I live and work in the flatlands of Eastern England but I love walking in the hills. I have walked large stretches of the long distance footpaths of England, and in recent years, I have been lucky to go and see some of the work that we do in the uplands - working with others such as United Utilities to restore fabulous places like Dove Stone in the Peak District and with our tenant farmer at Geltsdale in the North Pennines. For me, alongside the inspiration that comes from being in wild places, it has always been the wildlife associated with the spongy wonders of peat bogs that hold me in thrall. Getting up close and personal with Sphagnum mosses and carnivorous sundews should not be limited to those that visit botanic gardens.
The walkers amongst you will know that our peatlands are not in great condition. You can see for yourself the scale and extent of damage to peatlands from afforestation, drainage, overgrazing and burning. This was documented by the Adaptation Sub-Committee last year (see Figure 4.5 here). And, as I wrote in my first blog of the year (here), just 10.5% of the 162,000 ha of blanket bog designated as SSSI are in favourable condition in England.
In the late 1990s, the RSPB with many others successfully campaigned to end the extraction of peat from lowland raised bog SSSIs and to get trees off the internationally important bogs in the Flow Country. Today, we should be applying the same urgency to restore internationally important peatlands in the hills. This would not only help wildlife, but also fulfil our legal obligations to restore these sites whilst safeguarding nature's free services that well-managed peatlands provide - such as locking up carbon, providing clear drinking water, and keeping water for longer on the hill to prevent downstream flooding.
But restoration will not happen if we keep burning our peatlands. In May 2013, Natural England completed its review of evidence of the impact of upland management practices including burning (see here). In short, they concluded that burning vegetation on deep peat soils is preventing the recovery of the habitat and the species our protected sites are intended to look after. For those communities, like those at Hebden Bridge, living in the foothills of intensively managed moors there are more pressing reasons why they cry "Ban the Burn".
Today, we reveal the scale of burning on our internationally protected peatlands (see here). There are at least 127 separate historic agreements or consents allowing burning of blanket bog on sites internationally important for birds and deep peatland habitats. Defra has confirmed that all of these consents take place on grouse moors where burning is designed to provide optimum conditions for red grouse. We have compiled this information following our investigation into the management agreement that was struck between Natural England and Walshaw Moor Estate in 2012 (which I first aired here).
We have decided to put this information into the public domain for three reasons...
...first, we are encouraging Natural England to act on their evidence review and produce guidelines which bring an end to burning on our protected upland peatlands
...second, any public money that flows up the hill to support land management in the hills (especially finite agri-environment money) must be made to work harder for wildlife and protect nature's free services. Future agri-environment agreements which allow burning on deep peat would be a waste of tax-payers' money
...third, we want to invite all landowners to end burning on deep peat and contribute to a national campaign for peatland restoration
We have also, this week, contacted Natural England for an update on any restoration that has taken place at Walshaw since the management agreement was struck in 2012. I think it is in all our interests, especially those taxpayers that walk through Walshaw Moor on the Pennine Way, to find out what progress has been made to block drains and improve the habitat on this internationally protected site.
If you would like to find out more about the detail of the Walshaw case and the wider concerns about burning on peatlands, please do visit our dedicated web pages here.
And do let me know what you think about the continued burning on peatland protected sites.
It would be great to hear your views.
Image credit: Round-leaved sundew, Drosera rotundifolia, Niall Benvie (rspb-images.com)
Absolutely right Martin. For too long owners of big tracks of uplands, especially grouse moors have had things too much their way. It is high time our upland peatlands are no longer subjected to burning, plantation forestry and other detrimental management just for the sake of a few more grouse to shoot.The value to the general public, yes in money terms, because of the ability of these peatlands to absorb large amounts of rain water, to provide much better quality drinking water and to "lock up" vast amounts of carbon, all free of charge, must, far, far out weigh the value of a few extra grouse for the shooters. When in good condition, peatlnds are also, of course, marvellous havens for wildlife including hen harriers when they are not illegally shot out the sky. Sound and sensible economics now needs to be applied to our uplands on behalf of everyone, and not for a few parties with particular interests, and to let nature heal the damage done. The general public and nature has been taken for "a bit of a ride" for a long time now and this now needs to be stopped.
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