Wuthering Moors 28

In a move that will be highly embarrassing for the UK government, particularly for Defra and the Defra Minister Richard Benyon, the RSPB today launched a complaint to the European Commission over the Walshaw Moor affair.

The RSPB is ‘Stepping up for Nature’ by suggesting that Natural England, the delivery agency of Defra, contravened European environmental legislation in its dealings with the Walshaw Moor Estate, near Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.

This blog has shown a close interest in this matter for the last six months, publishing a series of blogs, submitting Freedom of Information requests to Defra and Natural England, writing to MPs and keeping the matter alive when otherwise it might have seemed to have disappeared from sight.   I congratulate the RSPB on making this significant move on this subject (but what took you so long guys?).

This is an opportunity to review this case in some detail and that’s what I do in this blog, under the following headings:

1) the RSPB complaint

2) other grounds for complaint

3) the Wuthering Moors blogs

4) what will Defra do now?

5) what should Defra do now?


1. The RSPB complaint

We have not yet seen the full details of the RSPB complaint to the European Commission but I hope that the RSPB will publish it in due course.  Walshaw Moor is a shooting estate managed for red grouse shooting and an important area of upland habitat designated under the Birds Directive, the Habitats Directive and domestic UK legislation.

Natural England had grave concerns over the management of this area of moorland and started legal proceedings, including a prosecution on 43 separate alleged offences, concerning burning, drainage, grazing and construction works on this site.  In March this year that legal action was dropped without satisfactory explanation and without the alleged damage to the site being corrected and the site restored.  Natural England entered into a management agreement with the Walshaw Moor Estate worth millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money and it is thought that other payments have been made to the estate too.

The Walshaw Moor affair is a test case for the management of the English uplands and the maintenance, and indeed the restoration, of their ecological value.  If, as Natural England appeared to believe at the time they started their legal action, the management of Walshaw Moor for red grouse shooting conflicted with the wildlife interest of this site then this would have ramifications for most of England’s uplands.  The management of thousands of hectares of the uplands is given over to the commercial pursuit of grouse shooting – if that pursuit depends on habitat management that is inimical to the existing wildlife interest and ecological integrity of the English uplands then we need to sort that out, and that is the job of Natural England and Defra to do.

Natural England would not have embarked on such a large and expensive legal action without considerable thought.  Their concerns over the management of this estate must have been deep and serious.  The management consented at Walshaw Moor sets a precedent for what is acceptable on all other areas of blanket bog and upland habitat in England.  If, as seems to be the case, the RSPB believes that the environmental legislation is not being fully and properly implemented at Walshaw Moor, and if, as it seems that it does, it fears that this may affect the management of large areas of the English uplands, then taking the complaint to Europe is the right move.


2.  Other grounds for complaint

This affair is mostly about whether management for commercial grouse shooting harms wildlife but other issues emerge and are important too.

There are fears that management for commercial red grouse shooting reduces the ecosystem services which we derive from the uplands.  Is burning of the uplands consistent with carbon storage and flood risk amelioration? In other words do grouse moors add to greenhouse gas emissions and increase flood risk?  The local community at Hebden Bridge, which has been flooded several times in recent months and years, supports the RSPB action and has started its own ‘Ban the Burn’ campaign.

The unprecedented retreat from action by Natural England on the Walshaw Moor affair remains unexplained.  It is unexplained by Natural England and unexplained by Defra and the Minister responsible for Natural England, the grouse-shooting Richard Benyon.  Those of us who have been fully engaged in nature conservation for decades cannot remember such a startling volte face by a government agency which remains unexplained.  The lack of openness is of serious concern considering the precedent apparently set and the large amounts of public money that are flowing into the Walshaw Moor Estate and into other grouse moors which may be carrying out similar management.

