Monday, 20 May 2019

In search of sustainability

In our latest blog the Trust’s Director, Anne Gray, reflects on a year in post and offers some thoughts on the Trust’s unique role and the reasons why it needs continued support. 

I started as Director of The Heather Trust in March last year.  It’s been a year to meet people, listen, understand, and get to grips with the opportunities and challenges the Trust faces in the current political, policy and financial environment.  

I’ve traveled to Exmoor, Powys, the Peak District twice, Northumberland several times and across Scotland, as well as quarterly trips to Defra in London and to corresponding upland and moorlands fora in Scotland.  This has been to provide project management, training, advice and representation work to further the interests of good moorland management.  Some weeks I’ve barely seen home, whilst others it has been head down at my computer to plough through consultations, correspondence and the business of keeping the Trust running.  All of this I have to say has only been possible with the support of the small, but dedicated, Heather Trust team. 

In relation to Britain’s moorlands, The Heather Trust occupies the space between environment, rural economy and society and seeks to reconcile the various interests involved in moorland management at a time when many moorland management practices are being challenged.  As such, our vision is for sustainable, resilient moorlands for the benefit of everyone.

The Trust’s watch words might be “moderation in all things”.  It was formed because its founders understood that fragile moorland and upland environments could not sustain intensive production, whether that be grouse, sheep or anything else – there needs to be balance.  I’m told in the early days the discussion was pretty much grouse and sheep, so perhaps ‘anything else’ didn’t get a look in.  However, the principle is even more relevant today, when we have so many more calls on our moorland and upland areas.

Lapwing by Garry MacLennan, Invermark

If you read the press or follow social media however, it appears there is precious little moderation around.  In these media, the debate about moorlands and how they are managed has probably never been more fraught.  In the last year I’ve watched how polarised debates about wildfire management, predator control, trees and rewilding, mountain hare numbers, sport shooting and even farming have become.  Not that these topics were without a range of viewpoints before last year, but everything seems to be more entrenched and embittered.   

It used to be that science and evidence could be relied on to get everyone back to a more objective place, but selective pieces of research are now hurled around like brickbats in games of one-upmanship that are not constructive.  This is nowhere more evident than in the debate about managed burning on blanket bog where some science on specific issues such as carbon storage, vegetation response or water quality exists, but none yet which draws the relevant threads together to give the complete picture. 

This could all be very depressing and make a moderate wish to simply pack-up and go home.  However, I don’t think these media fairly represented who most of us are and, if we are to end the impasse and move forward with these issues – and we surely need to, then it will require people and organisations, such as The Heather Trust, that can bridge the chasm to make it happen.

What is truly at the heart of these issues is how society deals with environmental concerns such as climate change, water management and biodiversity losses.  In very recent weeks, with demonstrable civil protest supported by a plethora of worrying environmental science, there can be little doubt that these issues increasingly will be the focus of government’s policy and legislation programme. 

Land management, whether it be farming, game, forestry, water supply or, indeed renewables is increasingly finding the spotlight shone on it.  On the one hand, I know why this is.  Land and how it is managed matters when it comes to solving environmental problems.  It is about the only sector that can sequester and store carbon, reverse biodiversity losses and it is likely the most cost-effective way to manage water quality and flood risk.  On the other hand, that we have not in the past always used land in ways that will achieve this is the collective responsibility of society, and not exclusively of those who have been supported and encouraged to grow more, feed the nation and support the rural economy.  While I understand completely the frustrations of those, especially the young, who protest and call for change, what I find much less helpful is the criticism and blame culture that seems to be developing alongside the protests.  It is time to solve these less than straightforward issues together, and we’ll not do it while pointing fingers.

Open Hill Highland Cattle

One thing that the Heather Trust has long advocated and which I am 100% behind is the idea that we need to take the best of what we already know about managing moorlands, gleaned from both practitioners and science and evolve it.  Too often, public policy has caused management which is not flexible enough for the local context and which flip flops from one extreme to another.  Livestock headage payments leading to overstocking and over-grazing in some places and their universal removal leading to under-grazing and associated issues in other places is one example.  There are plenty of others and unfortunately it is something that is still happening, and badly needs to change.

The Heather Trust is a charity, we rely on membership, donations and on payment for work we do to facilitate discussion, reconciliation and change.  We are small and we need to grow to be truly effective.  If you believe that the way forward for moorlands across Britain lies in resolving the tensions between environment and economy, then we need to hear from you.  We need members, but we also need ambassadors for, and who can demonstrate, sustainable moorland management.  If this is you, then get in touch.

We are always keen to work with other organisations on collaborative projects, and again if this is you, get it touch.

I’m sure my second year at The Heather Trust will be no less busy and challenging than my first has been, but I remain committed to the ideal of a balanced approach and resolving tensions, and I hope you can support me in that.

