Burn, maybe burn (aka Wuthering Moors 40)

Heather burning. Photo: Paul Adams via wikimedia commons.
Heather burning. Photo: Paul Adams via wikimedia commons.

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.

And so, this brings us back to Walshaw Moor (do you remember Walshaw Moor – see here, here, here, here, here for some previous blogs on the subject).

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


12 Replies to “Burn, maybe burn (aka Wuthering Moors 40)”

  1. My years working at Geltsdale saw a lot of burning. The main species may be Red Grouse it benefits but Golden Plover is a bird that comes a close second. During the war years little burning took place and the Golden Plover population dropped to next to nothing [Blizard]. The heather growth is too much for these birds in most areas of the Pennines and only on Cross Fell do you see a restriction of growth due to altitude. Normal blanket blog should also restrict the growth of heather so that is why in the 1970s and 1980s large areas of SSSI were ploughed at 20 meters intervals to drain the peat. The effect of no burning and the filling in of these drains could re wet the uplands but there will be a time when the number of Golden Plover will decline naturally not to mention a rapped decline of Red Grouse.

    1. John – of course Golden plover don’t ‘need’ heather burning either though. None of these species need the completely artificial strip-burning practices of the driven grouse moor manager. Nor do they ‘need’ predator control. The intensive management of driven grosue moors is obviously for us – it’s for a field sport and/or business. Other parts of the world don’t have men dressed in tweed killing foxes and burning heather strips and they are hardly clammering for its introduction now.

  2. The uplands were burnt long before the invention of the gun or grouse shooting. Agriculturalists burnt on a much larger scale than is current today and the habitats that we now value so highly are the result of human intervention over a period far longer than the existence of grouse shooting.
    Heather Moorland is an odd habitat but repeatedly associating it with the word industrial will seem odd to the millions of people who find recreation in these beautiful places. On a world scale it is of course very odd indeed as we have 75% of the whole worlds supply and we have rather carelessly lost 200,000 acres of it since the war mostly to overgrazing, bracken and that wonderful wildlife rich resource, the Forestry Commission’s herring bone drained Sitka Spruce Plantation.
    The other odd thing about grouse moors is that generations of alleged mismanagement has resulted in 60% of England’s Upland SSSI’s being managed grouse moors. Could it be that they became SSSIs because they were managed for grouse shooting not inspite of it.
    Of course people get things wrong, no activity is perfect but as better science becomes available management can be and is being adjusted. The government used to give huge grants to landowners to fence and drain the uplands, to build roads and plant trees and much of the damage caused by these ‘progressive’ policies may never be repaired. The good news is that on many grouse moors efforts are being made to repair the damage. When the current grip blocking programme is complete well over 2000 miles of grips will have been blocked.
    The uplands without grouse shooting can already be examined in detail. You only have to go to Wales and have a look. You still get flash floods, the forest drains see to that, you of course don’t see any grouse but then you won’t see any upland birds either, don’t believe me, read State of Nature or go and have a look yourself. Go to Lake Vyrnwy and count the Curlews.
    Burning and cutting are important management tools if you want to maintain heather moorland. The RSPB do it, the National Trust do it and so do grouse moor owners. The rights or wrongs of burning blanket bog should be determined by the scientific evidence and actions determined on that basis. The collapse of the Walshaw case was almost certainly the result of the absence of such evidence and the conclusion by the prosecutors that their reliance on the unsubstantiated ‘opinion’ of their witnesses was no substitute for ‘evidence’ and was leading them into a costly debacle.
    Things move on science improves perhaps we have a more certain position, let’s hope so. But 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.

    1. Ian – thank you. That sounds like a moderate position to me. It will be interesting (although not as interesting as the racing at Cheltenham of course) to see what the Shooting Times says next week. And it will be interesting to see whether GWCT, the Moorland Association, BASC, the CLA and the Countryside Alliance say too.

    2. Ian – of course the National Trust are moving away from burning, at least in the Peak District, for very much the reasons that underpin Natural England’s return to an anti-burning position as far as blanket bogs are concerned. And I cannot speak for the RSPB but I’d be a little surprised if they burn blanket bogs – they may do some heather cutting.

  3. Burning is a very old practice….its original use was for clearing the land of unwanted species…by default it has always been intended as a tool to depress biodiversity.

    I regularly look at one the heather moorlands in the UK which is not used for grouse shooting and it has a very high raptor density….blow me but it still has red grouse! The fact is that the unmanaged moorland has a significantly more diverse structure than intensively farmed heather and as a result the grouse have much more cover. Maybe the grouse are not at farmed densities but they are a healthy abundant population……under buzzards, harriers, peregrine, eagles and a thriving swarm of raven.

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