While I was swanning around in Yorkshire on holiday there was an important conference event held in Edale talking about the future of blanket bogs in the South Pennines (although its findings seem equally to apply to the North Pennines and other areas I guess).
Interesting reports reached me of unlikely events such as plates being thrown around, EA staff not being willing to answer questions on heather burning and NE directors having to declare an interest as members of the GWCT but such reports were slightly garbled, incredibly difficult to believe and therefore not worth repeating (at least at the moment).
So I waited to read all about it and I have spent some of the weekend reading through three documents that you can read online; Blanket Bog – frequently asked questions, Blanket Bog – outcomes and improvements and Blanket Bog – decision making toolkit. I’d recommend the first of these as the most interesting read if you are interested in one or both of ‘protecting blanket bogs’ and ‘banning driven grouse shooting’.
I am genuinely slightly confused as to who has produced these documents as the plethora of logos and partnership group names is somewhat overwhelming but NE, EA, PDNP, RSPB and a variety of water companies are definitely in there.
It’s quite difficult to know whether you are looking at a blanket bog by looking at the vegetation – you need a walking stick to find out how deep is the peat beneath your feet too. But when you find one, then do thank it! Blanket bogs are important for flood management, water supply, carbon storage, driven grouse shooting (!), grazing and biodiversity.
As the FAQ document says (p5) ‘Peatlands in poor condition cannot deliver the full range of these outcomes, are a net source of carbon and are a cost to society‘. The document doesn’t quite say ‘and management for grouse shooting is a massive problem‘ but it comes very close as it repeatedly points at the harm done by burning and draining blanket bogs and the FAQs are written with a very keen eye on blocking off any escape routes open to the shooting industry partly by knocking on the head some long-lasting rural myths.
This really is about putting blanket bogs back into good condition and the most recent cause of their poor condition is the intensive management of the uplands in pursuit of Red Grouse.
The unwritten message in this document (well, it is written, but in quite small letters between the lines) is that you can have too much of a good thing and that the men in tweed have been producing heather-dominant landscapes so that people can shoot more and more Red Grouse for fun at the expense of blanket bogs which are of value to us all. In other words, that the uplands have been managed for the few rather than the many, and that this should stop.
This is not a new message, it is the essence of the RSPB complaint to the European Commission over Walshaw Moor and a range of other sites (see Inglorious and here) and of the remark by the Climate Change Committee that ‘Wetland habitats, including the majority of upland areas with carbon-rich peat soils, are in poor condition. The damaging practice of burning peat to increase grouse yields continues, including on internationally protected sites.’.
Here are some quotes (but do read the whole thing) which are all about why mosses are good, why too much heather (at the expense of mosses) is bad, why heather burning is often bad, why cutting is good and how wildfire risk is increased by rotational burning:
- ‘the layer of mosses…helps filter drinking water so that it needs less treatment’
- ‘good quality bog is more resistant to wild fire as it will have a high water table and a lower fuel load’
- ‘In times of high rainfall, mosses and rough vegetation on the surface of the peat slow down surface flow and so affect how quickly water enters water courses, reducing peak flood levels’
- ‘Is one species, often heather, over-dominant? If so, think about how you can reduce the dominance (cutting/burning according to site)’
- ‘Burning can be associated with the creation of bare ground at least at a fine-scale and can result in the removal of protective litter or moss’
- ‘…continued regular burning is likely to perpetuate heather domination and reduce the opportunities for successful restoration [of blanket bog]’
- ‘Burning may impact the hummock and hollow structure formed by sphagnum mosses’
- ‘Frequent repeated burning will arrest…[the development of normal blanket bog topography] if it damages the sphagnum mosses.’
- ‘Burning lowers the water table’
- ‘Burning can have a range of impacts on water quality’ including ‘increased water colouration’, ‘shallower water tables’, ‘increased surface runoff after recent heavy rain’, ‘declines in certain [aquatic invertebrate groups] characteristic of unpolluted water’
- ‘Burning is seen as a legitimate tool where…it does not lead to deterioration of the blanket bog or impede restoration’.
- ‘Burning in isolation of other measures such as grip blocking or sphagnum inoculation is unlikely to be considered ‘restoration burning’ ‘.
- ‘…repeatedly burning…may be perpetuating a process which encourages a move to heather dominance’
- ‘Too frequent or too hot burning can damage the hummock forming species [of mosses]’
- ‘Heather is a natural component of healthy blanket bog. However,…very vigorous growth…can…impede the restoration process’
- ‘[A] dense heather canopy…will…hinder restoration’
- ‘A dense heather canopy will shade out many of the other blanket bog species’
- ‘…too much heather’…’can result in lowered water tables, partly through the deep root system…’
- ‘…heather dominated vegetation has higher methane and carbon dioxide emissions than sphagnum or cotton grass dominated vegetation’
- ‘…over dominance of heather increases the severity of impact from wildfire and presents a greater risk of fire starting’
- ”Reduction in heather cover and restoration towards a fully active blanket bog will increaqse the resilience to wildfire and mitigate the impact by reducing fuel load’
- ‘Cutting can…be used to remove…heather [and] if chopped finely…the brash can create a mulch to provide a damp seed bed ideal for sphagnum’
- ‘Cutting also has the following benefits: it should not expose any bare peat’, ‘it will not remove the bryophytes’, ‘it can be used to spread existing sphagnum mosses’, ‘regeneration of heather…is likely to take longer’ [and] ‘it is not dependent on weather and has a less restricted management season’
- ‘Blocking should be done where the grips of gullies have flowing water or are eroding and showing no signs of naturally vegetating’
- ‘…the risk of severe damage by wildfire on a wet, well-functioning blanket bog is relatively low’
- ‘with respect to rotational burning (regular, repeated burning over the same area of ground) Natural England will not issue new consents on blanket bogs’.
There’s lots more stuff in these documents! But the focus on blanket bog restoration is firmly on grouse moor management techniques and not on farming.
It remains to be seen whether NE will really dig their heels in over burning consents or whether they will cave in to grouse moor managers, or allow other damaging operations such as building tracks all over our hills as a quid pro quo for properly controlled heather burning.
It also remains to be seen whether NE will revoke permissions to burn blanket bogs given to grouse moor managers since Walshaw Moor and since the 2010 general election. How many of these are there? Loads! How long do they last? Ages!
And what are the chances that you and I will end up paying for blanket bog restoration – where is the polluter pays principle when you need it?
But – this is progress on paper. Slow though isn’t it?