The burning question
Long a subject of heated debate, is cutting or burning the best way to improve the quality of a grouse moor?
Andrew Griffiths looks at both sides of the moor management debate
Sonya Wiggins is on a mission. She wants to tell the world about grouse shooting – not just the sport itself but how it benefits the moors managed for the shoot and how much it means to communities in the uplands, both socially and in terms of the pounds in their pockets, which are not easily come by in these dwindling rural communities. She also wants to share the fact that grouse is pretty good to eat.
Her Yorkshire Dales Moorland Group was formed in 2015, alongside many other such groups in England and Scotland at the time. “There was a lot of bad press going on and people had just decided that it was time to shout about the benefits,” she explains. So a group of estates in the Dales got together and with her gamekeeper husband, Harvey, they decided to pursue two strategies. First, they would take local school children up onto the moors in early summer when there was lots to do and chicks to see; second, later in the year, they would promote the eating of grouse in local pubs and restaurants. “It is so easy to preach to the converted, especially at these country shows that we attend, but there is a massive percentage of people who live in Grassington but have zero idea about what is going on,” she says. “It was time to educate people about what is happening, especially the younger generation.”
Two things struck me after talking to Wiggins. First, how little the local communities know about what is going on up on their own moors. (“A lot of these children had never even been on the moor, they had never seen heather up close, and they are children from the Dales,” says Wiggins.) Second, pubs that could open their windows and hear the cackle of grouse were seemingly unaware of their presence and had no idea what to do with them when given a few brace. When, after persuasion, grouse made its way onto the menu it was billed as “locally reared”, rather than wild. (Wild rice sells to the chattering classes, wild meat doesn’t: discuss.)
So, the message is that the message about grouse shooting is clearly not getting out
there and people involved with shooting spend most of their time talking to themselves. But perhaps this doesn’t matter. It is a niche sport, practised by relatively few and mostly on land that is privately owned.
Andrew Walker is on a mission, too. He is catchment strategy manager for Yorkshire Water. Walker’s mission is to deliver goodquality water while keeping all other land users happy – that is the farmers who want good grazing, the shoots that want habitat to produce good grouse numbers, and the conservationists and ecologists who want to restore the moorland bogs so that they absorb carbon from the atmosphere and help mitigate global warming.
I met Walker on the Middlesmoor estate in Upper Nidderdale, along with Stephen Ramsden who owns the 5,500-acre estate with brother Ben; it comprises farm tenancies and a grouse moor. The estate was bought by their great-grandfather, a businessman who made his money in the Manchester collieries, for its sporting prospects.
On a beautiful, sunshine and showers autumn Dales day, Ramsden drove us up a farm track towards Scar House Reservoir. As the track took a sharp, steep right and started to test the truck’s suspension, the odd cock grouse just coming into winter plumage scurried off ahead into the cover of heather. Ramsden parked us up at a vista overlooking Scar House. Walker had been explaining the significance of this landscape to the water industry: 45% of Yorkshire Water’s supply comes from these uplands and the one catchment we were now in accounts for 10% of their daily needs. If the moors are in poor condition and the peat erodes and enters the water supply, it colours it. This is not just a cosmetic concern – the peat combines with chlorine to form carcinogenic compounds and the water companies have to spend a small fortune to remove them. It makes far
more sense to address the problem at the top of the hill – hence the extensive investment in moorland restoration by the utility companies along the Pennine spine.
This was significant also in that it was one of three experimental sites investigating the effects of heather burning and cutting on water quality and other aspects of moorland management. The first phase, a five-year project, is being funded by Defra and is the most extensive yet to investigate these factors.
We climbed out of the truck and looked out across the Dales scene. The farms with their “40 miles of dry-stone walls” (Ramsden had all the estate statistics at his fingertips) leading up to the marginal land and then the grouse moors themselves. “It is getting that balance right, between getting the farmers an income and getting the shooters an income,” says Ramsden. “Because, at the end of the day, there are about 30 farmers in Nidderdale and about 12 or 13 gamekeepers. So those 40-plus people are looking after all this landscape that we see in front of us and they have been doing it for two or three generations.
“Without the Middlesmoor shooting, the Middlesmoor pub would have long gone. A hundred years ago this village had 120 people in it. Today, it is around 40. It used to have two pubs and three shops, now it is down to one pub. Community is a very big issue to me. It is paramount,” says Ramsden.
Getting that balance right has been fraught with difficulties. However, another step has just been taken in that direction with the publication of a guide for land managers about blanket bogs, produced by the Uplands Management Group (UMG), which provides practical advice to the Uplands Stakeholder Forum (USF) run by Defra. This is the latest development in a line that can be traced back to a time that marks the lowest point in relations between the conservationists and the grouse-shooting community, following the row that erupted about burning blanket bog and draining on Walshaw Moor, above Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire in 2012. This resulted in the RSPB making a formal complaint to the European Commission, which then began legal action against the UK Government. The Gore-textweed divide had never been wider.
A further 2014 meeting in Leeds descended into chaos. Andrew Walker was at that meeting and remembers the two sides screaming at each other – one that it was going to ban burning on blanket bogs altogether; the other shouting back over their dead bodies they were, or rather more choice words to that effect. “It was the worst meeting I’ve ever been in,” says Walker.
