Wednesday, 7 March 2018

People and Nature

Anne Gray, Director of the Heather Trust
For my first blog as Director of the Heather Trust, I was going to talk about me!  My background, why I think I’m right for the Heather Trust, and what I hope to achieve.  Then I saw that George Monbiot was once again making his case for rewilding in last week’s Guardian, this time berating our National Parks for not presenting him with the type of land he wants to see, and I thought a response to that would be much more interesting. 

Mr Monbiot’s perspective is of course something he’s perfectly entitled to, but it seems to jar with what The Heather Trust is about – integrated management of land – people and nature, not people or nature.  

In his attack on National Parks, he points to other countries as exemplars.  Countries more vast than our own that have the space to have parks as true wilderness areas.  That’s only one model of a National Park however.  In the UK national parks represent both natural and cultural landscapes, they cater for visitors and the people that live and work there, they recognise that economic as well as conservation activity takes place in them - and that is okay.  In fact, it might be a very natural, since it recognises human beings as part of the ecosystem.

The trouble, as I see it, with a lot of what is termed rewilding, is that human beings are largely absent from landscapes and ecosystems other than as visitors to them.  The vision seems to be of a UK where urban and lowland dwellers visit nature in the uplands on high days and holidays, but not living as part of them and deeply connected to them.  Other species, through going about their daily lives, would engineer these landscapes, but our own species would be prevented from doing so.  I have to question if that helps us humans in any way face up to and manage the biggest dilemma we’ve ever had to deal with – how to live within the resource limitations nature imposes.  Segregation – we do nature over there and we live over here - does not seem to be the answer.  Surely it is only by living alongside nature on the land, that it will be possible to find a balance that allows us to meet our needs without taking so much that it degrades nature and impacts future generations.  

What our countryside – and particularly our upland areas, for they are always the most contested - should look like is very complex indeed. What should they be used for? What do we want them to deliver?  How do they help us meet our needs as UK citizens in 2018?  It is a conversation society as a whole needs to have, but there is a lot more to it than simply saying economic activity is bad and wilderness is good.  

Last week also saw the launch of DEFRA UK’s consultation on the future of farming policy in England.  If we need to have a conversation about the countryside, then this is a pretty good opener.  The eventual shape of farming policy will matter to many, many more people than just those who farm, but it is vital that those who are currently heavily reliant on income from the CAP, engage with this consultation now, and give it their full attention.  

Michael Gove has been trailing much of what is included in the consultation since July 2017.  He has been clear in his message that direct support for agriculture will go, and that in future money from the public purse will be for public goods, primarily for measures that enhance the environment.  This might be good news for the uplands – they are where many valuable environmental services are delivered - and there is definitely potential to help achieve the balance discussed above.  But, there is little in the way of detail yet, so we just don’t know.  What it signals, is change,  and one of the things I am keen to ensure is that the Heather Trust is able to help moorland and upland farmers and managers with that change to achieve uplands that work for everyone.    

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Change of Director: The Last Word

I have the decanter - time to go!
Yesterday was my last day at the helm of the Trust and Anne Gray takes over, first thing on Monday.

We have travelled a long way during my era and it is more than time that some else took over to move the Trust forward.  It will be for Anne to determine how the Trust's particular mix of strengths and weaknesses can best be brought to bear on the myriad of challenges that face us.

I will be continuing to support the Trust as a consultant from the HT back benches, and I will be leading on some projects, until there is an opportunity to hand these over.

So what of our successes during my tenure:
  • Our strapline that the Trust is 'Promoting Integrated Moorland Management' seems to be more relevant now than it was when first adopted, early in my time.  
  • The use of a collaborative, partnership approach to issues has become central to the way that the Trust operates.
  • The Trust's independent position has allowed us to be accepted as a facilitator / coordinator / safe pair of hands in many roles.
  • Some reserves have been built up to provide the Trust with a little financial flexibility.
The standout area of less success is that the stand off over raptor persecution has continued and the vitriolic debate around this issue runs unabated.
  • Until a way can be found to sort this issue, or at least find a way round it, progress will be restricted.  The trenches seem to be as deep as ever.
  • The grouse moor fraternity must find a way to root out the few bad eggs that jeopardise the hard, often exceptional work of so many others.
  • The bird lobby must be prepared to compromise to encourage change from others.
  • Progress will benefit all interests.
  • I remember well my thoughts on leaving a meeting of the North of England Raptor Forum where I had given a presentation about burning.  My view was that I had not met such a knowledgeable, committed enthusiastic group since I had been at a gamekeepers meeting.  Why can we not all pull in the same direction?
This is my last post on the Heather Trust blog.  Anne Gray will takeover as the author from Monday.  I have set up a new blog VallumVoice where I will continue occasional ramblings - please join me.