Despite requests under the Freedom of Information Act made by this blog and others Natural England and Defra have been slow to respond, have not responded with any meaningful information and have not replied to MPs’ requests for information either. There are several possible reasons for the collapse of the Natural England legal case; perhaps NE lost their nerve, perhaps they were incompetent  or perhaps political pressure was put on NE to withdraw the case.  Any of those possible explanations would be a matter of legitimate public interest given the millions of pounds of public money involved and the thousands of hectares of designated land involved.  If this is not a government cover-up then the behaviour of NE and Defra have certainly made it look as though it might be.

The role of the Minister at the head of this affair, Richard Benyon, is a cause for concern.  Changes to the relationship between government departments and their statutory agencies brought in by the Coalition government over the last two years have transformed Natural England (whose abolition was even on the cards at one stage) into a delivery body rather than an independent wildlife watchdog.  Therefore, as at no other time in the past, the Minister should answer for the actions of Natural England.  Richard Benyon has maintained an aloof silence on the matter.  This doesn’t look good, and looks even worse when it is realised that the minister himself is a grouse shooter and grouse moor owner and has very close  personal links with the shooting community.

The way that government and its agencies work, it would not be necessary for the Minister to phone up the Chief Executive of Natural England and say ‘Drop the Walshaw Moor case’ for that to happen.  A chain of messages via civil servants which in a Sir Humphrey way hinted at the interest of the Minister in the case, or a series of questions about how much it was costing or whether NE were sure of success, or whether this were affecting NE’s relationships with its important uplands stakeholder community would be more than enough to ring warning bells in the corridors of NE.  And NE has been cowed by this government so its ability to ignore faint warning bells has probably been greatly reduced. Maybe there were no warning bells but in its timidity and fear NE heard the bells when they were actually silent.  The correspondence between the Moorland Association and Richard Benyon prised out eventually by this blog and others under the Freedom of Information Act does nothing to dismiss any fears of cronyism affecting the outcome of this case.

3.  The Wuthering Moors blogs

The Walshaw Moor Estate is close to the area where Wuthering Heights was set.

I have published a series of blogs, the Wuthering Moors blogs, over the past 6 months as follows:  No 27, 23 August; No 26, 14 August;   No 25, August 11;  No 24,  20 July; No 23,  16 July; No 22, 11 July;  No 21,  10 July;  No 20,  1 July;  No 19, 19 June;  No 18,  12 June;  N0 17, 28 May;  No 16,  23 May;  No 15, 10 May;  No 14,  3 May;  Nos 7- 13, 2 April;  No 6, 27 March;  No 5,  23 March;  No 4,  22 March;  N0 3, 21 March; No 2, 20 March; No 1, 19 March.

In addition, there have been other mentions, not full Wuthering Blogs on  30 September, 14 September, 27 July30 June, 5 June 24 May, 21 May, 20 May17 May, 14 April.

Wuthering Moors 20 was particularly revealing as to how rapidly Richard Benyon met and responded to the Moorland Association ‘s worries about where all this was heading, which was followed by a fairly detailed briefing for the Minister from the Chief Executive of Natural England at the time, and that the Moorland Association was continuing its frantic lobbying direct to the Minister at least up until Christmas last year.

4.  What will Defra do now?

Defra Ministers, particularly Richard Benyon, the only survivor of the pre-reshuffle regime, will be livid.  I’d be surprised if ministers will hide their ‘lividness’ from civil servants who will then be more guarded in their dealings with the RSPB.  RSPB staff may find that they get even less access to Ministers and to civil servants, that they see the backs of Ministers rather than their faces and that they feel a distinct coldness coming from shoulders rather than being offered the warmth of an embrace as befits a valued-stakeholder representing over a million people.

Defra may well be pretty petty about this, and it’s likely that it has been showing its pettiness in the run-up to this decision by the RSPB. As a member of the RSPB, and a taxpayer, and a voter, I’d be very keen to hear how Defra behave, and very unimpressed if they act in a petty way (but I bet they will).

It’s standard practice for Ministers and government departments to suggest dire consequences if NGOs don’t play the game – that’s their part of the game! But if an NGO doesn’t stand up for what it believes then it isn’t playing its part of the game properly.  You can’t get angry publicly about every government cock-up or misdeed, there are far too many of them, but now and again, choosing the right issue and the right time, you have to throw everything out of the pram and show a bit of rage.

