Wuthering moors

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.


18 Replies to “Wuthering moors”

  1. When 13 counties already have a hose pipe ban in the south how can one man drain an area which has massive implications for the near by reservoirs not only by loosing water when it is most needed but by polluting it with peat. Where is Helen Phillips in all this? [The new boss of Yorkshire water!!]. Upland management is nothing to do with a few keepers or farmers jobs. It all about protecting the lowlands from flooding costing £ billions. So one man again can destroy the lives of many just for a few Red Grouse.

    1. John – that’s an interesting opinion. I don’t know whether you know the details of this case or are just guessing.

  2. This stinks, Natural England’s rapid coalition style u-turn wreaks of ministerial meddling. How can you change direction so rapidly, yet with so little clarity? I thought you had just lifted a couple of quotes from Natural England’s statement, but no that is it in its totality. The justification for withdrawal needs clarifying by the governments ‘independent’ advisers as it currently looks like influence and a vested interests at work here to maintain an easy ride.

    I’m doubting they will have reached agreement on no burning on the bog, like Helen suggests. Just business as usual to keep the wealthy grouse moor owners happy. No doubt they will also be receiving vast sums of our money in environmental payments as ‘custodians’ of England’s countryside.

    1. Gongfarmer – Welcome (and what an interesting name!). I think we’ll have to see – I wonder whether you are right.

  3. I hope not, but if it is, it smacks of corruption and rot right at the heart of the matter. No doubt nothing will ever change; it will be business as usual for unsustainable factory farming of grouse on our moors and bogs.

  4. It has always been like this Mark,corruption is everywhere not just in other countries.This just makes it really important that Mike Clarke gets backing the Vicarious Liability petition as at least he might make a difference on that whereas N E will just give him the same old soft soap that they are trained to give out that means absolutely nothing.If he has a problem with it being a private petition surely if he contacts Chrissie she will give her blessing as it is about birds not people.

  5. I suppose until we know the details of the ‘agreement’ that has been reached, it is only fair to suspend judgement. However on the face of it, it really does not look good and there is a distinct mephitic whiff of ‘Carlton Club meddling’ surrounding this case. I look forward to reading more from you on this Mark.

  6. Sadly experience tells me that this will not be a good deal for conservation, although i too would like to think otherwise.
    Some years ago I reported a local estate for what I considered serious breaches of their burning agreement with NE ( they had previously burnt for some years with no agreement, itself a serious offence on a SSSI) It was investigated and the estate told that they were in breach of the agreement, so they were inevitably furious and then the whole thing was dropped as” not in the public interest”. So it was the worst of all worlds NE relationship with the estate damaged yet the estate learnt that NE are toothless. Since that time it has been difficult for raptor workers here to see these agreements prior to them being signed off.
    Then we have the revisions of the burning recommendations some years ago when NE said that moors should be 20% old long heather the owners objected and there was a quick captulation to 5%.
    Moors in the North Pennine SPA ( Designated for both harriers and peregrines) have neither, are burnt to uniform shortness yet being described as in good or improving condition in the absence of both species to meet political targets. Then there is drainage , carbon sequestration issues, water colouration issues, flooding in catchments fed from drained moorlands, issues of a lack of plant biodiversity made worse by burning, illegal predator control, deliberate discouragement of open access, a complete failure to meet SPA targets for designated species under the habitats directive. Frankly it stinks but under current management at NE and with this government it is most unlikely to change. The trouble is those who own and manage these moors live in a culture that says that anybody else’s interests are at best second rate and they beleive that we have no right to demand that they should even listen to us let alone obey the rules.

  7. Thanks Mark. I think the most difficult thing about this, which I tried to explain to the journalist but that wasn’t included in the article, is defining what and where blanket bog is. Particularly in the Peak District, you have deep peats that would once have functioned as deep peats but due to management, and some would say the effects of climate change, they are now dominated by heather and function as a moorland that needs to be burned to prevent fuel load building up and reduce wildfire risk. In such cases, especially considering the drier summers the Peak District now experienced and will continue to experience more under climate change, surely the best option for conservation would be restoration rather than to cease burning?

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