Guest blog – Flood and Blanket Bog Management in the Peak by Bob Berzins

Bob writes: I have a life long passion for the outdoors through rock climbing and fell running. A cancer scare in my thirties made me appreciate many things I simply hadn’t noticed before, from the smallest plants to the gap in the sky from a missing raptor. It’s all worth fighting for and that’s what I try to do.

Previous blogs here by Bob; Peak District paths, 13 February 2017; More from the Peak District, 16 February 2017. He has also supplied numerous interesting photographs demonstrating the type of management that goes on on grouse moors.

The RSPB complaint to the EU about blanket bog management has resulted in land management guidance published by a collaborative called the Uplands Management Group which includes Moors for the Future (MFF). There is a significant overlap with this initiative and Flood Management Plans for Sheffield and other areas. At the time of writing, DEFRA have not published their formal response to the complaint.

Natural England will not issue any further consents for rotational burning on blanket bog and the restoration work undertaken by MFF is praised by all. So apparently we are entering a new era of responsible moorland management which will benefit us all. But those blog readers familiar with Driven Grouse Shooting will know that the public message is very different from the reality on the ground and I will show what has been happening over the last few months, how taxpayers’ money is being spent and what we can expect in the future.

Uplands guidance will not be implemented until new management plans are in place. You might think responsible landowners would embrace the new regime for the benefit of all, instead we have seen a huge increase in moorland burning.

 

Burning on Pike Lowe and Broomhead

MFF organised the Bogfest conference in September 2017 but unfortunately the Environment Agency, Natural England and leading academics all refused to discuss the effects of moorland burning. Professor Tim Allot told us how Glossop was safe from flooding because of the moorland restoration work above the town and we even saw a Google Earth image to prove it. Tim must drive up the A57 with blinkers because right next to the road on Hurst Moor extensive burning has resulted in what can only be described as large scale habitat damage.

 

Destruction of carpets of moss and heather

MFF are putting huge effort into telling us the importance of sphagnum and are spending millions of pounds so these mosses can flourish on our moors. So why are landowners allowed to damage sphagnum like this, also on Hurst Moor?:

The Environment Agency-led scheme to protect Sheffield from flooding now has projected costs of £100 million. This must be equivalent to the turnover of the whole of the grouse shooting industry in the North of England. Yet none of the statutory agencies involved will tackle the five landowners in Sheffield’s Upper Don Catchment to ensure these uplands are managed to minimise the risk of flooding in Sheffield. Instead we see vast sums spent on restoration to create sphagnum and wetter moors alongside subsidised burning of sphagnum that dries out the moors. Over a two year period Moscar estate received £349,000 for moorland restoration and £292,000 in High Level Stewardship payments to support environmentally beneficial management practices. The area in the photo below was, prior to burning, pretty much an ideal mix of sphagnum, heather and cotton grass to create active blanket bog and it has been severely damaged by publicly subsidised burning.

Who has responsibility to determine the best management for the public good? Natural England is the statutory body with powers to enforce changes in land management. But I have been told that ‘Neither flood risk or water quality fall within the remit of Natural England‘. The Environment Agency is the statutory body that is partnering Sheffield City Council in the flood management scheme and the Environment Agency tells me ‘Our remit does not include land management practices‘. So the two key statutory bodies both deny any responsibility in managing the uplands for the benefit of Sheffield.  If it isn’t either of their jobs to ensure that land management reduces flood risk then whose job it is?

Sheffield Councillors support moorland regeneration in the belief that it will keep the floodwaters in the uplands. But how much of this land will be restored with an accompanying ban on burning? First of all there is a major loophole in the proposals that allows ‘restoration burning’ – that is one final burn before restoration work commences. Given a common ten-year rotation it looks like burning will continue as before for many years to come.  There is also a loophole to allow burning to create fire breaks, which is ironic. Recent pictures of burning which featured on this blog resulted in a site visit from NE. Five other estates with probably more severe burning didn’t have the honour. Two NE staff experts declared that the burning was on Dry Heath not Blanket Bog, in other words on soil of depth less than 40cm and/or mineral soil, not peat.  However, I checked peat depths over a 500 metre transect with at least 10 measurements, and this showed that this is degraded blanket bog.  I reported these measurements to NE.

