Why Policy Matters: There’s something very special about the uplands

(c) Jeff Knott visiting the Cairngorms

In the latest Why Policy Matters blog, RSPB Director of Policy & Advocacy, Jeff Knott, reflects on the contested landscapes that are the uplands and the impact policy decisions can have in these areas.

Maybe it’s because I spent most of my formative years in the flatlands of Kent and Norfolk, but every time the path rises as I head into the hills, I feel a genuine lifting of my spirits.

And yet all is not well in our hills and mountains. Despite being some of our most iconic places, and loved by so many, they are often referred to as “contested landscapes”. I’ve never particularly liked that phrase – in the UK almost all landscapes are “contested” to some degree - but its certainly true that in our uplands competing visions for what thriving landscapes should be are all too visible.

At their best, uplands can be one of the finest examples of multi-benefit landscapes – delivering habitat for threatened nature, locking up carbon in the fight against climate change and benefiting people by improving water quality, reducing downstream flooding and of course being wild places to enjoy, whether in person or in our minds.

I’ve visited several special uplands landscapes over the last few weeks, from the Peak District and the Pennines in England, to Scotland’s Cairngorms. While they’re all unique, it was striking how much of the landscape is shaped by policies, both for good and bad. So much of what is allowed to grow where, which species are visible and how people access the landscapes are the result of policy. The policy landscape in a very real way shaping the physical landscapes we see.

Where the uplands start is a matter of perspective, but I always think the ‘in-bye’ farmland which fringes many hills is the true start of these landscapes. These herb-rich meadows and wet pastures, are often grazed by cattle and are rich with the sounds of lapwing, redshank, curlew and snipe. These are special places in their own right, but are vulnerable to shifts in Government thinking. Future policy must support nature friendly farming in these places, or we risk losing them forever. In England, Defra must ensure the new Environmental Land Management scheme is fit for purpose and adequately rewards farmers for delivering against nature and climate targets. The ongoing uncertainty is doing no-one any good.

But its up on the unenclosed moor, above the fenceline, where the differences in vision are perhaps most stark.

The time I spent in the Cairngorms recently was a reminder of what upland landscapes could look like. Wet boggy areas and trees in full leaf spreading up the gullies and along stream-sides, higher up slopes than seems imaginable, all alive with birds – curlew, golden plover on the wetter areas and cuckoo, warblers, crossbills, crested tits and so much more flicking around in the trees. A constant barrage of life. I missed it myself, but others were treated to a ghostly male hen harrier hugging the contours of the land in search of voles. In case you missed it you can see this spectacular landscape in the Save our Wild Isles film.

Whilst the Cairngorms were incredibly spectacular, my walk out into areas of the Peak District left me with the distinct feeling something was missing. This is a very different world, of burnt vegetation and grit trays. A landscape full of red grouse, notable sightings of golden plover and curlew, but not much else. In the absence of healthy bogs and scrubby slopes and gullies, with trees spreading ever upwards, there was a near total lack of small passerines and the sorts of birds that hunt for them. A landscape shorn of some of its prized jewels.

And what is all the more amazing is that these treeless, lunar landscapes are in our National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Areas that should be leading the way in tackling the nature and climate emergency, but are instead managed intensively to boost grouse stocks whilst degrading carbon-rich peat soils and remain depauperate in wildlife.

Policy has a massive role to play in moving these landscapes in a more positive direction, but there is a long way to go and in some places things are going really wrong for nature. Recently, we have again had to report on the illegal killing of birds of prey, with new research just published on the fate of satellite tagged hen harriers, showing that this iconic species remains at risk in some upland areas. In one example a hen harrier had had its head ripped off while still alive. The brutality and callous disregard for such an amazing bird is truly breath-taking.

(c) Female Hen Harrier (rspb-images.com)

In a 1958 book on grouse shooting management, hen harriers were described as “a nasty bird of evil habits” and a bird which “must be got rid of at all cost”. Even after years of dialogue and public investment intended to create more favourable conditions for birds like the hen harrier, it seems in some places, little progress has been made in the last 65 years.

And in recent weeks, we have seen the prosecution of an estate in the Peak District National Park for burning internationally important blanket bog in breach of new regulations. While the fine was pitiful, at least with these new laws now in place in England, there is at least a chance of progress. But it also shows how far we still have to go. How on earth can we ever hope to tackle the nature and climate emergencies while nonsense like this is still going on?

Faced with challenges like this, its important to hang on to hope. While it doesn’t always feel like it, we are seeing progress. Satellite tags are bringing into ever clearer relief where, when and how birds of prey like hen harriers are meeting their fate. The pattern is not new, but its becoming ever more obvious and that must bring change. Laws are changing to bring to an end those damaging burning practices scarring the landscape and in Scotland, there is finally the potential to introduce a proper licensing system to bring the worst excesses of intensive driven grouse shooting under control.

And its when you see somewhere like the Cairngorms, where conservation organisations, government bodies, private estates and businesses have come together, that it becomes all too clear what our uplands could and should look like.

I’m writing this on a train back south. It’s a long journey, but I’m full of hope. Change is rarely easy and it often doesn’t come quickly, but change is happening right now in our hills. Fundamentally, our policies need to set out what kind of uplands we want. Landscapes which benefit us all, or which benefit the few. Landscapes full of life, or devoid of nature. I know what vision I choose.