Anne Gray

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater

On 21st March the Trust held the first of a series of planned events for 2019, where we ask the question “What are Britain’s uplands for?”.  We were kindly hosted by NFU Scotland’s Vice President, Martin Kennedy on his hill farm in Highland Perthshire.  The event attracted a mix of different interests from government, research, conservation, and hill and moor farmers and managers, and provided an opportunity to get these various interests talking on site, in a real management situation.  In our March blog, Director, Anne Gray, provides some thoughts from the day…………

Martin Kennedy’s set up will be familiar to many farming families in upland Scotland.  He has in-bye, heather moor and open hill ground – ranging from 800 to 2500 feet above sea-level.  He is farming both native and continental sheep and cattle breeds, with the natives on the higher ground.   The farm is tenanted from Edradynate Estate and the Estate’s keeper, Ian Smith, also joined us on the day to discuss how the farming and shooting enterprises work together.  

One of the first things we looked at was the game crops which provide food and cover not just for pheasants and partridges, but for a whole host of wildlife.  We also discussed the range of waders that breed on the farm each year, including curlew and lapwing.  One of the inbye fields is called peesies’ field because of the numbers of peewit (or lapwing) that have traditionally bred there, although Martin points out numbers have reduced in recent years.  Also evident is a good range of raptor species.

As we moved up the hill, we talked about Martin’s livestock choices.  He’s fairly recently bought a small herd of Highland cattle for his moor and hill ground, and also been building up a flock of cheviots.  Previously it was Scottish blackface sheep that grazed these areas and he still has this flock but is reducing numbers.  In future he’s sees that the blackface sheep might go altogether and he’ll have a mix of highland cattle and cheviots on the ground.  He says he’s already noticed the difference having cattle on the hill has made to the management of his moor and, despite being slower to finish than the continental cattle he keeps on the in-bye ground, they also require much less management and inputs, so the margins are just as good if not better.  The meat, he reports, is also first class.  It’s a trend we might see in future.  There is certainly more and more talk of cattle being returned to the hill for the benefits they bring to good grazing management, and they play into a narrative about slow grown quality food from an extensive management system.

One of the really interesting points made at the event was about the tendency previous land management policy has had to “flip-flop” between extremes.  There is a worry in my mind at least, that there is a growing trend in upland policy circles to see hill cattle as the answer to better moorland and upland management, and that our next policy move might be to encourage wholesale replacement of sheep (and other management tools) by cattle regardless of the context.  This one-size-fits-all, generic response would undoubtedly be as problematic as all the other one-size-fits-all, generic responses of the past that we have subsequently reeled back from.  The return of cattle to the hill is to be welcomed, but as Davy McCracken of Scotland’s Rural College said at the event “they are the answer in some places, part of the answer in others and might not be at all in yet others”.  As was said on the day, we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water as we have done so often with land management policy changes in the past.  Let’s instead evolve our management approaches and try new things, but without slamming the door completely shut on what in effect we might just need to modify.

Left to his own judgment Martin, whose family have been farming the hills above Aberfeldy since 1947, will take an evolutionary approach to management.  He’s shifting the balance from just sheep to a mix of sheep and cattle.  He does some muirburn too, and he’d like to explore agro-forestry whereby, when established, he could graze his livestock in woodland and forestry.  This says much about ensuring that whatever system replaces current agricultural support regime, we ensure it is flexible enough to allow tailored solutions to local management objectives, rather than prescription from the top-down.  There are indicators that things may going that way.  Let’s hope so and that my concerns are unjustified. 

As Vice-President of NFU Scotland, Martin is in touch with the political situation and the likely direction of new policy.  He understands the imperative to deliver for the environment but cautions that society takes food and its production for granted.  He points out that we need to find the right balance between delivering for the environment and delivering food, otherwise we risk by default exporting our food production to other countries and in doing so we also export the environmental footprint that comes with it.  Balance and integration are, as always, the key to managing our moorlands and uplands. 

While society may be in danger of taking good quality, high welfare food for granted, we have almost certainly up to now taken nature for granted.  Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Head of Policy, Dougie Peedle also joined us on 21 March.  Dougie reminded us of the environmental pressures we all face and must learn to address more effectively.  He highlighted the Natural Capital approach to land management as a way forward.  Looking through the lens of Natural Capital, is a way of creating a level playfield for all of the things that nature gives us from food, game, and tourism opportunities to clean water and air, natural flood management, pollinators, carbon storage, and opportunities to enjoy the countryside.  

As was pointed out on the day however, we still seem to be a long way from properly capitalising Natural Capital, and until we do it is difficult for those who need to make a living from the land not to prioritise the things they get paid to deliver.

We had great contributions at our event from a wider range of interests and we hope to engender the same at the next six events we have planned for 2019.  Our next two are at The Hopes Estate in East Lothian on 24 April, an Estate with a focus on farming, shooting and conservation, and at Braemar on 10 May where we will look at contrasting sites being managed by members of the East Cairngorms Moorland Partnership.

