Conservation at Work

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A precious landscape that’s well worth fighting for

29th January 2024

by Andrew GilruthAndrew Gilruth

With the government planning how it will meet its legally binding target of halting wildlife declines by 2030 it’s hard to imagine a more pivotal time to be asked to step into the role of Chief Executive of the Moorland Association. Our members are guardians of one of the most natural remaining landscapes in Europe – open heather moorland.

Hardly a day goes past without someone sharing how they feel our uplands should be changed – and in the process lose some of the rarest habitat on the globe. Some have lost sight of the fact that new habitat can only be created at the expense of an existing one. As the habitat changes so does the wildlife. Since the uplands are currently some of the last remaining strongholds of a number of threatened bird species, where do proponents of changing the habitat propose they should live? Some ‘change’ advocates appear to like change for the sake of it, but the government now has more than a passing interest in ensuring that certain bird populations do not decline any further.

The red grouse and heather ecosystem is found nowhere else in the world and it is essential to stand up and protect it. If new habitat, such as woodland or scrub of a common European type, is created at the expense of existing rare habitat we will be reducing overall global biodiversity. Those campaigning to increase the amount of a particular type of habitat simply because we are behind the European average appear to have forgotten that the UK is a signatory to the European Landscape Convention which aims to prevent the homogenisation of landscapes. The fact that France has less blanket peat than the European average, Italy less heather moorland, Norway greater glacier cover and the UK less woodland – should be celebrated rather than trying to make everywhere look the same.

Our moorlands, naturally treeless for hundreds or thousands of years, are supposed to be different from other nations. They look the way they do by chance. We happen to live on an island with a maritime climate which results in summers that are generally cooler and wetter whilst our winters are milder – optimum conditions to provide food for herds of grazing animals and the formation of peat. They are not denuded landscapes, they are near natural landscapes. The remaining habitat has been shaped by grazing animals, originally deer but in many places sheep now do that work, so those proposing to reduce their numbers are proposing an unnatural process. If you need to reduce the natural grazing pressure to allow the scrub or trees to grow, then that vegetation cover is not natural – a point repeatedly proven in peat core samples.

Peat cores also show that our uplands have regularly burnt, typically every 50-250 years, for thousands of years. Our upland plant communities have evolved alongside fire and some species thrive on it. Upland gamekeepers must be congratulated for continuing the ancient practice of occasional burning small patches of heather in the winter, to promote new growth – how else will these plant communities continue to thrive? It’s backbreaking work but the UK’s only long-term study of this, conducted by the University of York, has shown that, by year 10, controlled burning locks up more carbon, increases vegetation diversity, including peat forming mosses, it raises the water table and provides nesting places for the ground-nesting birds. Some are finding this type of emerging evidence difficult to accept. It fundamentally challenges the current conservation industry’s group thinking.

Until a decade ago the fact that these landscapes have been best protected and maintained by driven grouse shooting was uncontested. Today, money has changed everything. To secure vast sums of money the UK conservation industry has played the ‘nature emergency’ card. Every landscape now needs to be ‘recovered’ – even those already close to their natural state, such as our moorlands. In this new pantomime one of Europe’s most natural landscapes has been recast as ‘nature depleted’. Those wishing to be the gardeners of Eden can secure millions. Those advocating changing the habitat to increase greater tree or scrub cover on our moors do so in the name of increasing biodiversity. Well, if you walked into the Amazon forest and started felling whole areas of trees you could equally claim to be increasing biodiversity. There would be an international outcry if you did and since heather moorland is rarer than rainforest we need to stand up and protect it.
However, it’s about more than wildlife. Society expects our countryside to provide it with everything from food, to clean air and opportunities for recreation. The government listed these in its 25-year plan for the environment, and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust has just audited how the uplands are meeting these targets. The findings are fascinating. Some anticipated that driven grouse shooting might deliver more of these outcomes than upland agriculture, energy production and commercial forestry, but few were expecting driven grouse shooting to deliver more than the conservation industry’s new darling – rewilding.

The RSPB tell us we have lost a pair of birds from our countryside every minute for the last fifty years. Obviously, these birds have not been lost from everywhere. In the springtime, driven grouse moors are still lifting with wildlife. Globally threatened species such as curlew and merlin thrive, as do golden plover, greenshank and many plant communities that can’t be found anywhere else in the world.

The fact they are even still here is thanks to grouse moor owners and land managers resisting previous government incentives to carpet them in trees.

Grouse moors have been so well managed most were then deemed worthy of legal protection and were made Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and other designations. The logic then was that the way the land was managed would be documented and changes outside those methods would require legal approval. So far so good. However, if we fast forward a few decades land managers find themselves in the perverse situation that the statutory body, Natural England, is using its absolute power to change the habitat into something else it would like to see in the name of ‘restoration’. There are no grounds for appeal.

That is a distinctly flawed process that must be addressed. Gamekeepers and their employers have been at the heart of outstanding conservation work for generations.

It’s in everyone’s interest and in nature’s interest too that our moors and upland communities are cherished and given every opportunity to thrive. They’re well worth fighting for.



Did You Know?

75% of Europe’s remaining upland heather moorland is found in the UK – but this area declined alarmingly over the latter part of the last century. The Moorland Association was set up in 1986 to coordinate the efforts of moorland owners and managers to halt this loss, particularly in England and Wales.

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