The Coalition government have made this easier and easier for the RSPB and others by not giving NGO views much weight in their deliberations. All governments get a honeymoon period of tolerance from NGOs, and so do most new Ministers, but once the evidence mounts up that the government is doing a poor job for the environment then environmental NGOs need to bare their teeth more often.  And sometimes biting must follow baring.

David Cameron will have made this action by the RSPB easier for them to take by replacing Caroline Spelman with the plastic environmentalist, Owen Paterson, and thus indicating that any real  hopes for a hint of green in this government are gone for ever.

5. What should Defra do now?

Defra should publish all correspondence connected with the Walshaw Moor affair, explain its actions and those of its delivery agency, and spell out its plans to meet the requirements of the Birds and Habitats Directives in upland Britain.


Here is the RSPB Press release covering this issue:

RSPB seeks European investigation after failure to protect UK wildlife site

The RSPB has today submitted a formal complaint to the European Commission over the handling of an estate in the South Pennines where a protected area of blanket bog habitat is under threat.

Following six months of investigation, the charity believes Natural England has contravened European environmental protection legislation in its dealings with the Walshaw Moor Estate, near Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire.

The site is home to an important area of blanket bog – a globally rare and threatened habitat of delicate mosses which supports scarce breeding wading birds such as dunlin and golden plover. Walshaw Moor is so vital for these species and habitats that it is protected by the highest European environmental designations.

The management of the estate – including burning and draining of the bog – has caused Natural England to raise serious concerns in recent years. However, in March this year, without a clear explanation, Natural England suddenly dropped legal proceedings against the estate, including a prosecution on 43 grounds of alleged damage.

Mike Clarke, RSPB chief executive, said: “The decision to lodge this complaint has not been taken lightly, but this is a vitally important issue which centres on the Government’s statutory duty to protect our natural environment.

“Natural England – the Government’s wildlife watchdog – has dropped its prosecution without giving an adequate explanation and without securing restoration of this habitat. It has also entered into a management arrangement which we consider has fundamental flaws.  This combination of actions is probably unlawful and will do little, if anything, to realise the Coalition Government’s stated ambition to restore biodiversity.

“Natural England has an excellent record but at Walshaw it has not fulfilled its duty to protect wildlife. This has happened in the year that the Government seeks to review its environmental agencies. We think this case is a timely reminder that we need a strong independent champion of the natural environment.

“This is just one of several protected areas in our uplands, and this case may set an important precedent for how these sites are managed in the future.”



57 Replies to “Wuthering Moors 28”

  1. That’s good news. Let’s hope that the European Commission has more success than has been achieved so far in (a) prising out a proper explanation from Defra/NE for their actions and (b) putting a stop to inappropriate management on the moor.
    Well done for your part in getting things this far.

  2. Hopefully we may now get another government u-turn?

    Let’s hope DEFRA take this seriously and listen to an organisation with a great deal of expertise in upland management issues and a million plus members to boot. Choosing to be influenced by a minority interest group like the countryside alliance may hopefully now give this government some pain.

    As you say, let’s hope they don’t play petty. This kicking was needed as the Walshaw case is a tragedy against biodiversity, water quality, carbon storage, flood elevation and the public purse.

  3. The RSPB should be congratulated for taking this important issue to the European Commission and it is easy to understand why their decision to do so was not taken lightly by the Society. The way Natural England dealt with the damage caused to the Walshaw moor estate, a part of the south Pennines SSSi, by dropping all 43 charges against the estate owner has not only damaged Natural England’s credibility, it brings into doubt where their loyalties have been heading. Statements by Richard Benyon and Natural England’s former Chief Executive Dr Helen Phillips thanking gamekeepers for maintaining the healthy biodiversity of England’s countryside was clearly nothing less than a distortion of the facts. While England’s uplands used for red grouse shooting, including the Walshaw moor estate no longer support the hen harrier, goshawk or peregrine, how can the biodiversity of these moorland regions be regarded as healthy?

