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.
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.”