The whole purpose of the Monday of Cheltenham week is to free one’s mind from real life and to concentrate on the total irrelevance of horses running around in circles (in the case of Cheltenham, anti-clockwise circles). So with this in mind I went for a walk early on Monday morning to relax and let all cares slip away (I haven’t got many so it shouldn’t take long).
I visited a local airfield which tends to attract the occasional migrating Wheatear in spring, and I just wondered whether there might be an early Wheatear or Ring Ousel around. It was probably at least a couple of weeks too early so it was a bit of a long-shot – but this is Cheltenham week.
Since I last visited, nine tall wind turbines have been erected, and although it was breezeless at 2m above ground they were all turning enthusiastically as I walked down the old runway. There were no early spring migrants but there were birds. Yellowhammers sang at me as I parked my car (which gets its annual wash on the Monday of Cheltenham week) and several hundred Fieldfares fed in the grassland beside the old runway. Skylarks sang in large numbers and about four hundred Starlings fed in a tight flock on some distant grass.
I was walking straight down the old runway – and it stretched away from me for well over a mile. There were ugly modern metal fences to keep me to the right of way, I didn’t want to stray anyway, and a network of wooden fences dividing the grass fields into rectangles. One field held a flock of sheep. Every field held singing Meadow Pipits – a rarity for this part of the world.
This flat, open, treeless expanse of grassland, with its network of fences, and nine tall modern wind turbines also had the remains of old buildings from the Second World War and Nissen huts, as well as a modern hanger-type structure and a few ugly portakabins. There was also, I discovered, a field of solar panels further up my walk – they weren’t there last spring either.
A pair of Grey Partridges flew across the road, another local rarity, and Reed Buntings sang from the thicker patches of wettish grassland. A couple of Stock Doves circled some buildings. A tractor, whose driver waved at me in a friendly way, towed a trailer of pallets to a distant building but there was no-one else to be seen.
I could hear Meadow Pipits and Skylarks singing all the time and there was a faint throbbing noise of turbine blades scything through the air. But 70 years ago this concrete pathway would have heard the rumble of tyres and roar of engines as USAAF Flying Fortresses headed to Germany to carry out daylight bombing raids. I guess there were Skylarks and probably some Meadow Pipits then as well.
If you visit the mainly 13th century parish church of St John the Baptist you will see a memorial in the wall to the American servicemen, 769 of them, who died in flights from this airfield in WWII. Another plaque in the wall marks the five local residents of this small village who died fighting in WWI and the single soldier who perished from here in WWII.
The churchyard is pretty, although the carpet of snowdrops now looks well past its best (but it will look resplendent again in just under a year) and some fresh primroses are pushing their flowers forward instead. As you walk down the path to the church, which has been here for 800 years, there are Rooks nesting above your head and filling the air with their cries. If you turn your back to the church you can see in the distance the wind turbines on the old airfield.
I feel that England is drenched in history. Every step I take through my country has been taken by others for centuries before. What was on the airbase site, centuries before, when this church was first built? Who walked my path in the 15th or 17th centuries? And yes, what birds did they see, because knowing that would tell me much about the countryside around.
I guess that American airmen came to church services, at least occasionally. Did some marry local lasses here I wonder? And then they flew more missions to bomb industrial targets in Germany; and did some of the bombs go astray and hit German churches? Thirty years earlier, men from this small community were out in France or Belgium also defending these local people, these fields , these snowdrops, these Rooks – and five of them did not return to the path to their local church.
The wind turbines and solar panels now occupying the former airfield are defending us too. Defending these people, these fields, these snowdrops , these Rooks from climate change. They aren’t our only defence, and they aren’t defence enough, but I hope we win that battle too.
Well, that didn’t work very well as freeing my mind from real life.
Despite the deluges of much of the winter the ground has been drying out, as it always does these days at Cheltenham, and the going will probably be just on the soft side of good. But we’ll see how the first few races go.