Monday, 25 February 2019

Guest Blog: Wildfire, Bruce Farquharson

Following last year’s dry summer and consequently “bad” wildfire season, Bruce Farquharson, Area Commander – Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and Chair of the Scottish Wildfire Forum gives us his thoughts on wildfire and how we manage it in Scotland.  It is a topic we at The Heather Trust believe will increase in importance if climate change predictions are correct and it is an issue we will need to factor more definitely and consciously into our use and management of land. 

Wildfire. A word that has the ability to send a shudder through land managers and firefighters alike.
Picture Credit – The
I have had a relationship with wildfires for a number of years now, both as the Chair of the Scottish Wildfire Forum and as the Strategic Lead for Wildfire in the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. The position I have allows me the unique opportunity to work with a wide range of Stakeholders to reduce the number and severity of wildfires. It also ensures that the response the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has to incidents of this type is the very best it can be and incorporates the most up to date practices and equipment from across the world.

The prevention of wildfires and the response to them when they happen can’t be achieved by a single agency alone. It will only be effective when all stakeholders have a common understanding of the many issues that contribute to the problem of wildfires. To that end the Scottish Wildfire Forum has a strategy which combines three main strands:
  • Prevention
  • Communication
  • Education and Training
All three of these strands have engagement and partnership at the heart of them because we firmly believe that working together is the best way of improving the situation.

Wildfires often occur in groups during the more extreme conditions. We are seeing an increase in the number of times and the number of days of the higher fire danger conditions.  Last year we issued 21 Fire Danger Warnings, the year before it was 6, and the year before that only 2. These warnings are issued when among other things the weather, fuel moisture and the rate at which fire is likely to spread reaches specific threshold values. 

When this is combined with the fact that fuel availability is increasing due to changes in land management practice, it is easy to see that the number of fires are likely to increase, and that they are likely to be of a higher intensity and cover larger areas than we have seen in the past.

In order to reduce the number of wildfires it is important to understand how they are caused. A colleague of mine is a firm advocate of the “fact” that there are 3 main causes of fire: Men, Women and Children, and while this tongue in cheek anecdote is said in jest, there is a degree of truth in it.
Changing the behaviours and thinking of people, both the public, and land managers, is likely to be a key element of reducing the number and severity of wildfires.

Safe and responsible behaviour by the public while they are enjoying the countryside is essential. The use of barbecues, camp fires and discarded smoking materials are causes of wildfires, and while a very small amount are caused deliberately, more often than not it is an accident that gives rise to a wildfire. We must provide good information to the public to educate them on the risk and how to behave responsibly.

There are many ways of achieving this; media releases, either social, broadcast or print are effective, as is education at school for children, even something as simple as clear and visible information at the areas the public accesses the countryside has a part to play, we see great examples of this from across the world, but for some reason rarely see them in the UK.

Fire has been used as an important land management tool for century’s. The skills, processes and experiences handed down from generation to generation provide land managers with the means to manage moorland in a tried and tested way. 

The popularity and effectiveness of this method of managing moorland has been recognised by the Scottish Government, who, to provide guidance and good practice, have developed the MuirburnCode, which gives a vast amount of information on how to carry out burn activities. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland there are equivalents in the Heather and Grass Burning Codes.

Training and qualifications now exist to support the development of these skills. There are new National Occupational Standards developed by industry and LANTRA. A variety of organisations offer heather burning training. On-line training initiatives are starting. 

However, it is important to remember that current skills and techniques, passed down through the generations, may not take into account the changes in fuel types and loads and more extreme fire behaviour that climate change is bringing.

To prepare for the wildfire season it is important to make sure that all of the equipment you might use is in good, serviceable condition, and that the people who may be called upon to use it are trained and available if required. 

A few hours preparation now will go a long way in the event of a fire.

While any response made by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is absolutely free, insurance policies are available to cover firefighting costs incurred by local teams, and the possible use of helicopters, should they be required. Helicopters can be extremely expensive, but are a great resource for dealing with serious fires.

A good communications network, for calling out help if required is important. Also having an emergency fire plan available that has procedures, resources lists and includes maps and information on access points, hard standing, and water supplies will help both the land managers and the Fire Service should the worst happen.

One really positive way to help develop the lists of local resources is by setting up a local Wildfire group.. A Wildfire Group is a local partnership between the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and land managers, including both public agencies and land managers, to tackle the increasing threat of wildfires. Membership of a Wildfire Group should include landowners, rural agencies, foresters, gamekeepers, farmers and crofters and anyone with an interest in wildfire. These groups aim to improve resilience by considering wildfire prevention and response. At a practical level, a wildfire group establishes firm lines of communication, increases wildfire awareness, can provide relevant training and provides a structure for a response to a wildfire. 

Wildfires are a recurring risk, and unfortunately the risk is increasing. We must work together to improve our understanding of the risk, how to reduce it, and have a response plan that is effective and efficient.

Bruce Farquharson
Area Commander – Scottish Fire and Rescue Service
Chair of the Scottish Wildfire Forum