Wuthering Moors 11

Dear [name of civil servant]

I am writing to ask you about your role, if any, in the Natural England decision to reach an agreement with the Walshaw Moor Estate over moorland management.

I believe that this enquiry falls under the remit of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, but in any case I am asking about a matter of public interest given that the protection of our natural environment, legal case law, public expenditure through agri-environment schemes and precedents over the management of a large part of the English uplands may all be influenced by NE’s position on this matter.  I would therefore be grateful for a full reply within 20 days of this letter.

Please let me know:

  • what role have you played in advising NE in the position they should take in this case?
  • what meetings have you had, and on what dates, since September 2011 with other Defra staff (in particular [name of civil servant]) and/or Defra Ministers on this matter.
  • what advice or instructions, if any, have Defra Ministers given you on the outcome of this case? Please give details.
  • did you meet Dave Webster, the interim Chief Executive of NE, in or around February 2012 and give the impression that NE’s relationship with land managers in the English uplands was seen by Defra as being sufficiently poor that this might influence NE’s future position after the upcoming triennial review? Please give an account of that meeting if it did indeed take place.

 

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Wuthering Moors 10

to: Dave Webster

Interim Chief Executive, Natural England

Dear Mr Webster

I am writing to you concerning the Natural England decision to reach an agreement with the Walshaw Moor Estate over their past, present and future management of moorland and blanket bog.

I believe that this enquiry falls under the remit of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, but in any case I am asking about a matter of public interest given that the protection of our natural environment, legal case law, public expenditure through agri-environment schemes and precedents over the management of a large part of the English uplands may all be influenced by NE’s position on this matter.  I would therefore be grateful for a full reply within 20 days of this letter.

Please let me know:

  • since September 2011, how many meetings between NE and Defra have in part or in whole concerned the management of the Walshaw Moor Estate?
  • since September 2011, how many telephone conversations between NE and Defra have in part or in whole concerned the management of the Walshaw Moor Estate?
  • since September 2011, how many emails between NE and Defra have in part or in whole concerned the management of the Walshaw Moor Estate?
  • since September 2011, how many letters between NE and Defra have in part or in whole concerned the management of the Walshaw Moor Estate?
  • for all of the above meetings, telephone conversations, letters or emails, have Defra given NE guidance as to how this case should be settled and what was the nature of that advice?
  • in particular, did you meet [name of civil servant] in around February 2012 and gain the impression that NE’s relationship with land managers in the English uplands was seen by Defra as being sufficiently poor that this might influence NE’s future position after the upcoming triennial review? Please give an account of that meeting if it did indeed take place.
  • what prosecutions were being taken by Natural England concerning damage to protected habitats at Walshaw Moor, what were the details of these cases and why were they dropped? Has any damage to the moorland habitat, if such there were, been put right or is there a plan for this being done?

For the purpose of this enquiry please take NE to mean NE staff, Board members (including your Chairman) and any other people who represent NE, and take Defra to mean Defra civil servants, any other employees and Ministers of Defra.

 

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Wuthering Moors 9

Steve Downing, Chairman of Calderdale Raptor Study Group said,

“At the beginning of August 2010 I visited Walshaw Estate with a friend looking for merlin, short-eared owls and hobby. Whilst we were there we noticed that a stream appeared to have been diverted and converted into a vehicle track, a separate track on another part of the Estate had been significantly extended and surfaced, the main stream through the clough appeared to have been re-enforced and a large number of new wooden shooting butts had been installed at several locations across the Estate. This Estate, in the South Pennine SPA, forms part of the local SSSI and we raised concerns with Natural England that these changes to the landscape could be ‘Operations likely to damage the SSSI’.”

“I now understand from NE that the prosecution case in relation to the potentially damaging changes to the SSSI has also been abandoned as part of the new management agreement. Why?”

The Calderdale Raptor Study Group, many Natural England staff and some in the wider conservation community also await Natural England’s and Defra’s response to this question.

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Wuthering Moors 8

Walshaw Moor is owned by Richard Bannister who almost always seems to be described as ‘wealthy’ so I guess he must be.  He lives near the estate and is a director of Walshaw Moor Estate alongside being an apparently successful businessman.  As far as I can recall, he and I have never met but he has met William Hague (and here) – and so have I – so we are connected by that tenuous link!

In its dispute with Natural England, Walshaw Moor Estate enlisted the professional services of a top media firm (Media House International) and legal firm Gordans.

I wonder how Mr Bannister and Walshaw Mooor Estate are feeling about the outcome of their dispute with Natural England (who were presumably acting on behalf of the environment).  Mr Bannister is perfectly entitled to manage his land in whatever way he wishes providing he keeps within the law – and in this area it is perhaps the case that the law is not always completely clear.  But in any case, I would love to know how Mr Bannister feels about this case and its outcome although he would be under no obligation to tell me. He could just ignore my enquiry altogether or write back and tell me that it is none of my business.  Let’s see what he does do in response to this letter:

Dear Mr Bannister

I don’t believe we have met but as someone who has spent their working life to date in nature conservation I am personally very interested in the outcome of your dispute with Natural England that was highlighted so interestingly in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper on 5 February this year and which was the subject of a joint statement by Natural England and your Estate on 9 March.