People correctly talk about ‘horses for courses’ – British (and Irish) racecourses are all different (unlike US racecourses which are all built on the same model). Some are flat and some are hilly; some are right-handed (the horses run in clockwise circles) and some are left-handed; some are pretty some are ugly; some have hard fences for the horses to jump, some have easy fences and some have no fences; and there are other differences too. Cheltenham is a left-handed, hilly course that has a lovely view of the Cotswolds behind it but has developed an awful lot of clutter in the middle of it over the years which reduces its beauty. The beauty probably doesn’t affect the horses much but the other factors do – some horses love the place and others hate it. If you are thinking of having a bet then a previous winner at Cheltenham, particularly at the great racing of the Festival, is a good pointer. But I’m not letting you into much of a secret there – almost every habitual loser in your local Ladbrokes will tell you that – and it won’t have saved them losing all the time.
People talk less often about ‘horses for the going’, possibly because it doesn’t rhyme, but it’s just as important. There will be some trainers who will be removing their horses from the races if the ground is too soft and others who will be withdrawing theirs from the same races because it isn’t soft enough for them.
There aren’t really such clear ‘jockeys for courses’ although there are a few jockeys who seem to perform better than average on some courses and the current and multiple-champion jockey, the great (but rather miserable looking) AP McCoy, often seems to have poor luck at the Festival even though riding a large number of really good horses.
The Champion Hurdle is the ‘big’ race of the first day of the Festival. It is run over 2 miles (and 110 yds) and the horses have to jump over smallish obstacles called hurdles, and the jockeys have to stay attached to their mounts, to win. There have been five triple-winners of this event in the past and Hurricane Fly is bidding to be the sixth (having won the race in 2013 and 2011) and he (though he is a gelding) has a good chance again (current odds 5/2). He’d like the ground to be pretty soft but we know he likes Cheltenham because he’s performed here before.
Up against him are eight other horses of which the best are probably The New One (11/4), Our Conor (4/1) or My Tent Or Yours (also 4/1). I have dabbled in the ante-post betting market and will be happy if the Hurricane, The New One or MTOY wins.
My favourite race of Day 1 though is the Arkle chase. This is for young horses and is also run over 2 miles but this time over fences rather than hurdles. Hurdles can be brushed aside if you hit them while jumping them (if you are a few tons of horse travelling at 30mph anyway) whereas fences are like hedges and tend to trip you up if you don’t get it right while jumping them.
The Arkle chase is named after the famous racehorse, who in turn was named after the fairly famous Sutherland mountain by the Duchess of Westminster (married to the 2nd Duke), and the current (4th) Duke of Westminster, named Gerald , owns a grouse moor in the Forest of Bowland, where the occasional Hen Harrier nests (that is about as birdy as this blog will get – it’s Cheltenham!).
This year’s race might be fought out by the Irish favourite, Champagne Fever (current odds, 3/1), and the former Champion Hurdle winner (between Hurricane Fly’s two victories), Rock On Ruby. Rock On Ruby (9/2) seems to like Cheltenham and so does Champagne Fever. The Irish horse has only raced in the UK twice, at the last two Festivals, where he won the Bumper (I’ll tell you what that is tomorrow) and the Supreme Novice Hurdle (the clue’s in the name – it’s a good race for young hurdlers) last year.
If Hurricane Fly and Champagne Fever win then the Irish will be on top of the world. We’ll see. I’m not telling you who will win because I don’t know!
This interview with the Chief Executive of Natural England is interesting in a way. It illustrates the tensions of pleasing one’s current political masters and living up to the mission that NE has had handed down by Parliament. Which direction to face?
What would you have liked to hear him say?
Here are some questions I’d be interested in NE answering (and they can please regard this as an FoI/EIR request)?
- How many times, and on what dates, have senior NE staff met Richard Bannister since the collapse of the Walshaw Moor Estate court case?
- How many visits have NE staff made to Walshaw Moor since the collapse of the court case in order to inspect the site and assess whether damage is being restored or whether further damage has occurred?
- Is it true that the damage caused to the South Pennines Moors SAC at Walshaw Moor by drainage, car parks, tracks, grouse butts and ponds will not be restored? If so, why not?
