as golden plovers and hen harriers and for habitats such as blanket bogs. There is growing realisation that the management of upland peat areas has consequences for water flows and water quality flowing off the hills and also the storage of carbon in the soil.
The management that is optimal for maximising red grouse numbers may not always be the best management for delivering other public benefits such as carbon storage, maintaining active peat formation and other nature conservation interests. Given the high importance of grouse shooting to a small proportion of the UK population and the undoubted importance of upland management in delivering UK commitments to international environmental legislation a clear resolution of these potential conflicts needs to be made. In addition, large amounts of private money are tied up in grouse management and large amounts of public money are handed over to land owners for the proper management of their land to deliver public benefits.
The legality and appropriateness of the management of Walshaw Moor was apparently doubted by the public body Natural England who embarked on a prosecution of the owners, as I understand it, and sought to renegotiate the management agreement pertaining to the designated site. In early March, rather out of the blue to most interested parties, Natural England and the moor managers reached an agreement on the future management of the moor and issued a joint public statement.
The sudden and largely unexplained cessation of both the legal action and the disagreement over management is very interesting – at least to me. It is a matter of public interest, even though most of the public are not the least bit interested in it. But let me have a go at explaining why it strikes me as being interesting and important that we get clarity on this issue.
- the sudden dropping of a legal case suggests that either it was misjudged right from the start or that new evidence came to light or even perhaps that pressure was exerted on Natural England to drop the case. If any of these potential explanations is true then it seems to be to be a matter of public interest as to what happened as it involves public money and potentially the management of large areas of upland England.
- grouse moor management is a dominant land use over large areas of upland England and the outcome of this dispute would/will presumably influence other management agreements and practices on other areas of moorland which are designated because of their wildlife interest.
- Natural England’s role has been systematically reduced, along with its budget, by the coalition government over the last (almost) two years and it is now regarded as a delivery body. What government policy was it delivering when it reached an agreement with the Walshaw Moor Estate over future (and indeed past) management of that area of land? What guidance did it receive from Defra and from which persons in Defra? To what extent were senior civil servants and even Government Ministers involved in this case and on what basis were those individuals involved?
Well, those questions will get us going today at least. Come back later for several more blogs on this subject.