The burn­ing ques­tion

Long a sub­ject of heated de­bate, is cut­ting or burn­ing the best way to im­prove the qual­ity of a grouse moor?

The Field - - Contents - WRIT­TEN BY AN­DREW GRIF­FITHS

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

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