- Can NE confirm that there are around 127 further consents which allow burning of blanket bogs in the English uplands? If so, what steps will NE take to ensure that blanket bogs are protected from damage from burning?
- If all burning of blanket bogs in the English uplands ceased tomorrow what impact would/should it have on future SSSI assessments of favourable condition?
- How would you describe the part that the Moorland Association, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Countryside Alliance have played in discussions over burning of blanket bogs?
- Have Defra Ministers been informed of the implications of the review of the science concerning burning of blanket bogs on the SSSI condition statistics and the sustainability of current grouse moor management?
- When, if ever, was the last time that each of the Defra ministers went grouse-shooting?
- Do any of your ministers have a financial interest in grouse-shooting through ownership, investment or having relatives (either blood relatives or through marriage) with such interests?
- How much money was paid to the Walshaw Moor Estate by Natural England in 2013 and how much is expected to be paid in 2014.
Some chap writes at the front of this book ‘Everyone, who has contributed to this splendid work, deserves the highest praise.’ and he is right. It’s a very beautifully produced book, and much more than a list of birds of a long thin small English county (of 125,901 ha and 862,000 human souls) which runs along the Thames.
As a book it is large and attractive with many fine illustrations (including its Robert Gillmor cover) and photographs. The maps are clear and helpful. I liked the nice touch that on the graphs of monthly abundance the histograms are colour-coded so that winter months are blue, spring green, the summer months are yellow and autumn months turn brown – a nice (and actually helpful) touch which I have not seen elsewhere. There are other examples here that show the team producing the book gave considerable careful and original thought to its production.
As a non-resident of this county I greatly value the maps of good birding localities. They (in Chapter 5) are very clear and give enough information to go to them and see some birds at them – rather than spend all your time wondering where the ‘right’ bit of the site is. Excellent!
Birdwatchers are never competitive but I, too, was quite impressed that this small urban county has amassed more bird species than its larger more rural neighbour Oxon – but who’s counting?
These county avifaunas tend to tell the details of the UK-wide stories of declining farmland birds, spreads of species due to climate change, strange losses of individual species and the spread of non-native species. All of those are played out in this county and in these pages too.
However, I was struck by the graph of Wood Warbler numbers which does show the precipitous decline in numbers after the mid-1970s but, more interestingly to me, an equally impressive increase in numbers in the preceding three decades.
Many of the 862,000 inhabitants of this small county should buy this book and it was an occasional resident, Prince Philip, who wrote the words of praise I quoted above. He also writes ‘ I have no doubt that future generations of bird-watchers will greatly value this book, and I hope it will help them, and all who are interested in the general conservation of nature, to encourage the introduction of measures, which will help to ensure that our rich ornithological legacy is maintained for the pleasure and instruction of future generations.’. It’s not that often that I feel of one mind with the royals but here I do.
This book is available from those who produced it at £35 +P&P.
And this is a passage from Chapter 7 of 'A Message from Martha':
'If we continue laying waste to the diversity of life and the natural beauty of the planet then we are like vandals going through an art gallery with spray paint and Stanley knives. When we come out the other side, or when we grow up, we look back and wonder why we didn't behave with more restraint, and we realise that the excitement and enjoyment that we had was rather twisted and in no way was worth the damage we did. Nobody gains from our vandalism and we are ourselves diminished.'
This is the fourth blog today on the subject of burning of blanket bog (see here, here, and here). These were sparked (!) by the RSPB releasing data on the scale of the issue and calling for an end to the burning of blanket bog. There has been a little media coverage of this – see here.
But the site, and the legal case, that started all this off was Walshaw Moor. The RSPB website has a very handy guide to the ‘case’ (overview, timeline, and the RSPB’s position). If you download the pdf document entitled ‘Walshaw Moor, South Pennines RSPB complaint to the European Commission – further submission 2014 Summary’ you can have a look at a map of Walshaw Moor itself. You will see its boundary nestling cosily within the South Pennine Moors SAC. The yellow areas of moorland, either dark or light yellow, are areas where heather burning has been consented on blanket bogs – a practice which Natural England has come back to believing is damaging.
