Countryfile 2

imageYesterday’s blog on the item on heather burning on Sunday’s Countryfile clearly chimed with a lot of people.  It was read by over 5000 folk yesterday evening and attracted a lot of comments both here and on social media.

Controlled burning to stop wildfires has been likened to throwing away all your money to prevent theft, or knocking your house down so it doesn’t catch fire.  I see that controlled burning is sometimes not quite as controlled as the name suggests – I hope these people are OK. Where were Countryfile filming by the way?

You can continue burning in upland areas of England for a few more days – until 15 AprilCountryfile claimed that ‘Heather burning is strictly regulated: and is only permitted outside the breeding season for ground-nesting birds‘. Like most things in the uplands ‘strictly regulated’ is a wish rather than a description and what about those ground-nesting birds? According to the BTO, first clutches of Golden Plover can be laid in the UK as early as 3 April and we do know that nesting seasons are shifting earlier with climate change. It’s probably time to end the habitat-torching season rather earlier. Dartmoor NP recommend no burning after 31 March already because of this issue – but that is not ‘strict regulation’ it’s a plea not to set fire to the habitat whilst birds are nesting. Imagine a similar approach with hedge-cutting.

Can you imagine Springwatch or any other BBC programme getting away with even a mildly critical piece on heather burning without the moorland establishment ringing the BBC phones off their hooks? And yet this Countryfile item somehow slipped through the BBC’s superfine net of impartiality.

It feels as if the mesh of the net of impartiality is decidedly of a different spacing depending on whether it is a load of nonsense from the shooting establishment or some well researched science by their critics.

Does the BBC know what it is doing, or is it just running scared at a time of its charter renewal?  It is time for the BBC to rediscover some journalistic standards on the environment, countryside and wildlife.  What processes does Countryfile use to make sure they get their facts straight?  Whatever they are, they failed in this piece (no-one’s perfect).

But the shooting community are gunning for free speech – come back at 08:45 for the latest example.

But while you are at it, please sign this e-petition to make decision-makers take the ecological damage from driven grouse shooting seriously.

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30 Replies to “Countryfile 2”

  1. Good Morning,

    As you were once their Director of Conservation, can you explain why the RSPB at Abernethy burn heather, albeit small burns on their moorland?

    Is it, I wonder, for ecological reasons - or is it a forelock tap to their grouse shooting tenants - who of course were the former owners of Forest Lodge?


    1. Graeme - you'd have to ask the RSPB as I don't know, after five years, much about the detail of what they do anymore.

      But why do you ask? If the RSPB are doing something wrong (which I'm pretty sure they aren't) would it make it OK for everyone else to do it too, and on a much larger scale?

      And if the RSPB's small amounts of burning were a good thing, on one nature reserve, would it make it OK for huge areas of upland England and Scotland to be torched?

      And the RSPB has something like 220 nature reserves - do they burn all of those with heather in anything like the manner of a grouse moor? No, not that I remember - what do you think?

      Did you think your question was incredibly incisive?

  2. Lapwing, curlew, golden plover, meadow pipit, skylark and, ironically, red grouse are all nesting already on the North York Moors. I didn't get up there last weekend so don't know if they're still burning but they were the weekend of 2nd & 3rd April. I have no doubt whatsoever that nests of these species have been burned, not to mention reptiles and amphibians coming out of hibernation.

    1. Dave...this is a very interesting point, on which I have a letter drafted to Natural England on this very subject. It is obvious to anyone that as we move towards the end of March and into April that many upland birds are in the process of breeding and "nest building" which is the bit that brings late heather burning in direct conflict with The Wildlife and Countryside Act and as NE issue the lisences to burn on 'environmentally protected areas' I see a very obvious conflict of interest here.
      I say a draft letter because I am currently trying to find examples of 'disturbance' that have been legally upheld etc etc.
      Any help gratefully received.