If you would like to tell the world about how you feel about the case and how it was resolved then I would be very happy to post a Guest Blog from you on my website www.markavery.info .

If you were minded to reply then I think that the readers of my blog would be interested to know how your team managed to come to an agreement with Natural England – was this on the basis of some scientific agreement or on some other grounds? What tactics did you use to influence the Natural England position as they appear to have been very successful and I wonder whether you have a lot of useful tips to pass on to other landowners caught in similar situations?  Do you feel that you were treated well by the whole process or do you have remaining grounds for complaint? Do you feel very relieved at the outcome of your dispute? What are your plans for management of your grouse moor in future?  Have you agreed an HLS agreement with Natural England and do you regard that as a lucrative or a parsimonious allotment of taxpayers’ money?

You are, obviously, under no obligation whatsoever to answer any of these questions nor even to answer this letter.  I am a betting man and I would rate my chances of getting a reply as about 20/1 but then outsiders do sometimes romp home as was shown by Brae Hill winning the Lincoln at 25/1 on Saturday.

However, I thought I would offer you the chance to express your views on this matter.  I am also writing to Natural England and Defra asking them a series of questions about this case and they are under an obligation to be forthcoming.

Yours sincerely

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Wuthering Moors 7

If you aren’t interested in what I am beginning to think of as the ‘Walshaw Moor affair’ then come back to this blog tomorrow – but if you are, then come back to this blog during the day to see a range of blogs on the subject.

The story so far: the peculiarly British sport of driven grouse shooting depends on intensive habitat management of heathery areas so that the densities of the red grouse (the British race of the willow grouse) are at very high levels in late summer.  Grouse moor management involves predator control (legally – foxes, crows etc; and illegally on some areas – protected birds of prey), medication of the grouse, drainage and burning of the heather in small patches.  Red grouse nest in mature heather areas and feed on the younger more palatable heather shoots.  The Glorious 12th of August marks the start of the grouse shooting season when teams of beaters drive the red grouse across the moors and over lines of sportsmen (and women) who use their marksmanship to shoot the fast-flying grouse.  Red grouse taste quite nice too.

Those areas where red grouse shooting is most commonly practised are also areas which have often been designated for their national and/or international wildlife interest – for species such as golden plovers and hen harriers and for habitats such as blanket bogs. There is growing realisation that the management of upland peat areas has consequences for water flows and water quality flowing off the hills and also the storage of carbon in the soil.

The management that is optimal for maximising red grouse numbers may not always be the best management for delivering other public benefits such as carbon storage, maintaining active peat formation and other nature conservation interests.  Given the high importance of grouse shooting to a small proportion of the UK population and the undoubted importance of upland management in delivering UK commitments to international environmental legislation a clear resolution of these potential conflicts needs to be made.  In addition, large amounts of private money are tied up in grouse management and large amounts of public money are handed over to land owners for the proper management of their land to deliver public benefits.

The legality and appropriateness of the management of Walshaw Moor was apparently doubted by the public body Natural England who embarked on a prosecution of the owners, as I understand it, and sought to renegotiate the management agreement pertaining to the designated site. In early March, rather out of the blue to most interested parties, Natural England and the moor managers reached an agreement on the future management of the moor and issued a joint public statement.

The sudden and largely unexplained cessation of both the legal action and the disagreement over management is very interesting – at least to me.  It is a matter of public interest, even though most of the public are not the least bit interested in it.  But let me have a go at explaining why it strikes me as being interesting and important that we get clarity on this issue.

  • the sudden dropping of a legal case suggests that either it was misjudged right from the start or that new evidence came to light or even perhaps that pressure was exerted on Natural England to drop the case.  If any of these potential explanations is true then it seems to be to be a matter of public interest as to what happened as it involves public money and potentially the management of large areas of upland England.
  • grouse moor management is a dominant land use over large areas of upland England and the outcome of this dispute would/will presumably influence other management agreements and practices on other areas of moorland which are designated because of their wildlife interest.
  • Natural England’s role has been systematically reduced, along with its budget, by the coalition government over the last (almost) two years and it is now regarded as a delivery body. What government policy was it delivering when it reached an agreement with the Walshaw Moor Estate over future (and indeed past) management of that area of land? What guidance did it receive from Defra and from which persons in Defra? To what extent were senior civil servants and even Government Ministers involved in this case and on what basis were those individuals involved?

Well, those questions will get us going today at least. Come back later for several more blogs on this subject.

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