The RSPB also comments on its website on the dropped prosecution of the Walshaw Moor Estate by Natural England thus: ‘We also criticised the dropping of the prosecution and the resulting failure to take appropriate steps to rectify the damage caused by the alleged offences. The information provided by the UK Government confirms that NE had charged WMEL with a total of 45 offences. The number of alleged offences appears unprecedented in recent times and reinforces the seriousness with which NE had been taking the case. The information obtained by the RSPB from NE has shown there will be no restoration of the majority of damage to protected SAC/SPA habitats caused by infrastructure (drainage, tracks, car parks, ponds, grouse butts). The UK told the Commission that all 30 incidents of artificial drainage will be restored using agri-environment money. But the RSPB could find only 2 of those drains ear-marked for restoration in the HLS drain blocking programme.‘.
The damage caused by drainage, car parks, tracks, ponds and grouse butts on this site will not be restored? Why not?
The 30 incidents of artificial drainage will be restored using your and my taxes – why?
Well, I guess it’s a good thing that Walshaw Moor looks in such good condition – the photo at the head of this post is of Walshaw Moor (I am reliably told, I have not yet visited) in late August 2013 when the heather should have been in full bloom. not much of a show is it? Instead there are large yellow sick-looking patches of sprayed Molinia grass.
The scale of burning of English blanket bogs revealed by the latest RSPB work is scary.
There are 127 separate consents (mostly through HLS agreements – ie we taxpayers are paying for it too) for burning on blanket bogs. These affect these seven Special Areas of Conservation (SACs)(Border Mires, Kielder-Butterburn; Ingleborough Complex; Moor House – Upper Teesdale; North Pennine Moors; North York Moors; Simonside Hills; South Pennine Moors) and these four Special Protection Areas (SPAs)(Bowland Fells; North Pennine Moors; North York Moors; South Pennine Moors).
The area involved is, according to the RSPB, 94,000 ha which amounts to 74% of the deep peat soils in those SACs. That’s an area of about 30km by 30km (or roughly 20 miles by 20 miles, in old money).
That’s the big picture – and it is a big, scary picture. It tells a tale of massive habitat damage in the name of a field sport and economic activity. Yes, of course grouse shooting brings money into local communities, but this private benefit should not be at the expense of carbon emissions, water discolouration, increased flood risk, damaged habitats and illegal removal of protected wildlife (all of which are costs shared by the public at large).
All enthusiasts can get things out of proportion; twitchers can, football fans can, I dare say train-spotters can (really?) and I know that I can, but the pursuit of big grouse bags, for profit or fun, looks like a an enthusiasm that is being taken too often to too distant extremes.
I noted in Ian Coghill’s comment on an earlier blog today that he appeared rather unperturbed about moorland managers losing the freedom to burn blanket bogs saying ‘…either way it won’t matter to grouse shooting. Burning blanket bog is not essential to the success of grouse shooting, it has accommodated all sorts of changes and can obviously live with that‘.
I think Ian must be right, although if he is, then he is in conflict with this previously advanced view of Ed Bromet of the Moorland Association to the (then) Defra Minister (and grouse moor owner) Richard Benyon, in an email on 22 December 2011, and obtained under FoI/EIR and published on this blog on 1 July 2012.
‘We spoke yesterday but I can do no better than send over the attached by way of information. What Natural England are doing is complete madness. Suggestions of readdressing the basis of existing agri-environment schemes and whether heather burning should be allowed on blanket bog and wet heath has the potential to destroy 2/3rd of heather moorland in England and with it all the mammoth economic and environmental benefits!! It would make the management of moorland, most of which is privately funded, completely impossible. It is a ridiculously shortsighted move and has the ability to destroy co-operation or constructive discussion.‘.
I have a feeling that the two gentlemen cannot both be right. I expect the Moorland Ass is making the same point privately now, too.
It would be bad enough, indeed it would be terribly bad, if private money were damaging important habitats, the wildlife they support and the ecosystem services they provide, but it is all the more galling that it is my and your taxes, through the oversubscribed and very stretched Higher Level Scheme, that is paying upland landowners to damage blanket bogs. That doesn’t seem right at all. Some nice lowland farmer could be helping the Turtle Dove with the money that is going to a grouse moor owner to burn blanket bogs.