Thank you to all who have supported the Trust during my tenure: the HT Team, Board members, HT members and the others that have supported the Trust's work in many ways, such as through the Country Market & Sporting Sale (still looking for Lots for 2018) or by attending our events. There is much still to be done and with your continuing support The Heather Trust will be in the thick of it.

Finally, my thanks go to Anne Gray for rising to the challenge.  I wish her well.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

The Director Changeover

Anne Gray has started work for the Trust and the handover is in progress.  She takes over as Director on Monday, 5th March.

This photograph was taken, this afternoon, outside the HT office in the hills to the north of Dumfries.  Clear skies, sunshine and great views, after snow this morning.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Howth Peninsula, Dublin Bay

Howth Peninsula, Dublin Bay
In December, I was invited to visit the Howth Peninsula, which is on the northern side of Dublin Bay. Travel plans were disrupted by the cancellation of the key train to Manchester Airport for the satisfyingly brief encounter with RyanAir. The trusty car had to take the strain and I just made it, but using all available modes of transport, against the clock, is all part of the HT role.

On arrival, my host from Fingal County Council whisked me to a hotel and left me to meet representatives of the Irish Upland Forum. I have had some fleeting contact with this Forum before, but it was great to meet two representatives in person and exchange views about the uplands. I was intrigued to learn about the work they are doing to encourage cells of activity around the whole island of Ireland.

The following morning, I got on with the main job of inspecting the Howth Peninsula. The challenge was to review the state of the vegetation and come up with some ideas for how it might be better managed. Traditionally, the peninsula appears to have been managed mainly by grazing activity but this is no longer taking place at a level that has a significant impact. There is no planned burning, but there is potential for plenty of unplanned burning, and much of the area is inaccessible anything but the most rugged cutting machinery. Add into the mix that there are large numbers of expensive houses along the coast, a golf course, a rhododendron sanctuary, a quarry, many tracks and footpaths, critical infrastructure (in the form of radio masts and the instrument landing system for Dublin Airport, which is close by) and you can get a feel for why management of this area is a challenging undertaking.   
The Golf Course provides a diverse habitat 
There was an interesting range of people on the visit but there was a consensus that the re-introduction of grazing should form part of the future management plans, including the use of goats. Some burning could take place and those areas, where some machinery access is possible, should be cut. Health and safety is a major concern for cutting operations and it was suggested that the potential to use robotic cutting machinery, which can be very robust, could be explored.

This was a very interesting visit, as it required a bit of thinking outside the box. There is no standard solution to this sort of challenge, and I suspect that the best way forward will be to employ a range of approaches where they can be applied. The key point is that sitting back and doing nothing is not an option. This would lead inevitably to a big wildfire that will be difficult or impossible to control. I congratulate Fingal County Council for daring to address the challenge and I hope that their efforts to bring most, if not all, of the vegetation back under management are successful.

Part of the Management Challenge

Director Handover

With the New Year, I am gearing up for the handover to my successor, Anne Gray. We all go through this exercise at various points in our career, but we tend to forget that the process always seems straightforward at the outset but it then slowly dawns that there is a lot to organise and prepare. I am aiming to get as organised as possible to give Anne a good start.

Anne will join the Trust on Monday 12th February (now less than 4 weeks away!), and after a handover period, she will take over as Director on 5th March.

I will take up the role of consultant to support the Trust, and Anne as Director. To give her a chance to get established, initially, I will be maintaining my current role with Scotland’s Moorland Forum, both in running the Forum’s meetings and managing the commissioned work. I will also be continuing to represent the Trust’s input to the groups where I am chairman or have the lead. For example, I will continue as chairman of the England & Wales Wildfire Forum, and the Uplands Management Group, and as the coordinator of the Bracken Control Group.

The aim of the handover period is to ensure a smooth transition of the responsibility for running the Trust to Anne so that the Trust’s service to its members, supporters and clients is not interrupted. As Anne gets established, I hope that my support will allow the Trust to operate on as many fronts as at present, and hopefully even some new ones that Anne will introduce.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Wildfire Conference 2017: Wildfire Resilience in a UK Context

We may not have had the wildfire problems seen by other countries, recently, but we still need to keep the profile of the wildfire threat high. We are only a few weeks away from a wildfire season, at any time of the year.