  4. Full marks to the RSPB for finally taking an action that depicts what it is willing to pursue and campaign for. But a few “Special Marks” come your way as well, MA, for persistently championing the issue and no doubt ensuring others had to sit up and take notice. Whilst all this may now set RSPB apart, ( and I doubt they’d have got a mention if the Tory Conference had been this week!! ), it’s what many of us had been looking for from them. I suspect it will do their reputation a deal of good, after all, with a weak Government agency representing the interests of wildlife, particularly birds, who else is there? In all this my fear is for Natural England and whether, in the longer term, they will suffer from the pettiness you mention given this Government’s almost overt resolve to ignore matters relating to conservation.

  5. This move will also be welcomed by many people within Natural England, they have been been extremely embarrassed by this case and exposure of Defra’s role in this grubby affair can help to restore some credibility to the organisation.

    Some awkward questions by the EU may well give David Cameron cause to rue his decision to retain Richard Benyon in post during the recent cabinet reshuffle.

  6. We need a consistently argued and wide-ranging approach to the management of moorlands, going far beyond the relatively small areas that can still be classified as blanket bog. It is clear that the capacity for restoration of blanket bog habitat, along with the implementation of a management regime that would expand this important habitat and its ecosystem services in the form of carbon storage and flood control, has been threatened by both controlled and uncontrolled burning. As a hydrologist I am most concerned about the effects of the present regime of moorland management on the flood response of the system and on the quality of water supplies provided by the uplands. It is just plain wrong that responsibility for and control of the management of such a large and important resource should be handed over to a small interest group, however powerful. As the representatives of the people of Britain, the Government and its agencies should be working for the wider society and not against it.

  7. The EU is already taking the British Government to court over another matter regarding nature which has not been brought out into the public domain. So much for Freedom of speech!! Several of us are pushing for court action against the removal of Birds of Prey from Red Grouse moors. It would be better if more people complained. [email protected]

  8. Some staff at Natural England may recall the dire consequences of NCC’s stand against the Government’s tax breaks for plantation forestry in the Caithness Flow Country, which was soon followed by the dismemberment of the NCC into country bodies Scottish Natural Heritage, English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales.

    1. The same staff may also take some pleasure that the flow country is now attracting millions of lottery money that shows they were right all along. Thank goodness that the civil service is not entirely populated by short sighted careerists. Well done RSPB and Mark.

    2. I doubt that there are many ex-NCC Staff still working for NE. I could be wrong but I should think that less than 5% of the 2290 NE employees are ex-NCC staff. A good many of the ex-NCC employees took advantage of early retirement/redundancy offers when EN merged with RDS & CA and many left to work for other NGO’s or private consultancies. They are probably quite glad they did.

      1. That is very true! They probably found they made more progress in the mame of nature conservation once retired and unbridled too! It’s still heartening that these individuals had the foresight to see things clearly. I’m waiting for the moorland association to churn out there usual worn out phrases about rural economy, ‘heathery’ moorland and lapwings (whatever they have got to do with it). I’m still very impressed with the RSPB for doing this. To allow this to go unchallenged would leave a very low and illegal bench mark.

  9. Ah, good! Well done RSPB. And well done Mark, for keeping the pressure on when the results were so slim. My MP, like others, was stone-walled (though I doubt he had his heart in it anyway). Perhaps the RSPB move will blow the thing open.

  10. I think this is good news and should prove very interesting. I also think that while it will be welcomed by the ‘conservation’ sector it should also be welcomed by land managers who have Natura sites on their land. It would have been very unfair on all of those managers who modify plans and make accommodations so as to avoid adverse effects on site integrity yet here we appear to have a have clear and obvious loss of extent, for example by turning moor into track, and its all hunky-dory with the competent authority.

