Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Muirburn Meeting

I have been asked by the Scottish Government to set up a further meeting (on 28 Jul 09) of the Muirburn Group, which I chair through Scotland's Moorland Forum, to consider the use of suppression fires as a means of controlling wildfires. The concept is that a fire can be stopped if it runs into an area that has already been burned and the aim of the firefighter is to get ahead of the fire and burn a fire into the oncoming fire, probably by back burning, into the wind.

It is a simple concept but the more you think about it, the more complicated it becomes! The Group may well find itself considering three different situations: within or without of the muirburn season, in daylight or at night, and / or with and without the presence of the Fire & Rescue Service.

Although this is a Scottish Group, it is interesting that suppression fires were not considered as part of the separate reviews of the Heather & Grass Burning Codes in England & Wales. Therefore, the findings of the Group will be relevant across the UK.

While my wings are clipped by the medical world, I will not be able to attend the meeting, but I will be preparing the Discussion Document for the meeting and dealing with the output from it. This will feed into the consultation that is running on the Wildlife & Natural Environment Bill, about which I will be waxing lyrical, next week.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Muirburn History

I have been reading an old file which has reminded me that many people have walked this way before when it comes to discussing muirburn issues . Our Past President, Professor Charles Gimingham, gave me his file that dates back to 1955, when he was already active in the discussions about muirburn. Reviewing old files is not everyone's idea of fun, especially as most of us have enough trouble keeping up with the current output of relevant research papers, the minutes from meetings we have attended and the unending list of consultations. However, during this period that my my wings have been clipped, I have been doubling my efforts to do some more reading, in the hope that an understanding of the development of discussions about muirburn (and heather burning in general) in the past will help to inform future discussions. Charles Gimingham gave me this file last year but it is only now that I have got down to reading it in the depth it deserves.

There is much more to read and I will return to this theme at least once in the future but as a taster, the first meeting on 27 September 1955 discussed the following issues, amongst others:
  • Rotational burning is detrimental to soil fertility
  • Rotational burning is essential for the livestock industry
  • There had been a deterioration in the previous high standards of burning
  • Extension of the muirburn season beyond 16 April was undesirable
  • Burning should take place in strips of moderate size in regular rotation
  • Each area of hill should be dealt with on its own merits
  • Moorland that is being colonised by tree species should be left unburned
  • The role of sphagnum moss in retaining moisture and preventing erosion
This could have been written last week - not 54 years ago. It is fascinating and maybe a bit depressing that we have not moved further forward. Perhaps now is a good time to seize the initiative. I would like to think so!

Friday, 26 June 2009

Cost Sharing

Consultation closes 30 Jun 09. Details

Defra proposals would provide for a levy of £10.50 a horse, £4.80 a dairy cow plus, £1.20 for beef animals, 82p a sheep and 4p for poultry and gamebirds. The Countryside Alliance has pointed out that these costs could be applicable to each owner, rather than each animal, so for instance, in the case of game farmers and shoots, each bird would be paid for twice. Then on top of that there is an as yet uncalculated sum for insurance to cover compensation in the event of a disease outbreak.

Dairy £4.80
Beef £1.20
Combined Cattle* £2.50
Sheep £0.09
Pigs £0.82
Poultry £0.04
Horse** £10.50
*Given that beef and dairy cattle face the same disease threats, and the industries are closely linked, there is a clear argument for having a single levy rate applied to both sectors.
** The consultation asks if horses should be included.

I have submitted a response, which expresses the views I outlined in my post of 5 Jun 09. I remain concerned that the target for this fund raising is wrong in the uplands. Hill farmers cannot be expected to provide further subsidies to government! The farmers in the south west of England are fond of saying "It is difficult to be green, when you are in the red". The same sentiment applies to other levies and drains on already struggling hill farm enterprises.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Countryside Survey - Scottish Results

The Scottish results of this UK wide survey were launched at the Royal Highland Show today. The Trust was represented at this launch by our former Chairman and Board member, Robert Dick.

The survey quantifies how Scotland's habitats have changed in the three decades to 2007 and includes an assessment of habitat extent and condition. With the slow moving change of the uplands in particular, such information is essential in order to spot long term changes.

For more information, see the SG News release or the Countryside Survey website.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Defra's Cost Sharing Proposals

As I reported in my Post on 5 Jun 09, there is a consultation running about Cost sharing Proposals and Defra has asked for responses by 30 Jun 09.

