Six grouse shooting estates under investigation for burning heather moorland

Six grouse shooting estates are under investigation by Natural England after campaigners submitted evidence of continued heather burning alleged to be in contravention of a voluntary agreement to stop, signed by five of the estates last year.

The Guardian ran with this story on Sunday, as follows:

An official watchdog is investigating five grouse-shooting estates for allegedly damaging the environment in a practice that they had pledged to stop.

Natural England is looking into allegations that the estates have repeatedly burned heather on their land to maximise the number of grouse for shooting. The watchdog launched its investigation after being passed evidence in the form of eyewitness accounts that the environmental group Friends of the Earth had collected.

The owners of the estates had voluntarily committed to ending the practice last year due to the threat of a compulsory ban. They categorically rejected the allegations laid against them by FoE, claiming that none was in breach of its voluntary commitments.

In a statement, Natural England, which is responsible for promoting nature conservation and protecting biodiversity, said it had been “investigating a number of reported incidents of burning taking place in upland areas. In a number of situations, we found that no further action was required. In others, we will continue further investigations and discussions concerning the management of these sites.”

Environmentalists have been pressing for a ban on the practice of burning heather, or rotational burning of blanket bog, as it is known. Blanket bog is a wet peatland habitat that is globally rare and threatened. The old heather is burned to expose new shoots – a food source that attracts grouse. Estates charge people who want to shoot grouse.

The watchdog’s investigation comes after Michael Gove, the environment secretary, was accused of letting the owners of large grouse moors off the hook over the practice.

The owners face the threat of a compulsory ban after the European commission launched an investigation into whether the UK government was failing to protect blanket bog habitats.

According to Whitehall documents, in February last year, Gove had suggested to the owners that they should stop the practice voluntarily to head off the possibility of a ban. The five estates were among more than 150 that signed up last year to the idea of voluntarily committing themselves to ending the practice. However, the evidence collected by FoE was gathered in October after the estates had signed up to the voluntary commitments.

The Moorland Association, a lobbying body that represents grouse moor owners, issued on a statement on behalf of the five estates. Its director, Amanda Anderson, said that where heather burning has taken place over blanket bog, it was to remove overgrown vegetation to enable the blanket bog to recover in accordance with government-endorsed guidance.

She added: “It is important to note that visitors to the uplands will continue to see smoke in the burning season as a result and that carefully implemented and legal burning on shallow peat will continue as a conservation tool. Burning is also used to reduce wildfire risk.”

The five estates are the Grimwith estate in the Yorkshire Dales, Midhope Moor, Hurst and Chunal Moors, and Moscar Estate in the Peak District, and West Arkengarthdale in the north Pennines, according to correspondence between FoE and Natural England.

A sixth estate, Walshaw Moor in Yorkshire, is also under investigation by Natural England, even though it did not sign up to the voluntary commitment, and instead reached an agreement with the watchdog to manage the estate’s environment. The estate also rejects the claim levelled by FoE.

The European commission launched its investigation in 2016 after receiving allegations that the Walshaw estate was burning heather on blanket bog.

FoE campaigner Guy Shrubsole said: “Burning moorland on rare blanket bogs wrecks ecosystems, worsens flooding downstream, and helps fuel climate change by causing the UK’s biggest carbon store to go up in smoke.

But the government’s efforts to get wealthy grouse moor owners to give up this archaic practice voluntarily have clearly not worked. The evidence we’ve gathered shows landowners are continuing to set protected moorland ablaze in breach of their own pledges.”

Gove has said that the government will take steps to introduce legislation “if our constructive, voluntary approach does not deliver”.

ENDS

This subject was also featured on BBC’s Countryfile on Sunday evening, available to watch here for 28 days (starts at 13.54 mins).

Great work by researcher Guy Shrubsole and some readers of Mark Avery’s blog who reported alleged burning mismanagement to the authorities.

20 thoughts on “Six grouse shooting estates under investigation for burning heather moorland”

  1. It is ridiculous that FOE and individuals have to ensure that the statutory body tasked with the duty makes what is likely to be a halfhearteded attempt to do the right thing. These assessments are not for the faint heartened, and several things need to be shown, each not which NE may be tempted to decide has not been proven. There are head honchos in NE who feel it is better to pay more attention to their political masters than their duty.

    1. This is the nature of curt lack of government. Whilst everything and everyone is focusing on Brexit the Tory lies are quietly brushing out the fact that with all the regulatory bodies from the EA to NE they have ‘let the fox run free in the hen house’ to use a rural term.

  2. Unless things have changed recently Grimwith Estate used not to be a member of the Moorland Association, West Arkengarthdale is NOT in the North Pennines ( AONB) it is one of the more northerly estates within the Yorkshire Dales and very interestingly belongs to the Duke of Norfolk, who was apparently in one of those meetings with Michael Gove. Grimwith is largely already relatively short heather and they surely cannot have the excuse of burning off long heather as part of blanket bog ” restoration.”
    There have recently been fires on Dallowgill Estate, Swinton Estate and Heyshaw Moor all in the Nidderdale AONB.

    1. In the northern dales you can add recent burning in the the East Arkengarthdale, Reeth, Fremington, Grinton and Barningham areas to that list. I have not seen a recent reduction in heather burning despite the ‘voluntary’ agreement. Our moors are still as damaged by burning and our communities are still as badly affected by smoke and particulate pollution as they have been in past years.