The Wildfires 2017 conference took place in Bournemouth on 7th and 8th November 2017.  It was organised by Dorset and Wiltshire Fire & Rescue Service, Dorset County Council, and the Urban Heaths Partnership, with support from the National Fire Protection Association in the USA, the National Fire Chiefs Council and the Scottish Wildfire Forum.

Over 150 delegates attended, and this included a good international mix from as far away as New Zealand and Canada. This international flavour added greatly to the conference and allowed us to benefit from the greater wildfire experience that exists in other parts of the world.

A key message coming from the conference is that, while the UK does not have regular wildfire seasons at present, climate change predictions indicate that this is likely to change. Therefore, we cannot ignore the threat of wildfire to people, property and the natural heritage, and this justifies the inclusion of wildfire on the National Risk Register.

The wildfires conference programme started in 2003, and from 2015 the conferences have been run by the UK wildfire forums.  After a very successful conference, close to Glasgow in 2015, it was England's turn to take the lead and this resulted in the conference moving south to Bournemouth.  Why Bournemouth? The Dorset & Wiltshire FRS has developed a very good wildfire response out of necessity; the Dorset heaths are close to the centres of population and this results in wildfire being a common occurrence.  The FRS has to respond quickly due the risks associated with the proximity of a large population and much property.

A short booklet was produced from the workshops took place during the conference with a view to summarising the issues that were raised for discussion. This is available to download here.

In summary it was a great conference, well organised, interesting discussions, a very good range of speakers and delegates, and good food and accommodation.

The planning for Wildfires 2019 will be starting soon! It will be a hard act to follow.

This is Portugal in 2017: it could not happen here ..... or could it?

Wildfire Research Workshop

I attended a Wildfire Research Meeting in London yesterday that had been organised on behalf of the England & Wales Wildfire Forum (EWWF) by Rob Gazzard (Forestry Commission England) and Julia McMorrow from the University of Manchester.

The aim of the workshop was to define projects that would provide ‘quick wins’ for the development of a more appropriate approach to developing a Fire Danger Rating System in the UK as well as coordinating social, economic and environmental research.

A range of researchers of all ages and experience attended, but this was balanced in part by my presence, as Chairman of the EWWF, with support from Andy Thomas, Assistant Chief Fire Officer for South Wales Fire & Rescue Service and the Vice-Chairman of the EWWF, and Michael Bruce, Vice Chairman of the Scottish Wildfire Forum (SWF).

The EWWF had asked the members from the research community to draw up a research programme that the EWWF could endorse. I am keen to encourage a UK approach to wildfire research, and I hope that my membership of the SWF Executive Committee will help to achieve this. I am very aware that there is no pot of money available for wildfire research, but I hope that endorsement by the wildfire community, as end-users of the research, will support applications from research organisations for funding. Also, having a credible programme of research will make it possible to identify research priorities so that we can use the funding that is available to best effect.

As with the development of all programmes of work, it is very easy to get carried away with listing all the issues that could be addressed should time and money be unlimited. There is a danger of becoming paralysed by opportunity and achieving nothing as a result.

A draft research programme had been produced at the first meeting of the research group in July, last year. When the EWWF reviewed this, members were struck by the scale and complexity of the task being presented. There was a real difficulty in knowing where to start.

In discussion, there was agreement that the most important issue for the wildfire community is the development of a Fire Danger Rating System. Amongst other benefits, such a system will provide a quantified warning to the fire & rescue services of periods of high wildfire risk and to practitioners of conditions when they will be able to burn, or when they should not be burning. An effective system has the potential to assist the planning for both wildfire and prescribed burning.

The development of a FDRS was agreed to be a priority for the research community to address through the wildfire research programme. There are no guarantees of any additional funding being available, but a plan that sets out the options, and the associated costs, would allow pitches to be made for financial support.

This is a complicated area where there may be few quick wins, but I hope that focussing attention on a priority topic will allow the wildfire community to make progress with an issue that will have cross-sector benefits.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

New Director for The Heather Trust Announced

The Board of The Heather Trust is delighted to announce that Anne Gray has been appointed to succeed Simon Thorp as Director of the Trust. 

Anne has been working in rural development for over 10 years, most recently for Scottish Land & Estates.  She will join the Trust in mid-February and take over as Director soon afterwards.  Simon Thorp will continue to support the Trust as a consultant.

More detail will be published in the New Year.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

The Answer is Blowing in the Wind

See the NASA video that shows how our weather can be monitored by tracking the aerosols in the atmosphere.

While this is of general interest, and you can only guess at the computer power required to produce this short video, the relevance to The Heather Trust's activities is in the large volume of smoke from the wildfires in Portugal in the western USA & Canada.  The area of the globe affected by this smoke is probably large enough to have an influence on weather patterns.

