RSPB

Walshaw Moor and Northern England’s protected blanket bogs

Breeding-plumaged golden plover

Image: Nigel Blake

This case began with the RSPB's concerns over Natural England's actions in relation to an upland shooting estate, Walshaw Moor, in the South Pennines. It has now expanded to cover the way in which Natural England and the UK Government permits and financially supports the ongoing burning of our globally important blanket bog habitats in protected Special Areas of Conservation in northern England.

Walshaw Moor lies north of Hebden Bridge and west of Haworth in West Yorkshire and is part of the South Pennine Moors and its distinctive landscape. The site comprises an important area of blanket bog - a globally rare and threatened habitat comprising delicate mosses, and which over thousands of years form the blanket of peat that supports scarce breeding wading birds such as dunlin and golden plover. Where blanket bog has been damaged by atmospheric pollution (largely historic), drainage and managed burning, the vegetation is often dominated by heather and may resemble dry heath: on many such areas, the deep layer of underlying peat would suggest that such areas of vegetation should properly be regarded as degraded blanket bog requiring restoration.

Blanket bog is found in only a few parts of the world and the UK has a special responsibility at a national, European and global level to restore and conserve it. The blanket bogs and dwarf shrub heath and some of their associated species of the South Pennine Moors are protected by the highest European environmental designations under the Habitats Directive and Birds Directive.

Land management practices on Walshaw and Lancashire Moors carried out by the Walshaw Moor Estate Limited caused Natural England to raise serious concerns in recent years. In 2010, in response to concerns about the way the protected habitats and species on the site were being managed, Natural England took steps to review the historic consents that underpinned the Estate's management practices. The Estate challenged this action and a public inquiry (January and February 2012) was called to resolve the dispute: we submitted evidence to the inquiry. Around the same time, Natural England attempted to take steps to halt the burning of blanket bog on the Walshaw Moor estate and also began a prosecution against alleged damage. Their action was designed to restore Walshaw Moor and included 45 grounds of alleged damage to the European and national protected areas.

However, in March 2012, Natural England announced it had dropped all legal actions against the Estate. Following this announcement, we asked Natural England for clarification of the reasons behind its decision. 

Having assessed Natural England's explanation and information, we considered its decisions were in breach of the requirements of the European Habitats Directive and Birds Directive to protect the South Pennine Moors. For this reason, we submitted a formal Complaint to the European Commission to seek to get the decisions overturned and appropriate conservation management put in place that will enable the blanket bog habitats (and the wildlife that depends on them) to be restored to and then maintained in favourable condition (when all the protected habitats and species are in a healthy condition and thriving).

Since then, the UK Government has responded to the European Commission's questions relating to our Complaint. The RSPB has considered these responses but do not think they sufficiently address the RSPB's Complaint and the wider issues raised.

The RSPB has gathered further evidence to better understand the UK's answers in respect of the management of blanket bog on other upland sites in England that are protected under the Habitats Directive and Birds Directive and provided this information to the Commission. The updated information and our analysis of it are set out in the most recent Summary of our response to the European Commission that can be found in the "Our Position" section of this web page. It shows that Natural England had given consent to burn blanket bog on an area that covers around 73,000 ha of deep peat soils.  These underlying soils of deep peat should be maintained or restored to healthy blanket bog.

In answering the European Commission's questions, the UK Government accepted that, in addition to Walshaw, grouse moors are the only places in England with NE’s permission to burn blanket bog on SACs and that management activities, including burning, are funded by EU agri-environment money. The UK Government made a commitment to the Commission to carry out a review of these permissions following completion of NE's review of its upland evidence: that evidence review concluded that ongoing burning of blanket bog habitat would prevent its maintenance and restoration.


The RSPB understands that the European Commission has now begun legal action against the UK Government in relation to these matters. While we do not know the content of their action, it appears the Commission share our concerns over bad application of the Habitats Directive and we assume they were not satisfied that the UK's proposed actions would be sufficient to safeguard and restore the protected blanket bog habitats of European and global conservation importance. The RSPB welcomes the European Commission's action as a significant step to secure the long-term conservation of these important peatlands.

Status

Location

53.809673,-2.034974

Designation

England's uplands are very special places – the North and South Pennines, the North York Moors, Bowland Fells, the Lake District High Fells. They are home to an amazing array of wildlife, which depends on the subtle mix of upland 'moorland' habitats that ecologists define as blanket bog, wet heath and dry heath. Healthy blanket bog is home to delicate peat-forming Sphagnum mosses, cotton-grasses and sundews, and a diverse range of breeding birds, including breeding dunlin and golden plover.

These habitats and species have been given special protection under European and UK wildlife legislation. They have variously been designated as Special Protection Areas (SPA) under the European Birds Directive, Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) under the European Habitats Directive, and as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. All of these designations are intended to ensure the habitats and species are maintained in, and where necessary restored to, a favourable condition, now and in to the future.

We are deeply concerned about the events surrounding Walshaw in the South Pennines, and its impacts on the conservation status of the protected sites. In addition, our analysis of the further information gathered has revealed that there are many other SSSIs, SACs and SPAs in England where burning of blanket bog has been consented and is being supported by agri-environment money, meaning the protection and management of these other important upland sites are also of serious concern.