  3. An interesting area of land is found at Langholm where public money has been spent to try and create a Red Grouse moor with burning and cutting. Sadly to create a Red Grouse moor you often have to destroy a Black Grouse moor with only 16 males found in 29,000 acres compared to the recent peak of 55 males at near by Geltsdale of which only 6000 acres is managed for Black Grouse with no game keepers. Amazingly the Directors of this scheme which include the RSPB, SNH and NE all claimed the 5 keepers were the main reason for the success of this scheme which held sufficient numbers of Red Grouse to shoot in 2014 only for the head keeper to be greedy and hold back thinking he could control the weather! 2015 being the worst year for weather for over 100 years and a total collapse of Red Grouse on many moors! So the irony of this story is the weather plays a bigger part than any keepering will ever do.

    1. Interesting.
      Does Geltsdale have red grouse as well? There seems to be plenty of open moorland in the pictures shown on the RSPB’s webpage.

  4. Countryfile has gone soft - they belong on the lid of a box of chocolates.
    On the burning debate; relative to our burning of fossil fuels the torching of heather is on a tiny scale. Imagine if we could see our vehicle emissions in the form of a coloured gas - there'd be a call for a ban on all petrol/diesel-fuelled vehicles. It's only because our vehicle waste is almost invisible that we continue to wreck our planet by jumping in our cars and happily driving off to watch birds.
    The 'bigger picture' is very small in the minds of most.

    1. But that would ruin the ambitions for ecotourism with all its beneficial car parks, campsites, toilet blocks, litter, visitor centres, information kiosks, entry fees, litter, hotels, motels, road congestion, litter, filling stations, Tesco Express, airports, helipads, MacDonalds, Burger King, Wagamama, litter, Hi-Vis anoraks, communications masts, footpath erosion, mountain bikers and all that makes for a deeply unpleasant visitation and contemporary cargo cult experience

    1. To preserve Red Grouse shooting habitat, yes.
      It is almost as though the rest of the Europe is impoverished by not burning. I have spent 10 days in Hardangervidda National Park in Norway and I can assure you it isn't, although i saw one brace of Willow Grouse in a 10 day hike.
      Perhaps the EEC should be forcing the EU to burn heather.
      I strongly suspect the RSPB, SNH & NE have bought into the shooting lobby propoganda.
      I live on 800 hectare farm where a burn got out of control over 40 years ago which burnt all the heather. 20 years ago burning stopped completely under new more enlightened ownership. The heather has yet to fully recover. When i look for Lesser Twayblade I have to look on craggy overhangs where the heather appears to be longer due the height drop, the only place I have found it. Compare with land nearby without muirburn, with long heather where Lesser Twayblade is common.
      I am cherry picking and I sure there must be pros for muirburn but I don't believe they can be used to balance the massive destruction it causes. The environment isn't a tax declaration especially considering that the rest of the world and even the UK have been fine without it for thousands of years. If natural fires are good then great they will happen anyway. When we decide to control rainfall and lightening maybe then we can talk about muirburn.

      1. Correction. I didn't mean to distinguish between EEC and EU.
        Showing my age in more ways than one.

    1. not necessarily but their researchers certainly ought to. The whole programme has always smacked of facile and poor research, presenters work to a script, which it seems is often written by the NFU or in this case the NGO or MA.

  5. Suggested link, took me 10 minutes to fill out -

  6. I'd like to see our uplands supporting a mosiac of scrub, woodland, heathland and blanket bog, as such I'm not against heather burning per se, it does have it's place.

    On the subject of heather burning, I think it's always worth revisiting the work of Prof. C.H Gimmingham, a man who was widely regarded as the doyen of heathland ecology following a lifetime of research and study on the subject. Somebody who understood the heathland ecology at a fundamental level.

