The Walshaw Moor Estate Limited owns and manages Walshaw and Lancashire Moors for commercial grouse shooting and over recent years has introduced management changes to increase the number of grouse that can be shot each year.
Until March 2012, Natural England was taking action to secure appropriate conservation management that would ensure the delicate blanket bog habitats found on the Estate were protected and restored to favourable condition. These actions included:
- Prosecuting the Estate on 45 grounds of alleged unconsented damage to the European and national protected areas in order to secure their restoration;
- Modifying historic consents with the aim of securing more appropriate management to protect and restore the blanket bog habitats and the wildlife that depends on them, in particular by regulating the extent to which the blanket bog habitats are burnt to provide habitat for red grouse.
On 9 March 2012, Natural England announced it had reached a settlement with the Estate relating to the type and level of management of the Estate’s land in the South Pennine Moors. Natural England and the Estate agreed to halt all legal actions against each other. Having been following these issues for several years, we were very surprised and concerned at this turn of events and sought immediate clarification from Natural England as to its reasons. This clarification confirmed that Natural England had granted the Estate a new consent on 1 March 2012 that sets out how the Estate can manage its land in the SAC and SPA. Natural England decided that the Estate’s proposed management measures would cause no harm to the habitats and species protected by the SAC and SPA.
However, these measures included:
- Maintaining existing infrastructure, including some that was the subject of prosecution by Natural England in order to secure restoration of damage to the SAC and SPA;
- Allowing burning of blanket bog that it had previously been seeking to halt. This includes burning of degraded blanket bog that would prevent it being restored to favourable condition.
We considered Natural England’s justification for granting this new consent carefully and decided to submit a formal complaint to the European Commission as we considered that Natural England’s decision was in breach of the requirements of the Habitats and Birds Directives’ protection for SACs and SPAs.
Since submitting the Complaint, we have analysed additional information formally obtained from Natural England regarding the implications of its decisions for Walshaw Moor. Further detail can be found in the Summary available in the Downloads section on this page, but among other things, this analysis revealed:
- The majority of damage to protected SAC/SPA habitats caused by the infrastructure (tracks, car parks, ponds and grouse butts) will not be restored by the new management measures agreed;
- Approximately 1,423 ha of SAC/SPA active and degraded blanket bog can still be burned, thus, in the RSPB’s view prevented from being restored to favourable status.
- A further 359 ha out of the 514 ha mapped by NE as “indicative dry heath” (and subject to more frequent burning) seems to overlay deep peat soils meaning it is in effect degraded blanket bog in need of restoration.
Therefore, pursuing our Complaint is the only route left open to us to achieve the following objectives:
- Overturning those decisions;
- Making good the damage to the South Pennine Moors SAC and SPA; and
- Putting in place appropriate conservation management that will enable the blanket bog habitats (and the wildlife that depends on them) to be restored to and then maintained in favourable condition.
Wider issues relating to blanket bog management on SACs and SPAs in England
Blanket bog is a climax habitat (which means that it is not in a natural transition to other habitats) that should not be burned or drained if it is to be maintained and/or restored to good health as a wildlife habitat. If in good health it also provides benefits to society through, for example, carbon storage and improved water quality. These ancient habitats have been laying down peat (in effect storing carbon) for millennia. The carbon storage benefits are well known and have been highlighted in detail, for example by Natural England in 2010 and summarised in 2013 by the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Government’s Committee on Climate Change (see chapter 4 of its report here).
The RSPB noted the answers to the European Commission from the UK relating to the extent of burning of blanket bog habitat across the English blanket bog SAC site network and the extent of agri-environment funding for this activity (see answers to questions 2 and 5 in the UK’s response to the European Commission here).
The UK confirmed in its answers to the Commission that the only places where burning of SAC blanket bog habitat is permitted in England is on grouse moors and that there are “some” of these existing agreements in which agri-environment money supports that activity.
So, the RSPB gathered further evidence from Natural England to better understand those answers in respect of the management of blanket bog on other upland SACs and SPAs in England. That information and our analysis of it reveals a widespread problem in respect of the burning of protected blanket bog habitat on grouse moors in England. More detail is provided in the Summary in the Downloads section, but we confirmed that:
- Seven of the ten SACs in England designated for blanket bog have SSSI consents on them that permit burning on blanket bog – all on grouse moors according to the UK Government answer. We consider this is incompatible with being able to restore blanket bog to a favourable status.
- Of the 127 consents for burning on blanket bog granted up to April 2013, some 117 explicitly permit burning through Higher Level Stewardship agri-environment agreements (or HLS). This means public money is supporting management that in our view damages these important habitats.
- Analysis shows that the 7 SACs with burning consents contain nearly 127,000 ha of deep peat soils – we consider this should be managed so that it is all healthy blanket bog.
The UK Government committed to the European Commission to review these consents and HLS agreements once Natural England had concluded its Upland Evidence Review. That Evidence Review is now concluded and supports the RSPB’s position (and NE’s original position) that the restoration and maintenance of blanket bog habitats is incompatible with its continued burning.
Burning our best wildlife sites where the evidence is clear that they will be damaged should stop. We are calling on landowners and managers in the English uplands to join us in working to restore these special places. Natural England has a key role to play as they need to ensure they put in place the right operational systems so that existing agreements can be monitored and that future agreements deliver the best outcome for England’s upland peatlands.