But some glimmer of hope did emerge. They agreed in future to leave the cauldron of the meeting room and take to the moors and see if the different interest groups could agree on a landscape that fulfilled all their needs. The result was a strategy that gave equal weight to five key outcomes: the capture and storage of carbon; the flow and quality of water; biodiversity; a healthy grouse population; and, good-quality grazing. The one habitat that seemed to keep everybody happy, from the conservationist to the gamekeeper, was that provided by a healthy blanket bog.
“We stood on a piece of moor and, for me, it was a nice healthy blanket bog with a lot less heather and a lot more sphagnum, so I was happy with it,” says Walker. “Because it had lots of sphagnum we knew it was sequestering carbon. From a biodiversity point of view, it was a lot more rounded and species rich than a heather-dominated moorland so Natural England is happy. The gamekeeper was really happy because he didn’t have to do anything with it, and the grazier was happy. So the conclusion was: well, hang on, we are really not that far apart.”
Amanda Anderson, director of the Moorland Association, was at that first meeting on the moor at Nidderdale and would later go on to chair the group tasked with producing this first outcomes-based Land Management Guidance. The aim of this practically based “toolkit” is to help a land manager identify blanket bog (peat over 40cm deep), to determine what state it is in and to suggest ways to get from where they are now to a healthy, functioning blanket bog.
Because it had lots of sphagnum we knew it was sequestering carbon
Burning is discouraged in favour of cutting. The ultimate aim is to create a wetter moor, more varied in terms of vegetation with less heather and more sphagnum moss. This, the theory goes, should be better for everybody – including those rearing grouse.
But mention less heather to some grousemoor managers and it is fighting talk. Yet, interestingly, in some areas there is more heather cover now than in the glory days of driven grouse shooting in the first half of the 20th century. This is because of the massive drainage – or gripping – of the Yorkshire moors in the 1970s and ’80s. This dried out the moors and, ultimately, allowed the heather to become dominant.
Paul Leadbitter, who is with the North Pennines AONB, is leading a £6m moorland restoration project funded by the EU and water-utility companies. He estimates that in the Forest of Bowland, Yorkshire and North Pennines, 20,000km of grips were dug, all for agricultural purposes, in the 1970s and ’80s. So what is proposed now is not so much radical change as restoring the grouse moors to the way they used to be in their heyday. But for a sport that clads itself in tweed, it is slow to take on this mantle of its own tradition.
A significant part of the problem is that since the ravages of the strongylosis worm have been largely contained by the introduction of medicated grit (on some estates) in 2010, grouse shooting has seldom been better. On the Middlesmoor estate, for instance, Stephen Ramsden tells me that the past five years have seen the best bags since 1961.
“Like all things, if there is a perception that something is really good and then someone comes along to say you need to change what you are doing, then people will question that and say why would we want to change?” says Amanda Anderson. “If you think about the age of keepers it is actually quite young,” she adds, explaining that many have come into the profession being told that heather burning is key. “It is only quite recently that we have distinguished between management for the dwarf shrub and for blanket bog, and you can’t necessarily tell the difference on the surface, you have actually to shove in a stick and say: oh, hang on a minute, this is a different habitat. We didn’t know until quite recently it had all these other special functions, that if wet enough it helps out climate change, carbon storage, biodiversity for blanket bog species, flood and water quality, and all these other great things that, of course, anybody would want to provide,” she says. “If you are going to ask for cultural change and change somebody’s perception that what they think they are doing is good for grouse but, actually, if you change it this way it could be even better for your grouse, you have to give them that positive lever,” says Anderson.
It is wrong to generalise about grouse moors. There are several types of moor and the estates manage them in different ways. There are some who say that their heatherdominated moors are producing the grouse they want and that they have long been designated as SSSIS, SPAS and SACS so they must have been doing something right. The science, almost by definition, is inconclusive, too – the moors beat to a different clock. We want science to perform a single trial and tell us whether burning of heather or cutting is best for water quality, for instance. But it doesn’t work like that up here. The space between cause and effect can sometimes be decades. But the longerterm trials now seem to be favouring cutting where practical – on blanket bog, at least.
But Brexit is looming ever closer and will be hugely disruptive to the way the uplands are funded. The grouse-shooting community needs to ask itself how likely is it that the pieces will fall back into the old patterns?
There is an opportunity for the sport to really make a high-profile contribution to the services the moors provide to those who live downstream – which is practically everybody. There should be nothing to hide, once that raptor-killing thing is sorted out, that is.
Sonya Wiggins received such a positive response to the children’s day on the moors on her Facebook page that adults were asking when they were going to do something similar for them? “So we are in the process of putting together an open day throughout the Dales, getting as many of the estates involved as possible and picking a day in springtime to get adults to come and get them out onto the moor and look at wildlife, and explain the management side of moorland,” says Wiggins.
There really could be something for the Yorkshire Dales Moorland Group to shout about, too.
The longer-term trials now seem to be favouring cutting, where practical
Andrew Walker of Yorkshire Water with Stephen Ramsden, owner of Middlesmoor estate
Below: the heather-covered moor at Nidderdale Above right: the decision to burn on blanket bog has caused fierce disputes and legal challenges
Above: blanket bog consists of spiky rushes, carpets of moss and peaty soils, the layer of peat being at least 40cm thick. It is a vital habitat for many bird and butterfly species
The income and employment from grouse shooting is vital to small villages in the uplands. Middlesmoor’s one surviving pub would suffer badly if it lost the revenue from those involved in shooting