Another reason for taking the threat of wildfire seriously!

Monday, 13 November 2017

Woodlands in Scotland : Where have all the flowers gone?

Photo: Kate Holl
Is the grazing balance in Scottish woodlands correct?  Kate Holl, the SNH woodland advisor, provides a view following her Churchill Fellowship exploring woodland in other countries.

Grazing can be excluded from some woodland, but we must not ignore the practicalities of life.  We need woodlands to provide timber and deer and sheep to provide management input and the income to pay for other forms of management.  A completely hands off approach for all woodlands, as proposed by some members of the re-wilding lobby, is too extreme.  Perhaps the answer is a mix and match approach - some unmanaged woodland alongside woodland used for other purposes.

Conservation "needs people in boots, not people in suits"

See Matt Ridley on the announcement by Michael Gove about the plans to set up a new statutory body, “independent of government” with “clear authority” whose job is to “uphold environmental standards”.

We do not need more quangos, we want better direction from the 'suits' to the 'boots' that reflects the needs of businesses, the environment and communities. Gaining the trust and input from those who manage the land (people in boots) is an essential part of the process, as no changes can be delivered until these people are influenced to do something. The rest of us (suits in boots, or just plan suits) should be seen to be supporting those who manage the land to achieve what society wants. 

We should be putting more, not less, power in the hands of the 'boots' who understand how the countryside, and in my case the uplands, works.  

Friday, 10 November 2017

Lynx and sheep

Photo: Farmers Guardian

It is claimed that the escaped 'pet' Lynx in Wales has killed seven sheep.  Have a look at the Farmers Guardian article and see what you think.  Is it appropriate to risk more of this in our uplands? 

I believe that sheep play a vital role to play in our uplands in terms of generating income to keep farmers on the land and for managing the habitat.  We do not need further challenges to this management.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

"A New Direction for Scottish Land Management"

In the uncertainty that surrounds the future of our uplands and moorlands, it is essential that a clear case needs to be made for what we, those who are actively engaged in the management of the  uplands and moorlands, want.  Without this clear statement, we may end up with something that the politicians and civil servants believe we want, which may be rather different.

Without strong justification, the uplands and moorlands may lose out to schools, hospitals and other drains on the government's budget.  It is a fact that the competing claims on the budget are likely to attract more votes than 'messing about in the hills'.

The possibility of developing an Upland Vision in Scotland has been kicked around for several years, and arguably it is needed more than ever now, to fill the vacuum in thinking about the future.  This was discussed during the meeting of Scotland's Moorland Forum, yesterday, and as a result, Forum members will be considering how they can take some initiative.

Scottish Land & Estates has published A New Direction for Scottish Land Management, and the organisation believes that in future:

  • It will be increasingly important that farming and forestry are able to put forward the strongest justification for ongoing public investment in these sectors.
  • There should be a greater emphasis on farming and land management delivering public goods, such as helping mitigate flooding, providing clean water, enhancing biodiversity or reducing carbon emissions.
  • In the shorter-term, enhancing the profitability of our land-based businesses needs to be a top priority.
I can support the SL&E approach, and I think it is a very good starting point for a wider discussion about what we want for these areas.  if we do not know, who does?

Friday, 15 September 2017

Wildfire - 2 million acres in the US are currently ablaze

See the web article for the full story.  "There are more than 100 active wildfires and at least 41 uncontained large blazes, battled by more than 25,000 responders, the National Guard, and half a battalion of active-duty soldiers."

It could never happen here ... or could it?  

If you want to know more about wildfire issues, come to the UK Wildfires Conference 2017 - "Wildfire resilience in a UK context" - that is being held in Bournemouth 7-8 November.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Why are still using peat in our gardens?

Photo: Murdo Macleod for The Guardian

"The government needs to give a shot of adrenalin to its commitment to phase out peat and support the industry to divest away from peat and keep what remains safely protected in the ground not the grow bag."

See the article in The Guardian.

The Heather Trust seeks a New Director

After 15 years as the Director of the Trust, the time has come to introduce some changes, and I am planning to step down as Director. I see this as an opportunity to introduce new blood and thinking into the way that the Trust operates, and for the Trust to refresh itself, introduce new ideas and move forward strongly, possibly in a new direction.

The search for my successor is about to start and a full handover will take place after a transition period, with the aim of completing this early in 2018.

After the end of a transition period, I will provide support for the Trust as a consultant. I will continue to manage a number of clearly defined tasks, which will include my role as the Director of Scotland’s Moorland Forum, with support from Anne Stoddart as Administrator, at least until the end of the current agreement in March 2019.

