Guest blog from my colleague, Chris Corrigan, the RSPB’s England Director.

Headlines are important. They’re the first things we see and in many cases are often the only thing we read. But of course, they aren’t the whole story. Achieving positive change takes a lot more than a catchy headline, it requires real commitment to turn a positive headline into reality.

Take Defra’s 25 year plan. It contains a lot of laudable aims. Given the range of what it has to cover, it’s light on detail in many places, but it contains a lot of good headlines.

One of those headlines sets out the need to restore England’s peatlands.  We agree, as does the Committee on Climate Change.

Over 70,000 ha of our most important blanket bogs in northern England are being regularly burned on driven grouse moors, causing long-term damage to these special places. The burning of blanket bog is carried out on grouse moors to encourage increased heather growth to provide more food for grouse and increase the number available to shoot.

Blanket bogs are globally important with a large proportion found in the UK.  When they are in good health, with a good cover of peat forming Sphagnum mosses, they lock up climate change-causing carbon from the atmosphere, improve water quality and slow the rate of water running off the bog.  In contrast, water runs off burnt bog more rapidly during storm events making local places further down the hills more vulnerable to flooding. Scientific evidence (including from Natural England and Defra) clearly shows that burning damages blanket bog function and sets back restoration at least 10 years.

So obviously we agree with Defra that the restoration of these important habitats is vital, both for the important wildlife they support and the benefits they deliver for people. The way to do this is clear – block drains, revegetate bare peat and stop burning them.  Once these steps have been taken, the damaged bog will start to recover. Natural England (NE) claims it will do this by agreeing new, long-term plans with about 180 grouse moor estates, turning the headline into reality.

But, and it is a big but, the RSPB has reviewed NE’s first four long-term plans with grouse moor estates and we feel they fall a long way short of what’s needed. The latest is for Walshaw Moor in the south Pennines and the plan fundamentally fails to turn the fine headline into real change.

Blanket bogs need water, not fire

To cut a long and complicated story short, the plan for Walshaw creates so many loopholes, that the headline of ending burning on blanket bog becomes next to meaningless. It allows burning to continue under the guise of “restoration burning”, including on very healthy blanket bog. There is no evidence this works – and plenty to suggest it doesn’t.  Blanket bogs should be wet on the surface – they need water, not fire.  And decisions on how to manage the bogs are to be made by the estate owner with apparently very little monitoring by NE itself.

NE’s current approach will continue to fail. Rather than focussing on securing healthy blanket bogs and allowing land management compatible with that objective, it seems to be looking at things the wrong way round: allowing a little bit of healthy blanket bog, as long as it doesn’t affect a grouse moor too much.

Burning by the back door is still burning

However you dress it up, burning by the back door is still burning. We urgently need significant change and for Defra to revisit NE’s approach to ensure it puts special places (and the reason they are so special) first. This is the only way to meet targets set out in the 25-year plan and by the Committee on Climate Change 

As part of this, Defra needs to provide NE with more resources, specialists and space to operate, ensuring it has the capacity to deliver nature conservation, not economic outcomes. We also need a new world-leading environmental watchdog with oversight of, and the ability to hold to account all public bodies, including Defra and its agencies.

One of the criticisms of the 25-year plan was that it was just a nice headline and wouldn’t really result in any action. This is one of the first real tests and it already appears to have failed.

And, while we’re on the subject of things which seem to get in the way of intensive grouse moor management, a quick word on hen harriers. We’ve received a few questions about how we intend to respond to Natural England’s ridiculous decision to licence a trial brood management scheme of hen harriers. First of all, to be absolutely clear, we are completely opposed to this.  We are carefully considering all the details available about the licensed trial and seeking legal advice so we can decide how best to respond.

  • An excellent blog - telling it like it is.

  • Good blog Chris. I am sorry to say Natural England are totally “ in the pocket” of the vested interests of this Government’s supporters such that regulation by Natural England,especially of grouse moors, is so feeble that the organisation is just not credible any longer.

    I think that the Government in Scotland is showing far less bias and has a much more reasonable approach  when it comes to listening and the RSPB ‘s proposal to license driven grouse moors. Maybe most of the effort and lobbying to achieve licensing legislation should be directed in that direction.

    However notwithstanding this the strongest possible criticism and protests should still be directed towards Defra and Natural England concerning the obviously farcical, grossly,biased  and almost illegal approach they are currently taking.

    Someone wrote on one of the pyramids when it was being built, “ and no one was angry enough to speak out”. We must all be angry enough to speak out, really angry.

    I know the RSPB will speak out and is speaking out.