Following my blog ‘first’ thing this morning here is some more information on the damage that burning does to blanket bogs.
Martin Harper’s blog today expands on the RSPB’s thinking about burning of blanket bog.
More details of the RSPB’s complaint to the EU over the management (they clearly regard it as mis-management, as did Natural England (do they again now?)) of Walshaw Moor.
The Government response to the EU on Walshaw Moor (first published on this blog on 4 September 2013) and my thoughts, at that time, on the government position.
All the above is by way of revision! But here is the RSPB’s updated position in response to the updated Natural England scientific position on burning blanket bog. It’s pretty hard-hitting and has big implications for the future of heather burning in the English uplands. It therefore has implications for the future of driven grouse shooting. It therefore has implications for upland wildlife.
I will return to this later today – at least once!
The RSPB is getting stroppy about burning of blanket bogs – I like that.
Burning heather on a rotation of 7-20 years is part of the industrialisation of the upland landscape of parts of the UK. The main reason for doing it is to produce totally unnaturally high densities of Red Grouse which can then be shot in autumn for sport. It’s a quaint, particularly British, tradition.
Red Grouse eat heather (it’s never looked that yummy to me). Burning produces young juicy heather and the patchwork of young and old heather stands that is so characteristic of many parts of the Pennines, southern uplands of Scotland and the Angus Glens and Deeside. I think of them as being as intensively managed as the average wheat field.
Many would argue that we would be much better off if we ceased burning completely and let the uplands regain much more tree cover and more closely resemble the hills of Scandinavia where the Willow Ptarmigan (of which the British Red Grouse is a sub-species) gets on fine without all this burning and without being shot at by lines of sportsman.
But the RSPB’s focus is on the burning of blanket bogs – those wet areas which have peat-producing Sphagnum mosses that are often the flatter bits at the tops of the hills. Blanket bog is one of those habitats about which the experts tend to get very excited. We have lots of it in the UK and it is a habitat that stores and sequesters carbon (all those dead mosses end up as carbon-rich peat) and stores a lot of water too (it’s those mosses again acting like a sponge). Generally speaking everyone thinks blanket bog is a pretty good thing and its presence is one of the reasons why so much of the British uplands is regarded as being very special in European terms for nature conservation.
When you burn the heather on the bits of the uplands that aren’t blanket bogs it grows back and, unless you’d rather see more trees growing (and I think I would) then it doesn’t do too much harm. But burning blanket bogs does do harm – it damages the blanket bogs and must affect the carbon-storing and water-storing properties. That’s certainly what the ‘Ban the Burn’ campaigners from Hebden Bridge think – they think that the regular and intensive burning of Walshaw Moor’s blanket bogs has increased their own flood risk.
The RSPB today calls for an end to the burning of blanket bogs as Natural England’s own renewed review of the evidence shows that these habitats are damaged by this practice. Mike Clarke, RSPB Chief Executive said: “England’s uplands are some of our most iconic, extensive and important landscapes. Our assessment shows they could be among our most damaged too. For the benefit of wildlife, the environment and wider society there is an urgent need to restore these landscapes by blocking drains, re-vegetating bare peat and bringing an end to burning.”
The RSPB states that information provided by Natural England in October 2012 shows that only 10.5% of 162,000 ha of blanket bog designated as SSSI in England is in favourable condition. It is possible to search the Natural England website for details of the condition of individual SSSI units.
The RSPB state ‘Natural England attempted to take steps to halt the burning of blanket bog on the Walshaw Moor estate and began a prosecution against alleged damage. Their action was designed to restore Walshaw Moor were suddenly dropped due to insufficient confidence in the available science. The RSPB heavily criticised this decision at the time. The Society decided the only way to secure the restoration was to take the significant step of pursuing a complaint to the European Commission. Natural England’s evidence review has now confirmed the RSPB’s assessment that allowing the continued burning of blanket bog would prevent it being restored.