  3. They’re burning here in North Yorkshire as though there was no tomorrow! They’re no doubt taking advantage of the fine weather to get rid of as many potential Hen/Marsh Harrier breeding sites as possible. The Fire Brigade is known to have been called out on at least two occasions – on one of which dangerous road conditions were being created by smoke from a burn upwind of and close to a road. It’s surprising that this is allowed, given that prohibitive rules were introduced in relation to corn-stubble burning following a fatal accident caused by poor visibility. These people have seemingly not heard about global warming either.

  4. There’s been plenty of burning in my area but I don’t know how to find out where blanket big is protected. Can anyone help?

    1. Lizzybusy, I suggest you read in detail about the MAGIC dataset as a starter. See this blog post by Mark Avery, among a huge number of others.
      https://markavery.info/2019/01/31/guest-blog-blanket-bog-burning-whats-planned-by-bob-berzins/
      After you open the MAGIC link, you should be looking under habitats and species/heathland and the various priority habitat inventory items. NE has some strange things to say about deep peat and blanket bog, but blanket bog should not be burnt unless it’s all right to burn it. Mark says it’s not illegal somewhere, if I remember correctly, but I’m totally confused.

    2. Rather strangely this blog states that “Environmentalists have been pressing for a ban on the practice of burning heather, or rotational burning of blanket bog, as it is known. Blanket bog is a wet peatland habitat that is globally rare and threatened.” The second sentence is general enough to be accurate. The blog however goes on to imply that blanket bog can have its heather burned, legitimately, unless I have misunderstood. The advisory leaflet distributed to hill farmers and grouse moor gamekeepers by SNH in Scotland, published as a summary of the law and a code of conduct, explicitly states that it is illegal to burn heather on steep hillsides as well as BLANKET BLOGS. Is the law different in England & Wales? Or is this advice given as part of a code of best practice rather than actual legislation? I often see confusion when articles about blanket bogs are published, varying from accurate descriptions of the real thing, all the way through to scraggy patches of heather on relatively dry ground, or on thin peat or soil on outcrops.
      P.S. Despite the instructions on the SNH advisory booklets, in my experience many gamekeepers and shepherds go ahead and enthusiastically burn prohibited areas anyway, so this subject is somewhat academic. Visits from SNH Officers and Police Wildlife Crime Officers seem to make little difference to future practice. I should point out that not all hill farmers in my study area are involved in such undesirable management practices.

  5. How are they going to wriggle out of this because that is the easiest thing in the world to prove, it’s either been burned this year or it hasn’t. When will the government realise these arrogant arse holes won’t , can’t self regulate

  6. Apart from the destruction of the ‘blanket bog’ has anyone realised that this is a major health hazard, particularly to me and many others who suffer from asthma. I live in the middle of the North York moors and am constantly smoked out from every direction. I have to stay inside with all my windows closed in beautiful weather otherwise I will have a severe asthma attack. How is that acceptable? I have complained to every organisation I can think of, including the police. After all they are breaking the law by affecting people’s health and causing a nuisance, in contravention of section 79 of the 1990 environmental protection act.

    I HAVE GOT ABSOLUTELY NOWHERE.

    1. In the Yorkshire Dales I have approached the YDNP about air pollution from heather burning in the YDNP but they informed me that responsibility for air pollution lay with the relevant district council. Our district council (Richmondshire) does have an environmental health department that monitors air quality https://www.richmondshire.gov.uk/environmental-health/pollution/air-quality/.
      Unfortunately the only monitoring that takes place is for Nitrogen dioxide from traffic pollution in a few locations by main roads. They do not monitor particulate pollution or smoke nuisance and there is no monitoring of any kind in rural areas. Pollution from heather burning and the impact on rural communities and public health is not being effectively monitored by any public organisation. Responsibility for this seems to fall into the cracks between the responsibilities of the obvious public bodies (National Parks, NE, Environment Agency, DEFRA, HSE etc).

      1. Perhaps we need to get in touch with Amanda Anderson, she seems to be dashing about here and there trying hard to dampen things down. Trouble is there’s a wind of change building and it’s fanning the flames!

        1. The comments made by Amanda Anderson above are cut and pasted from her Countryfile interview on Sunday evening, where interestingly, Natural England stated they could not enforce the ban but merely hope owners continued to observe the voluntary ban.

  7. Custodians of the countryside…. laughing at good practice…

    “The Muirburn Code:-

    Sensitive Areas
    Sensitive areas are where the risk of damage from burning or cutting is likely to be greater than any benefits. In some of these areas, burning and/or cutting will be inappropriate; in others extra care will be needed to avoid damage.

    Thin soils (<5cm deep) over underlying rock. These areas should not be burnt. If vegetation is removed, soil may be eroded by wind and water down to bare rock.

    Steep hillsides and gullies. Avoid burning into scree slopes to avoid damaging lichen and destabilising the scree."

    Apparently this is the Balavil Estate team boasting about destroying a "sensitive area". Great photo guys.

  8. Is it just me who interprets the Guardian article as suggesting a voluntary ban has been agreed on all heather burning, rather than over designated blanket bog? Seems like a few on here and other blogs also don’t appear to have grasped the exact position.

    I suppose if anyone wanted to see a real fire, and what it can do to peatland habitat, they could take a walk between Diggle and Marsden today. Or at least try to…

    I suppose it’s also a useful glimpse into the future were all heather burning to be banned too.

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