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Walshaw Moor 

The Walshaw Moor Estate Limited owns and manages Walshaw and Lancashire Moors for grouse shooting and over recent years had introduced management changes designed to significantly 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 various summary updates 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 was 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. When in good health it also provides a range of benefits to society through, for example, carbon storage and greenhouse gas regulation. Much of the UK's drinking water is collected in upland catchments dominated by peatland habitats.  Maintaining these peatlands in a healthy state is critical to securing drinking water of a high quality. There is also increasing evidence that healthy blanket bog helps moderate the flow of water downhill. 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 (see here) and summarised in 2013 by the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Government’s Committee on Climate Change (see chapter 4 of its report here).

In responding to the the UK's answers to the European Commission's questions since 2012, the RSPB has revealed that consent from Natural England to burn blanket bog habitats is widespread in Northern England's uplands and is associated with land managed for grouse shooting.

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 "some" of these existing agreements are supported by agri-environment payments. 

Following an initial update to the Commission in 2014, the RSPB obtained more comprehensive information from Natural England. This allowed us to submit fuller information to the Commission in June 2015. A fuller summary can be found in the April 2016 update in the Downloads section, but the key points from this evidence confirmed:

  • Consent from Natural England to burn blanket bog on SACs in northern England is routine and widespread and 100% is on land managed as grouse moors.  
  • Just under 73,000 ha (60%) of the deep peat in these SACs lies in SSSI units that NE has consented to burn blanket bog.
  • A total of 116 consents permit burning of blanket bog in 5 SACs: a further 6 consents relate to the Bowland Fells SPA.
  • Grouse production is THE driver behind the burning of blanket bogs in SACs in England that are intended to protect this globally important habitat. All but 4 consents are listed by Natural England as on grouse moors: the remaining 4 shows signs of typical grouse moor burning.
  • Only 35 of the 122 consents were subject to appropriate assessment under the Habitats Directive. All bar 1 of these were carried out since March 2012 and Natural England continue to permit the burning of blanket bog;
  • Almost 100% of the SSSI units with consent to burn blanket bog are also covered by Higher Level Stewardship agri-environment funding;
  • HLS funding covers almost 60% of the deep peat soils that lie within the SSSI units of those 5 SACs where Natural England has consented to burn blanket bog.
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.

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March 2010

Natural England issue a notice seeking to modify the Estate’s management consent for the SSSI, in particular the way managed burning is used on blanket bog, wet heath and dry heath habitats.

December 2010

The Walshaw Moor Estate Limited appeal against Natural England’s modification of their management consent for the SSSI.

April 2011

A public inquiry to hear the Estate’s appeal is announced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Invitations to express views are sent out. We submit our concerns.

September 2011

The Planning Inspectorate sets out the timetable for the public inquiry. We submit a written representation supporting Natural England’s actions, concluding that burning should not be permitted on any parts of the SSSI comprising blanket bog. We also concluded that ensuring the blanket bog was in favourable condition was the best solution for breeding dunlin and golden plover, birds for which the SPA was designated.

December 2011

Natural England issue a further notice to modify the Estate’s consent – this time seeking to ban all burning on blanket bog. This followed their “concerns that damaging activities [had] intensified over the last year and that the restrictions imposed [in March 2010] did not fully address the level of damage being caused.”

Jan-Feb 2012

The public inquiry is held. Natural England and the Estate present their respective cases to the independent Inspector. The inquiry is scheduled to close at the end of March 2012 and the Inspector report to the Secretary of State for her decision.

9 March 2012

Natural England and the Estate suddenly announce they have reached a settlement regarding management activities on the Moor and resolved their dispute on such matters. We write immediately to Natural England requesting clarification on the settlement and requesting relevant information.

23 March 2012

Natural England issues a further statement and publishes the new consent it has issued to the Estate.

April-September 2012

We seek further information from Natural England. Among other things, the information provided confirms Natural England has dropped its prosecution of the Estate. The proposed prosecution was to cover 45 separate alleged offences. Natural England had considered it necessary due to the scale of the damage, the sheer number of breaches and that a successful prosecution would allow Natural England to secure restoration orders from the court to ensure that the significant damage could be restored.

15 October 2012

Having considered all the information, we consider the new management may be in breach of the requirements of the Habitats Directive and Birds Directive to protect the special wildlife of the South Pennine Moors and therefore submitted a formal complaint to the European Commission.

November-December 2012

The European Commission sends a copy of the RSPB’s Complaint to the UK Government and asks for its response to the Complaint as well as to a series of questions.

March 2013

The UK Government replies to the European Commission’s questions, but does not respond to the RSPB’s Complaint directly.

April 2013

The RSPB receives a copy of the UK Government’s response to the European Commission.

April-December 2013

The RSPB requests information from Natural England to better understand the UK Government’s response to the European Commission.

May 2013

Natural England publish a suite of Upland Evidence Reviews, including a review on "The effects of managed burning on upland peatland biodiversity, carbon and water".

January 2014

The RSPB submits its commentary on the UK response to the European Commission.

2014

Following publication of the evidence review (cited above) Natural England intends to produce revised guidance (including on the restoration of blanket bog and the effects of managed burning on peatlands) for land managers. This has not yet been published.

2015

Natural England develop an Outcomes approach that seeks to demonstrate that it is possible to manage upland blanket bog for multiple outcomes (e.g. carbon storage, water provisioning, nature conservation, grouse shooting and livestock farming)

June 2015

In response to additional UK information, the RSPB provides further analysis to the European Commission. This is based on updated and more comprehensive data supplied by Natural England. It is summarised in the April 2016 note available on the "Our Position" section of this web page.

April 2016

The European Commission begins legal action against the UK Government.

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Key birds affected