    This is what he had to say over 40 years ago:

    'The chief purpose of burning is to keep as much of the area as possible covered by uniform, even-aged stands of building heather. In this phase heather is at its most vigorous and dense, excludes all but a few plants, and creates conditions to which only a restricted range of animal species is adapted.
    By contrast, wild life (sic) conservation aims at developing the maximum diversity of plants and animals of which a particular ecosystem is capable. To achieve this in heathland requires an uneven-aged stand of heather in which plants are allowed to complete their natural sequence of growth-phases, leading to interruption of the canopy by gaps forming as bushes become degenerate and die out. Variation is introduced into the habitats and the community is enriched by numerous plants which the more varied conditions can support. The vegetation becomes a patchwork instead of being uniform and crop-like, and this patchiness emphasises the difference in micro-habitat. This in turn leads to a greatly increased diversity of animal life, populations of many different species basing themselves side by side where local conditions are appropriate.
    It follows that management in a heathland nature reserve must reduce burning to a minimum, or eliminate it altogether. Some means must be found, however, to prevent the inevitable scrub and tree colonisation. If this cannot be done by hand an occasional fire may be necessary, but areas should if possible be kept free from burning for 40 or 50 years at a time.'

    Obviously he was writing about heathland / moorland (he used the terms heathland / moorland interchangeably) on mineral soils - not deep peat!

    1. Problem is i'm very doubtful about the premise that habitat has to be managed artificially to increase biodiversity. The bias seems to be that because muirburn is backed by the shooting lobby and has been practised for a couple of hundred years it has some extra weight. It seems to be political and sociological rather that scientific.
      I can think of many ways that biodiversity could be increased by man made intervention that don't include burning but no one would listen and i would probably agree. I want wilderness in the countryside not zoos.
      Recently i have intervened with a locally rare plant which usually only produced 1 flowering/seeding plant per year. I have transplanted and nursed seedlings and protected them from rodents and wind in order to try and increase the population to a level where the population is sustainable and doesn't need any management. I suspect that as soon as this happens they will get eaten by herbivores but i'm enjoying the experiment.
      I live where there is an extremely rare day flying moth. I asked experts on their opinion on the possibility of taking some adults from a good site and moving them about 3km to a new site with no moths half way between 2 known sites. The suggestion was frowned upon.
      I'm not arguing the merits or otherwise of these examples but pointing out that there is a strong element of bias regarding grouse moors. Somehow there is an underlying belief that everything they, and sheep farmers for that matter, do is great but that they are not compared with other options. Presumably the support is there because the money some of it public is already at hand to implement muirburn. So is it just an economic solution?
      If Butterfly Conservation and other conservation groups had unlimited funds and resources and were allowed to manage moorland would they be able to increase biodiversity even more that grouse moor managers do with muirburn? I strongly suspect they could, which brings me back to the point that this is an economic and sociological issue.
      I would rather see ecosystems brought back to a natural state with natural methods. It may not mean the highest biodiversity in mathematical terms but since when was that the aim of conservation?
      I may not have made by point clearly but i just can't understand why the rest of the world seems to manage without muirburn and here too up until very recent times, so why is it considered a necessity?
      I understand that we have damaged our environment so much in the UK that we have created a situation where everything is managed to a certain extent but that doesn't mean we can't try to reverse the ingrained belief in the management philosophy. I will hopefully be able to argue my case better after reading George Monbiot book on re-wilding which i have ordered. He will have a hard time persuading me that management is unnecessary on a small scale regarding rare plants and animals but as far as the large scale management of the uplands, he already has my vote.

  7. One of the reasons rotational burning is so damaging to the environment in the UK is that fire is not a natural occurrence. This means that our vegetation is not fire adapted unlike other parts of the world, where fire does occur as a result of natural phenomenon eg lightning.

    Fire is one option for managing heather (that is not on peat of course), but cutting and grazing are also other options. To my knowledge, there is is no study that has demonstrated an absolute requirement for rotational burning of heather in order to preserve heather or protect biodiversity interests. All the birds that are "associated" with grouse management, also occur in areas not managed for grouse, in some cases, in international numbers that is acknowledged through the classification of SPA status.

