I think that everyone involved in nature conservation is on basically on the same side.  People and organisations may have different priorities or perspectives but broadly speaking we all want the same thing: to save nature.  So I find the, fortunately very rare, occasions when we fundamentally disagree with another nature conservation body to be both disappointing and upsetting.

Such an occasion has arrived. Today, the RSPB has filed a complaint with the European Commission regarding Natural England’s approach to protecting important habitats in the South Pennines. Below I explain why we have taken this unprecedented step against an organisation that we otherwise hold in high regard.

In simple terms, we believe that a management agreement reached between Walshaw Moor Estate and Natural England, in March 2012, fails to uphold both EU and UK environmental laws for the legally protected, globally rare and very sensitive blanket bog habitats on the estate.  Walshaw Moor form part of the South Pennine Moors SAC, SPA and SSSI conservation sites.

But there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s easiest to explain by winding back the clock a few years. Back in 2005, Walshaw Moor Estate was successfully prosecuted by English Nature for building a track and dumping spoil on protected habitat, and the Court ordered the Estate to restore the damage. In 2010, a local bird club, the Calderdale Bird Conservation Group, noticed more damaging activities and contacted the RSPB.  We raised concerns with Natural England, who, it turned out, were already investigating unconsented damage, and had started separate legal proceedings against Walshaw Moor Estate to modify old, ambiguous consents which allowed damaging activities such as intensive burning on blanket bog.

Through 2011, the RSPB supported Natural England in its efforts to modify the old consents – this included making a written submission to the Public Inquiry which formed part of the legal action. Natural England also decided to prosecute the Estate on no less than 43 grounds of alleged unconsented damage to European and national protected sites. The sheer number of alleged breaches (track construction across moors including converting a stream to a track, drainage of peat bog, installing grouse butts, damage to habitats from vehicle use), together with the Estate’s previous conviction and lack of a voluntary offer to restore or mitigate the damage, demonstrate the seriousness of the situation.

And then, in March 2012, Natural England and the Walshaw Moor Estate suddenly announced that all legal actions had ceased and that they had come to a settlement. To our great surprise, the settlement included dropping all the prosecutions without any restoration and agreeing to a new consent that allows existing infrastructure (including the tracks, butts and some of the drainage that were the subject of the prosecution) to be maintained, and permits burning of blanket bog to continue.

On the day that the agreement was made public, we wrote to Natural England to try to establish the justification for their action.  We then spent the next six months trying to get to the bottom of what happened in order to understand its implications. The clearest conclusion is this: the legal requirement to protect and restore these designated sites has not been upheld by this agreement.

The reasons for it are less clear.  Natural England apparently changed their mind about pursuing their legal action to prevent the estate from burning blanket bog, and the price of settlement was, amongst other things, that they dropped all 43 grounds for prosecutions for habitat damage. Why they lost confidence is unclear, because they were mounting a robust defence only weeks before, supported by independent expert witnesses as well as the RSPB.

Whatever the reason, we now have a management agreement which protects better quality blanket bog but allows burning on degraded blanket bog, effectively preventing it from being restored, as required under EU law. And, critically, the 43 grounds for prosecution for damage have been dropped and the agreement does not seek restoration.

But, even given all this, is it really worth escalating our concerns to the European Commission? Shouldn’t we just accept that this is only one estate with a complicated set of circumstances and that everyone has learnt something? Is it worth tying up Natural England and Defra officials’ time for months with another investigation, and the undoubted hit to relationships with some in the upland community that we will take?

Well, we’ve decided that it is.

Because we can’t ignore the neglect of environmental laws; habitat damage has now been normalised on this estate in a way that will prevent vital habitats being restored to function as the carbon and water stores and bog ecosystems they are meant to be.

Because it isn’t just this one estate; Natural England is due to revisit around 100 management consents for moorland habitats over the coming years, and the Walshaw Moor settlement will set an unavoidable precedent to aim low.