In other words peat depth more than 40cm, low water table, little moss and predominant heather. Even without the burning, uplands management guidance tells us that carbon is lost from this type of habitat and it’s important to restore hydrological functionality (re-wet).

Classification of habitat here is based mainly on “ESA habitat maps” derived from vegetation type, not peat depth. Given that 100 years of burning has dried these uplands and created a heather-dominated landscape it’s likely that much of this area is misclassified. The SSSI units in the Upper Don Catchment are listed as 50% Dry Heath by area. Regardless of Blanket Bog guidance half of this catchment will see continued burning. Water flows are reduced by good hydrological function and a surface of moss and rough vegetation – the opposite of the burnt landscapes below.

This (above) shows a very thin layer of peat above a rocky slope at Pike Lowe summit. No doubt this is classified as Dry Heath. Some of this peat will be lost from water damage when it’s wet and more peat will simply blow away when it dries out. A few more cycles of burning and we will be back to a bare rock slope. I fail to understand how a landowner considers this to be good long term management.

A couple of hundred metres away peat depth is at least one metre (see above). This slope is so steep it shouldn’t be burnt at all and is eroding. The burning is of such severity to leave no vegetation cover at all. To my eyes this is clearly non-compliant with the burning code but it didn’t even warrant a NE site visit.

Finally, much is made of landowners blocking grips and gullies to re-wet the moors. Fitzwilliam Wentworth Estate were paid £586,000 for moorland restoration, of this £310,000 was for grip blocking on difficult sites. As the photo below shows grip blocking is at the landowner’s discretion. This drain is ten metres from a surfaced track (surfaced without consent from Natural England or Peak Park), so it can hardly be described as difficult. Of course if the grip was blocked it would likely flood the shooting butts and wash away the road. To add insult to injury there is a fifty metre wide fall of shot strip which has been burnt down to nothing and this is allowed  in the management plan. Never mind the flood risk or carbon release, this perfectly illustrates the conservation priorities for these uplands.

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16 Comments

  1. Alan Parfitt says:

    As said in your previous blog Mark and further demonstrated here this gross abuse of our uplands by owners intent on practising blood sports is totally unacceptable. This gross abuse of our moorlands will, sooner or later, be stopped and driven grouse shooting banned (though probably not under this Government and hence the current reprehensible NE regime).
    Somebody once wrote on one of the pyramids when it was being constructed, “and nobody was angry enough to speak out”, I am pleased to see that more and more angry people are now prepared to speak out against this abuse of our moorlands and it’s associated destruction of our wildlife.

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  2. Mairi says:

    MICHEAL GOVE ET AL where are you?! For our Grandchildren's sake, get a grip and sort it out! Why should future generations have to suffer the results of the greed and self-interest of this minority? Oh God, I'm off to look at the crocuses in the garden.... need a lot of cheering up.

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  3. John Watson says:

    Thank goodness for people such as Bob Berzins and Mark Avery et al who can speak with authority and practical application. Excellent work. Hope it bears fruit eventually for the benefit of the habitats and wildlife many us love.

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  4. Andy says:

    This is NE at its very best. Making themselves look as though they are interested. Its like the blind leading the blind.
    Whilst the people (most likely gamekeepers) burning the moors are let loose to do whatever they wish. No respect, no rules, no laws. Perfectly summed up by Bob Berzins.

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  5. Ros berrington says:

    That was an excellent blog Bob,it really explains in words and photos the battle we face for our uplands,and they are OUR uplands.If anyone was to read your blog in years to come,when Grouse shooting has been banned they would hardly believe that the statutory body for the conservation of nature actively encouraged this !

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  6. AlanTwo says:

    This blog, together with Mark's excellent piece below, is a devastating indictment of the current state of affairs in nature conservation. Misuse of land, taxpayers money, privilege and national organisations. NE are simply a disgrace. Lots of people have to make choices in their working lives about whether to go along with what senior figures in the company or organisation are doing. If no-one takes a stand, they just keep doing it.
    And I don't think NE are just blind. It strikes me that there's a touch of devilment or vindictiveness in some of the things they get up to - in the words of the great Thom Yorke:
    "This is what you'll get, if you mess with us."