I am circulating details of this opportunity through the Trust’s networks and social media, and an advertisement is available here. I invite all members and supporters of the Trust to spread the word about this opportunity to people they are in contact with.

Expressions of interest are being invited by 12 noon on Tuesday, 10th October, and I will be pleased to speak to anyone who would like an informal discussion about the role. The Chairman and other Board members would also be pleased to hear from anyone with an interest in this position. To avoid placing personal contact details in the public domain, please use the Contact Form on the website to request details of how to contact me, or a member of the Board.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Bracken Control Presentation - Argyll - 12 September 2017

For one night only ...
I will be giving a presentation to the Lorn Natural Heritage Group in Seil Island Hall, Ellenabeich, at 19:30 on Tuesday 12th September 2017.

Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum), hated by many and loved by
few, is a proliļ¬c fern whose rhizomes are the key to its success, defending it against attack by most herbicides. Management is therefore a challenge: this talk, having considered why it needs to be controlled, will review the advantages and drawbacks of options available to those who seek to control it.

More details are on the Lorn NHG Facebook page.

England: Countryside Stewardship: Facilitation Fund 2017

The Countryside Stewardship (CS) facilitation fund has just opened for business.  Based on my experience of running an Objective 5b scheme in the Forest of Bowland in the late 1990s, I am a keen supporter of the role of a facilitator to bring people together and increase the impact of grant funding.  

I have included a bullet point summary of the main points but the website has links to more detailed guidance.

The fund aims to "support people and organisations that bring farmers, foresters, and other land managers together to improve the local natural environment at a landscape scale. This landscape scale approach can cover land under existing agri-environment and forestry/woodland agreements, common land and land not currently covered by a scheme. It builds on the principles of partnership working to deliver environmental benefits, as demonstrated by various initiatives, including farm clusters and the farmer-led Nature Improvement Area."

"Funding will be awarded to successful applications through a competitive process. Priority will be given to approaches which show partnership and a collective approach across holdings to deliver shared environmental outcomes that go beyond what could be delivered by individual holdings acting in isolation."

  • A holding is all the land managed by an applicant in England for agricultural and/or woodland activities. 
    • Where that holding or property is made up of geographically dispersed production or management units across England these can be entered separately. 
  • To qualify for funding, the group will have to undertake activities that are new to them as a result of cooperating.
  • The members of the group will need to manage an area which is sufficient in size to deliver Countryside Stewardship priorities set out in the statements of priorities for the area and that is at least 2,000 hectares (ha).  This threshold represents the size of the holdings, not the size of the area(s) of management activity. 
  • The area of land must be spread over a minimum of four adjoining, or largely adjoining, separate land holdings managed by different people 
  • A common is treated as one holding for the purpose of this funding and can join with non-commons to create the land area of the group. 
  • Applications will be scored against selection criteria, and those with the highest scores will be offered agreements subject to available budgets.
  • The maximum funding for a facilitator is dependent on the number of holdings involved in the group and the work that the facilitator does. With 4 holdings a facilitator could receive up to £12,000 per annum, which comprises £500 per holding and up to £10,000 for costs of delivering the cooperation. 
  • Agreement length: 3 years. 
  • Application deadline: 14 November 2017. 

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

The Heather Trust's Annual Report

The Trust has published the 2017 Annual Report and printed copies have been sent to all members and some other people with influence in the UK moorlands and uplands.

The report contains our usual slightly eclectic mix of updates about the work of the Trust, articles by team members and a range of guest articles.  With a view to spreading the word about our activities, we would be pleased to hear from members  with suggestions of people who should receive a copy.  We are also able to circulate an electronic copy of the Report as a PDF.

We will be placing the Report on the Trust's website, after the AGM, which this year is being held in Aberdeenshire on 5 October.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Countryside Alliance on Grouse Shooting

As one of the latest in the exchanges about grouse shooting, prior to the start of the grouse shooting season tomorrow, I was interested to read Countryside Alliance's view, as expressed by Adrian Blackmore, the Director of Shooting.  He makes some interesting points including:
  • The large losses of moorland since the 19th century in Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, whereas in the UK we have the interest in grouse shooting to thank for helping to keep our large areas of heather moorland intact - 75% of the total international area. 
  • 44,500 acres of heather moorland on land managed for grouse have been repaired and revegetated across the North of England.

These details are something for the grouse moor community to be very proud of, and I recommend a read of the article, which contains a link to the CA briefing on "The Value of Grouse Moor Management".