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, 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 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 which covers around 730 square kilometres 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.