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    • Richard Ebbs says:

      One of my birding heroes is Andy Clements, Director of the BTO. Previously Andy worked for the NCC and the Government in the Dept. of the Environment and was instrumental in setting up Natural England in 2006, he remains a Board Member.

      BTO is renowned for it's apolitical approach and considers itself to be a scientific and research organisation. It is vital, I'm sure, that scientists of Andy's calibre are available within Government to focus on the science and advise accordingly. However I do wonder about his thoughts and conflicts when these discussions arise.

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  7. Mike Potter says:

    It's quite astounding to think that the Water Framework Directive is powerful EU legislation that even our govt cannot ignore, yet the DEFRA family (encompassing EA and NE) who are presumably responsible for monitoring and implementing WFD are acting like naughty boys in the playground, pointing at each other and saying 'it wasn't me'. It looks to me that compelling evidence is available and being placed under their noses, yet they refuse to act.... while pumping huge sums of money into projects and management that are being immediately undermined. Evidence, evidence, evidence, then publicity and pressure. Meanwhile, how many people are at increased risk from the potential effects of flooding from fast runoff and global warming.

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  8. Murray Marr says:

    Bob, great blog and many thanks for all your mighty moorland surveillance work.

    This burning is subsidised vandalism.
    'Down with the spongers and up with the sponge workers.'

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  9. Les Wallace says:

    Another superb blog from someone who really cares and knows. Thanks Bob, brilliant!

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  10. nimby says:

    At the risk of repetition .... my opinion based on decades of observation and interaction is like others commenting on this blog post is that Natural England are not fit for purpose (in anticipation of lots of dislikes) but standing back here, let's be objective they are there to act as a screen / wall to protect those who seek to stifle public input and maintain the status quo &c.? They are expert at procrastination and, as a consequence of constant restructuring in the organisation, they are superb at failing to respond or follow through preferring to cut and paste spin bowling into any correspondence which they do reply to, there's an art to these techniques and plenty of internal / consultant delivered training courses for their staff to refine the art?

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  11. nimby says:

    But, to follow up .... what would we replace them with? NNRs should remain in public ownership, but as ever it's how these are maintained and the governance of the management option?

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  12. George Baker says:

    Bob, a great blog, thanks for your all your great work. While I try to do my bit with my armchair support it is people like you that will finally win this battle for the long term good of us all.

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  13. Julie Cockburn. says:

    We can repeat this same story absolutely on our Moorlands above the Calder Valley. Walshaw Estates have been carrying out just the same destructive processes, they have drained, burned and increased the exploitation of the area with additional shoots. Of course the Towns and Villages below have been catastrophically flooded, and the precious Blsnket Bog destroyed.

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  14. Tim Allott says:

    Short version

    C'mon Bob, were you really listening to me?

    Long version

    As a reader of the blogs here my eyes lit up when I saw there was a guest blog on blanket peats and flooding... and then my heart sank when I saw the comments Bob made around my presentation at BogFest.

    First, a couple of points of 'right of reply'. I certainly didn't say Glossop was now 'safe' from flooding. That would be daft. What I did say is that we now have really clear evidence that blanket peat restoration reduces flood risk, and that we are starting to get more robust estimates of exactly how much for communities at risk like Glossop. I didn't say anything directly about the impacts of burning, as the data we presented concerned revegetation of bare peat and gully blocking.

    Second, I don't think having a pop at me, and by implication the research we've done, is particularly helpful to the conservation case. I'm too long in the tooth to be worried about being called an idiot, but really hope this blog won't mean readers dismiss our research. It's important. Don't sniff at some of the first really concrete evidence that moorland restoration reduces flood risk. You might say 'of course it does', but it wasn't a given. For example, there's always been an argument thrown in along the lines of "restoration raises water tables, so will reduce available water storage, and therefore lead to more runoff from the peat in storms". We've been able to bat that away and quantify the benefits.

    If Bob's arguing that academics like me should be doing more to evaluate runoff characteristics of other cover types, including heather moor and burns, then I can understand that argument. But our work provides a clear demonstration that the type of surface cover makes a big difference to runoff, and by implication downstream flood risk. And that's a finding that should be of particular interest here.

    Tim Allott

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