The European Commission is to investigate the legality of Environmental Stewardship payments to Walshaw Moor Estate.
Hebden Bridge campaigners who want a ban on burning and draining blanket bog – a rare, priority protected habitat – are challenging the legality of a £2.5 million Environmental Stewardship Agreement (ESA) that Natural England has awarded the grouse-shooting Walshaw Moor Estate, part of the South Pennines Site of Special Scientific Interest and Natura 2000 site.
In Brussels on 10th January, Hebden Bridge resident Dongria Kondh asked Jean Francois Brakeland, head of the European Commission’s unit for enforcing EU environmental law in the UK, to investigate whether Natural England and the Defra Secretary of State acted unlawfully in deciding that Walshaw Moor Estate’s grouse shooting operations would not adversely affect the integrity of the protected moors.
Ban The Burn’s complaint to the European Commission follows the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ October 2012 request that the European Commission investigate Natural England’s “probably unlawful” activities regarding Walshaw Moor Estate.
Ban The Burn has asked the European Commission to extend its investigation to the Defra Secretary of State’s responsibility for the possibly unlawful environmental impact assessment which underpins the Environmental Stewardship Agreement.
Asked to comment, Defra said, “You need to talk to Natural England about this.”
Dossier of evidence obtained through Environmental Information Regulations requests
On behalf of the Ban the Burn campaign, Dongria Kondh presented a dossier of evidence that included a request to investigate the environmental impact assessment of WME’s proposed grouse shooting operations. These include burning and draining blanket bog – a priority protected habitat, a vital carbon sink and an important means of “soft flood alleviation” that helps to reduce flash floods from upland run-off.
The campaign group say that the environmental impact assessment (called an Appropriate Assessment) does not meet the required legal test that no scientific doubt remains that the grouse shooting operations will not adversely effect the integrity of the protected Natura 2000 site.
Under the 2010 Habitats Regulations, the Defra Secretary of State shared responsibility with Natural England for the Appropriate Assessment.
The Appropriate Assessment underpins the March 2012 Consent between Natural England and Walshaw Moor Estate, which permits grouse shooting operations on the protected moors, and the £2.5m Environmental Stewardship Agreement which came into effect in the summer of 2012.
Environmental Stewardship Agreements provide publicly-funded subsidies to farmers and landowners who carry out measures to protect the natural environment. Ban the Burn campaigners have asked the EU Environment Directorate-General to investigate whether the Walshaw Moor Estate ESA violates European habitat and wildlife protection directives, since it allows the Estate to continue to burn and drain blanket bog.
Yorkshire and Humberside MEP demands that agreement be overturned
Commenting after the meeting between Dongria Kondh and Jean Francois Brakeland, Yorkshire and Humberside MEP Rebecca Taylor said,
“There are real concerns about the impact burning the bog is having, and it is particularly worrying with regards to the amount of flooding the Calder Valley has been experiencing recently.
I fully support Ban the Burn campaigners in presenting their complaint to the European Commission.
Natural England need to properly enforce EU Environmental law, and that means overturning their agreement with Walshaw Moor, and preventing further irresponsible burning.”
Ban the Burn campaigners want Natural England to make sure that the blanket bogs are conserved and restored. As Natural England itself admits, this is important in reducing run- off from the moors and reducing flood risks in the valleys. Hebden Bridge, in the valley below the Walshaw Moor Estate, suffered millions of pounds worth of flood damage in June and July 2012.
Dr. Aidan Foley BA, Msc., Phd, FGS, an environmental scientist who has helped the campaign to compile data for its complaint to the EU Environment Directorate-General, said,
“Sphagnum is particularly vulnerable to fire, so continued burning is widely recognised as detrimental. Such damage to the structure of the soil will prevent this degraded moorland being restored to a healthy state.”
EU Commission to investigate Defra Secretary of State’s role in agreement
Ban the Burn has asked the EU Commission to ask Defra about its role, since both Defra and Natural England were involved in the Public Inquiry and the Appropriate Assessment of the environmental impact of Walshaw Moor Estate’s grouse shooting operations.
Dongria Kongh said,
“It was kind of the Defra Under Secretary of State for Wildlife, Richard Benyon MP, to visit Hebden Bridge after the floods last year. But it would be even better if the government would stop subsidising activities which are likely to increase the flood risk to the town. The sum involved is not negligible; Walshaw Moor Estate Ltd. will be receiving £1,000 of public money every working day for the next 10 years; with no obvious public benefit”
Walshaw Moor Estate Ltd burns and drains blanket bog in order to encourage the growth of heather for grouse to feed and nest in. Since it bought the 6000 ha of moorland in 2002, it has set about increasing the number of grouse from an average of 455 brace/year over the period 2001/2005, to an average of 5,300 brace/year by 2020. To do this, WME has increased moorland burning, draining, and un-permitted construction of vehicle tracks, car parks and grouse shooting butts.
The Appropriate Assessment was carried out during the January 2012 Public Inquiry that heard Walshaw Moor Estate’s appeal against Natural England’s 2010 refusal of consent for its intensified grouse shooting operations.
Natural England withdrew from the Public Inquiry before it ended. Shortly afterwards, it signed a new management agreement with Walshaw Moor Estate, stating that this provided an effective level of controls on Walshaw Moor Estate’s grouse shooting activities, and would adequately protect the moors and its wildlife.
Ban the Burn campaigners have asked Mr Brakeland to investigate why Natural England aborted the Public Inquiry. Since this happened, the whole question of the legality of the new management agreement and the ESA has been shrouded in secrecy. This is contrary to the Aarhus Convention, which upholds the public right to information about environmental decisions taken by public bodies, and to take part in such decisions.
If Mr. Brakeland judges that Natural England has infringed EU habitat and wildlife protection directives by signing this ESA with Walshaw Moor Estate, the EU Directorate General for the Environment (DG Environment) can take legal action against the UK government.
Mr. Brakeland has a meeting scheduled with the UK government at the end of January, to discuss complaints made against them. He will present Ban the Burn concerns about the legality of the Walshaw Moor Estate Environmental Stewardship Agreement to the UK government at this meeting.