    And while I think its the case that anyone can make a complaint (not ‘launch’ Martin, Mark, please) to the EU, with what seems to be a complicated case, having a large organisation like RSPB making the complaint gives it added weight. Well done RSPB.

  11. Mark,

    This is very good news and about time too.

    I am very tempted to submit my own complaint; anyone can do so and it seems reasonably straightforward providing the complainant is furnished with the relevant EU legislation and details. Information on how to submit the complaint can be found via this link: http://ec.europa.eu/eu_law/your_rights/your_rights_en.htm

    It could well be useful for the RSPB (or you, or a learned contact) to provide a summary sheet explaining in relatively simple terms what legislation has been breached (Birds Directive 1979 and Habitats Directive 1992 I assume), the ‘bits’ within each legislation and so on; and/ or perhaps the name of the individual who is dealing with this complaint. One can send a letter or complete a form, whichever is best for them. My only worry is that the process is likely to take some time, perhaps beyond a parliamentary term, thus the complaint could easily become bogged down in EU/ nation state bureaucracy and take many years to come to fruition.

    Nevertheless, it is welcome news.


  12. Congratulations Mark and full support for RSPB and their action to stop the destruction of one of the most important upland plant communities – blanket bog. It is hard to identify the public services the Walshaw Estate provides for the subsidies it receives if most of them are being barbequed – our very own British Bonfire of the Vanities.

  13. Yep well done RSPB (even though no ruling has been made!!!), but also Mark too! For being a pain in the proverbials. I think a half hearted well done to NE for trying then bottling it. I wonder as the Tories try to wrestle back laws/law making back from the EU wether Wildlife/Habitats acts/laws are in their targets, because lets face it Boris Island will need some laws squashing…

    1. Douglas – it’s certainly true that EU environmental legislation is a great, although imperfect, protector of our natural environment. And it has seen that some prominent Tories have not been that keen on it (Eg ‘George’ Gideon Osborne). However, if you look at p88 of Fighting for Birds you’ll see that Boris and the EU directives is a ‘family affair’.

  14. Well done Mark! Good to see RSPB finally finding its voice and remembering its role.

    Don’t give up on this – the truth is out there and its smells fishy

  15. Well done to the RSPB. Reading the information on their website and on Martin Harper’s blog my feeling is that they have been working hard and diligently in the background to make sure that they have a watertight (sorry) case to present to the EU. I hope that all who respond on Mark’s blog also send a congratulatory note to Martin or to the RSPB.

    The Guardian cover the press release on their web this afternoon. See here:

    1. Sally – yes that is a good point. I think there have been a lot of NE staff who have felt let down and ashamed of their organisation over this affair.

  16. Well done to Mark for keeping this issue alive, & for the RSPB for showing their teeth. I am doubly pleased that I recently purchased life membership.

  17. I’m pleased that the RSPB has at last found their balls and come out fighting, appeasement and platitudes have got us nowhere, the estate owners continue to pull the strings of power and get away with doing anything they like with the environment and our wildlife regardless of the laws of the land. DEFRA, NE and SNH are toothless to say the least, but what is even worse they are negligent in their appointed duty by not opposing the illegal activities that are rife on the shooting estates. It’s time to take off the kid gloves and get involved, don’t let the estates get away with anything anymore, report and publicise openly everything they do on any media prepared to publish. Make sure your MP knows what he stands for regarding wildlife and the environment and that he might actually need your vote at the next election.

  18. Hoorah for the RSPB and thankyou, Mark for clarifying the position as it stands. It’s about time that the nuts and bolts of this affair were laid open for public scrutiny, so that the ministers with shooting estates and rich landowners be given good reason to think a little more carefully about what they’re about to do, rather than steamrollering over the wildlife laws and shooting everything that might pose the tiniest threat to their beloved grouse. And at the next election, given the choice between Labour and the Tory/Lib Dems Collision, write ‘None Of The Above’ and let’s get some Greens into politics!

    1. Peter – thank you. It will be the RSPB who have the resources to see this through properly, but we can all support them in lots of ways.

Comments are closed.