The RSPB is inviting Natural England to provide an update on what practical restoration has been achieved on the ground at Walshaw Moor since the estate is receiving agri-environment funding to assist with that restoration. The RSPB believes the owners of the Walshaw Moor estate have been awarded funding to block hundreds of artificial drains and generally improve the habitat condition.’
Yes it would be interesting to learn whether our agri-environment funding has restored the damage to Walshaw Moor. At the foot of this blog I will reproduce a comment made only about a week ago on a blog originally posted by me in April 2013 – there’s no reason why many of you will have noticed it.
The RSPB press release goes on: ‘The RSPB is not sure whether Walshaw Moor is typical of the historic agreements and consents to burn blanket bog across the English uplands, or if it is an extreme case.
Dr Mike Clarke added: “On the basis of our assessment we trust that Natural England will ensure that existing agreements with landowners and their impacts on internationally-important sites are reviewed. Any future agreements must deliver the best outcome for peatlands and the wildlife it supports, and ensure that public money is being spent wisely.”
We seem to have come full circle. Natural England were convinced that too much burning, for the ‘benefit’ of Red Grouse shooting, was damaging upland blanket bogs. Then the Walshaw Moor case collapsed (it isn’t very clear why, even after all this time) and Natural England went away to rethink. Having re-examined the evidence they have come back with renewed confidence to state that burning can damage, and is damaging, many of our internationally important sites.
The conclusion must surely be, that NE must ensure that these damaged habitats are restored as quickly as possible and that damaging activities must cease right now. That’s why over-burning of blanket bog must cease.
This will be a rather unpopular finding (just as it was first time around) for many grouse moor managers. I can imagine that the Moorland Association, the Countryside Alliance and others will be fuming. The smoke coming out of their ears should replace the smoke coming off their moors according to the science.
Natural England – we are watching what you do next and wishing you well.
Defra – how about a statement on the role of heather-burning in damaging designated wildlife sites?
And here is the comment referred to above that appeared here:
My comments to you last year refer. For most of last year most of my walking was in the upper Colden Valley area and down into HB exploring old industrial sites. I thought that this year I would spend more time enjoying the ‘Walshaw Moor’ area again. I walked up the tarmac. track up to, and then around the three Walshaw reservoirs and then over what was the permissive track to Horodiddle and Walshaw and then down into the Craggs. On my whole walk, the only wildlife I saw other than a few grouse were a pair of mallards in the sediment pool at the head of the upper reservoir.
Since my last walk there sometime in 2012, a number of new grouse buts have been constructed. Looking at my map these would appear to have replaced earlier ones to the NE of the track. They stretch for a distance of maybe 1/3 mile. The ground to the side of them has been what I would describe as scarified and rolled flat. Similarly the same treatment has been applied to the land either side of the track from just beyond the summit of High Rake for a distance of about 1/2 mile towards Walshaw and for a width of maybe 80 yards on each side of the track.
In both instances I cannot help wonder about the nest sites of the ground-nesting birds we are warned about, or are The Estate only really interested in grouse. So far as I could see the whole estate was a picture of multi-coloured strips where the ground has been burnt or scarified/rollered. You could see evidence of vehicle tracks all over the place.
The day of my walk started wet but then fined- off, the clouds broke up and this was followed by large breaks in the clouds with decent periods of sunshine. I should have been in a good mood. Sadly I was most depressed. I have been walking these moors for well over 50 years, long before Right to Roam; I used to be able to run if necessary but in fact never had any problems when encountering Lord Savilles men, merely exchanging a ‘good morning’ on my part and a hard stare on theirs; happy days!. Frankly I have no wish ever again to walk this area. I found the whole experience distasteful. I am not anti- shooting, used to shoot rabbits when I was younger, and enjoy pheasant and grouse when I can persuade Mrs. M to buy them. I know why these estates exist but it seems as though Mr. B. has completely gone over the top. About the only saving grace on this visit was that, unlike the last time I reported, I saw no poisoned fresh rabbit carcases strategically placed. Parts of the ‘permissive’ track had been made- good with recycled road dressing, parts of which had become rutted with recent rains; how long before this becomes tarmacked? Jayem