    1. 'fire is not a natural occurrence'

      I'm not sure anybody that say that with any degree of certainty.

      There is some evidence to suggest that fire incidence may have played an important role in the structural dynamics of the early Holecene forests. Particularly in maintaining / creating open areas within forests dominated by pine and birch, which due to climatic factors might have been more prevalent than has been previously thought.

      1. That fire was present is not disputed. The point is that it is people that start them in the UK.

  8. What about overwintering reptiles? Adders, grass snakes, slowworms and lizards? Burning happens in the New Forest which largely caused the Sand Lizard to go extinct (it was rumoured). Strict environmental protection for our rarest reptiles doesn't stop this sort of land management. Don't forget that woodland, scrub and grassland is cleared for heather for nature conservation as well with devastating consequences for native wildlife and that's on SSSI's and nature reserves...

  9. 'Don't forget that woodland, scrub and grassland is cleared for heather for nature conservation as well with devastating consequences for native wildlife and that's on SSSI's and nature reserves...'

    Not always with 'devastating consequences for native wildlife'. It would be a great shame if all areas of wildlife rich heathland were allowed to revert to woodland. That would hardly be ideal for some of the species you list.

    Surely there is room to accommodation both rewilding and the management of plagioclimax habitats within the UK? Lets not throw out the baby with the bathwater!

  10. Hello again,

    Apologies for my badly worded comment on your blog.

    No, I don't think it is right to burn heather anywhere, either here in Scotland, or in England.

    I also think it wrong for the RSPB to burn heather - and it is burnt only where their shooting tenants have their grouse shooting.

    I suspect the heather burning at RSPB Abernethy is a sop to their tenants - and I think shooting grouse on a RSPB reserve is wrong too.


  11. Just submitted this to - I went on a bit, but I feel better now:

    The report on burning of heather showed appalling bias in favour of this form of moorland management which is carried out solely to increase the numbers of Red Grouse to such artificially high numbers that they support the "sporting" activity of driven grouse shooting. You should know that this is a highly contentious issue, and should be reported with due attention to science and balanced reporting. I hope to see a contrite apology for the lack of coverage of the opposing view, giving facts and figures relating to the damage done to upland ecology and wildlife by driven grouse shooting and associated moorland management. Examples such as the persecution of predators - particularly bad in the case of the extirpation of the Hen Harrier from England due to persecution by gamekeepers - and the destruction of peat bog leading to increased flooding, emissions of greenhouse gases, and decrease in water quality leading to increases in water treatment costs. These are matters of real interest to the general public - matters which affect us all, and not just the vested interests of a handful of wealthy (and evidently powerful and influential) landowners. The BBC needs to rectify the sloppy research and biased reporting currently so evident in Countryfile, and particularly so in this episode. I should also mention the dreadful "guns in school" episode which appeared to be nothing less than propaganda for the shooting lobby - just who is getting to you, BBC? I think we should be told.

  12. Interesting point on hen harrier breeding success Jane. Perhaps you should research the number of successful breeding pairs of hen harriers on managed moorland with gamekeepers compared to rspb attempts on their own moors and ask countryfile to report that?

    1. Tom - great idea. How many pairs of Hen Harriers do you think the RSPB has by the way? You are counting Orkney? The Flow Country? The Hebrides? How many?

  13. And how many at Bowland or Gatesdale Mark? If you truly care about all birds, not just raptors you would be far better placed trying to mend the bridges you have burned with rural communities and those of us who own land.

    1. Tom - you don't seem to have answered my question.

      And Bowland is not an RSPB nature reserve, is it?

      And Gatesdale doesn't exist but Geltsdale does. You might read pp38-40 of inglorious for some information on how welcome Hen Harriers have been made in the Geltsdale area in the past.


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