The Moorland Burning Season started on October 1st and carries on until next April.
Over the last two years, Hebden Bridge-based group Ban the Burn has been challenging Natural England’s decision to allow the grouse-shooting Walshaw Moor Estate to burn moorland above the town.
The Estate does this in order to make conditions more suitable for raising red grouse – despite the fact that Walshaw Moor is a protected Natura 2000 Site – an area of peatland and blanket bog that is a site of special scientific interest and home to various plants and wildlife that are protected by law.
After complicated legal wrangles that have never been publicly explained, Natural England allowed Walshaw Moor Estate to go ahead and burn the moorland, following Defra guidelines.
These recommend so-called cool burning which is supposed not to damage the sphagnum moss that grows on moorland peat and is vital for the survival of the blanket bog.
But new Leeds University research, carried out by Dr Lee Brown and published on October 1st, confirms Ban the Burn campaigners’ criticisms of the Walshaw Moor Estate burning.
Dr Brown’s research, Effects of moorland burning on the ecohydrology of river basins, has found that in all areas that researchers looked at over a period of five years, cool burning destroyed the sphagnum moss and left bare peat.
It also lowered the water table so the peat dried out, oxidised and became a source of net carbon loss – rather than a net carbon uptake through taking CO2 out of the atmosphere and sinking it into the peat.
The destruction of the sphagnum also increased the amount and speed of water runoff during storms, so increasing the risk of flooding in areas below the moors.
After hearing news of the research, Dongria Kondh, speaking on behalf of Ban the Burn, said,
“It is a scandal that grouse moor owners are receiving millions of pounds of public subsidy whilst their activities are increasing flood risk in Hebden Bridge.”
Natural England is supposed to make sure that protected sites are properly protected.
But in April 2011, Natural England was faced with a threat from Walshaw Moor Estate owner Richard Bannister that he would claim £31.8m compensation if Natural England enforced a ban on burning the moorland, and on other destructive activities the Estate was carrying out on the protected moorland in order to increase the stock of grouse on the Estate.
Later, following obscure and secretive legal wrangles, Walshaw Moor Estate agreed to accept Natural England’s management conditions – including following Defra guidelines on moorland burning – in exchange for receiving £2.5 million Environmental Stewardship Agreement (ESA) payments for “restoring” the moors.
One of the conditions is that it permits “cool burning” – but as the research shows, this will further damage Walshaw Moor, not restore it.
Is scientific evidence stronger than grouse moor owners’ “in” with Defra?
An interesting question is whether Defra will now change its burning guidelines in the light of the new research from Leeds University.
Dr Brown undertook the five year, comprehensive research project in response to concerns over the intensification of rotational heather burning on blanket peatlands and the lack of evidence to inform various stakeholders about the environmental effects.
Now the evidence exists about the environmental effects.
It is the job of the the Defra Undersecretary for the Natural Environment and Science to protect the natural environment and support and advance environmental science to that end.
But a brag earlier this year in the grouse moor owners’ Moorland Association newsletter claimed that that the Moorland Association had successfully lobbied the Defra Undersecretary for the Natural Environment and Science, Lord Rupert de Mauley, to take their side against Natural England’s recently updated guidance on phasing out blanket bog burning, albeit over an unspecified timescale.
The March 2014 Moorland Association newsletter reported,
“At a meeting with Minister for Natural Environment and Science, Lord de Mauley, the Moorland Association recommended that grouse moor managers were well placed to get on with conserving the uplands and delivering biodiversity and ecosystem services with the minimum of intervention and that this would help reduce costs as Natural England goes through another round of cuts. Andrew Sells, the new chairman of Natural England is from a financial background and Lord de Mauley felt sure he would be receptive to our point of view. The importance of burning on deep peat as a key management tool could not have been stressed more strongly”
Emma Fordham, a Hebden Bridge environmental and social justice campaigner, said:
“This newsletter proves what I suspected – that vested interests are putting pressure on Natural England, a public body mandated with environmental protection. Grouse shooting, heather moorland and peat bogs might seem like subjects of minority interest, but what’s being flagged up here is of huge significance. We’re talking about flood risk and climate change, we’re talking about ignoring science to suit the whims of wealthy landowners, and we’re talking about mis-spending of public money in ‘stewardship’ grants to these landowners. Where’s the justice, democracy or even plain common sense in all this?”
Dr Brown’s comprehensive five year research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council with additional support from Yorkshire Water.
The research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council with additional support from Yorkshire Water.
Brown, L. E, Holden, J. and Palmer, S. M. (2014) Effects of moorland burning on the ecohydrology of river basins. Key findings from the EMBER project. University of Leeds.
Here is info about Natura 2000