Because it’s not just our fight - local community and environmental groups have registered their great concern about the implications of continued habitat degradation on Walshaw Moors for wildlife, water, cultural heritage and flood protection.

Because the UK Government has a number of commitments to restore biodiversity (including its own Coalition Agreement, the Natural Environment White Paper, England Biodiversity Strategy and the 2020 EU and CBD bidoiversity targets) and the Walshaw agreement is inconsistent with these objectives.

And because, over the next few months, Defra will be reviewing their environmental agencies (Natural England and the Environment Agency) and this case underlines how much we need a government agency that is able to exercise its powers to deliver and uphold laws that protect wildlife.

Does this mean that we’re at war with estate managers in the uplands, or with the Government?

No, of course not. Launching a European complaint is a serious step, but it doesn’t change our commitment to supporting the Government and the moorland community in working towards environmental improvements in the uplands.

So disappointed and upset, yes, and a bit angry too, because we had supported a process in good faith only to be cut out and presented with an unacceptable fait accompli. But, my main emotion as we launch our complaint is hope. I hope that this will allow the issue to be examined dispassionately and away from the pressured politics of England’s environment and land use issues, and hope that that will, in the end, result in clearer protection for our most vulnerable habitats, and a stronger hand to play for wildlife’s most important government agency.

More details of our complaint will appear online soon.  I shall point you in the right direction once available.  In the meantime, a question for you...

...do you think we are we right to complain?

It would be great to hear your views.

  • Well done!  But watch out for the backlash from people who have no respect for the law, wildlife or the environment, i.e. the UK Government and their paymasters.

  • Many congratulations to the RSPB for putting this formal complaint to the EU. Some will say, what took you so long. It is apparent to me that the RSPB has been working quietly and diligently in the background, making sure that the case is presented in an appropriate way with every i dotted and tee crossed. A small legal slip in these situations could be fatal.

    It may be that some enemies will be made but I believe many more friends will be attracted to your cause. Well done!

  • I am relieved to see that the RSPB has taken this action as much for the residents of Hebden Bridge as for the wildlife. They should not have to pay the price of Natural England's and DEFRA's neglect in damage to their property and livelihoods.

  • I Salute this. The problem seems to me to be that "significant minorities" in the countryside have little respect for "government law" and despite the payment of extensive EU (European state benefits?) sorry subsidies there is significant level of disrespect for that law and quite often the science that underpins it. The countryside would rather the myths that support many countryside prejudices; well evidenced in raptor and badger cull politics. There are always real problems for the conservation quangoes NE etc (once NCC) when the Tory landowners, largely supportive of this countryside myth and prejudice, are in power.

    Nicholas Ridley MP was proud to dismantle the unified ancestor of NE (none of the expertise, through experience age and authority was then so very very outsourced as with NE et al). The then NCC had dared to challenge practice on these "shoots"; its successor was launched by the Conservatives on April Fools Day 1992.

    Who goes on most about zero tolerance for law breakers ?

  • Martin, absolutely right and justified!!! Given this Governments lukewarm embrace of conservation matters , then one hopes other, justified, stances will be taken with as much resolve when necessary. Well done!!.  Your comments at the beginning of your Blog about being upset and disappointed when it is necessary to disagree with an organization echo those sentiments many of us feel when questioning or criticizing actions taken by the Society. But such thoughts are not misplaced if one really cares about the issues, avoids being "personal" and feels there are valid points which need to be communicated. I think this will do the RSPB a lot of good in a wide context. Comments have been made about the Society's less than apparent profile on certain issues and this involvement, with its wider implications for how our uplands are managed etc, will give a much needed airing to a wide suite of subject areas. Congratulations to all and thanks for what I can only imagine has been a concerted burning of the midnight oil!!  John.

    PS For once this is actually a response in which I don't mention Hen Harriers!  Oops...there you go!!