The Countryside Alliance has pointed out their concerns that this proposal is 'cost shifting not cost sharing'. See Simon Hart's comments here. He also points out there will a levy on gamebirds that would be applicable for each owner, not each bird. In the case of game farmers and shoots, each bird would be paid for twice. There will also be an as yet uncalculated sum for insurance to cover compensation in the event of a disease outbreak.

The list of charges proposed is: Dairy cows £4.80; Beef cattle £1.20; Combined Cattle* £2.50; Sheep £0.09; Pigs £0.82, Poultry and gamebirds £0.04. *Given that beef and dairy cattle face the same disease threats, and the industries are closely linked, there is a clear argument for having a single levy rate applied to both sectors. Details of the consultation are available here.

The closer you get to this proposal the worse it gets. My opinion has not changed and I support Simon Hart's comments. This is Defra trying to wriggle out of its responsibilities and placing more costs on already marginal farm businesses.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

A double header

Electronic Identification (EID) of Sheep

See my earlier post on 5 Jun 09. The Farmer's Guardian has reported that the UK has failed to win support for the proposed changes to the EID rules that had been put forward by the Scottish Government. The idea was to avoid having to tag sheep until they left the holding of their birth and therefore reduce the tagging burden and its associated bureaucracy.

This seemed to be a very reasonable proposition but now the fight has to continue to introduce some sanity into these proposal before the regulations come into force on 1 Jan 2010.

Birds of prey project

The Scottish Government has reported that The Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime Scotland (PAW Scotland) has provided funding for RSPB Scotland's 'Eyes to the Skies' initiative which uses satellite tracking to monitor the movements of red kites.

All this high tech input must be costing a packet and it does lead to the question, 'Is there not a better way?' I would like to think that we could put this funding to better use and so avoid a Big Brother situation where we will all be tagged and monitored, with CCTV on every hilltop?

Friday, 19 June 2009

Langholm Moor Demonstration Project

As part of our work in support of Scotland's Moorland Forum, we organised one of the three annual meetings of the Forum at Langholm on 12 Jun 09, and this included a visit to Langholm Moor with the project team. Although I could not be present (I escaped from hospital that day) it was glorious weather and a perfect opportunity for some interesting discussion on the moor. Thanks go to the project team, led by Graeme Dalby (Project Manager) and Simon Lester (Head keeper), for their help in running the day.

Much controversy surrounds the work at Langholm, both the original Joint Raptor Study that reported in 1997 and the new project that was launched in September 2007. It remains my view that this project is worthy of full support. Naturally there are concerns about buffer feeding of Hen harriers, burning and predator control but this a rare opportunity for scientific monitoring to work alongside land managers and the data will be fascinating. The work is unlikely to give us all the answers but it will increase our knowledge and understanding of how a moribund moor responds to management input. For more information have a look at the project's website.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Bracken Control

Bracken is now well established throughout the country although inevitably it will be more advanced in the south than the north. Those who are able to control their bracken by mechanical means, such as: cutting, bruising, pulling etc, will have started work last month, but the season for controlling bracken with chemicals, principally Asulox, is nearly upon us. The season starts when the bracken fronds are fully extended (late July onwards) and ends when the plants start to die back (late August onwards).

The Trust is working for the owners of the Asulox brand, United Phosphorus Limited (UPL), to help with the promotion of bracken control, using Asulox where appropriate. I have been asked to circulate some information to our contacts reminding people of the proximity of the season for applying Asulox as well as promoting bracken control in general, and this will take place next week. As part of this work, we have established a web site, which has more details about bracken control - www.brackencontrol.co.uk. A conference is under consideration for early next year and this will see the launch of a bracken control guide produced by the Trust and sponsored by UPL that will summarise all available methods of bracken control.

In the meantime, the Trust is retained to offer bracken control advice to anybody who wants it up and the details are on the bracken control website or can be obtained by contacting the Trust.

Bracken is one of the most successful plants in history. It is present on every continent, except Antarctica, and has existed largely unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs. I believe firmly that not enough work is being done on bracken control at present. As a result we are seeing bracken spreading into many areas where it has been controlled, or has not been present, in the past, and this can move the vegetation towards a monoculture, rather than the maintaining the diversity of species that I would like to see. To a large extent, I suspect that bracken control is grant driven and it is something that the policymakers need to consider carefully if our upland areas are not to be buried under it.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Bristol Zoo

After yesterday's rather dry post, I think you deserve something a little lighter. This is not very relevant to upland management, but I had to admire the entrepreneurial spirit.

Reported in the Bristol Evening Post:
Outside Bristol Zoo is the car park, with spaces for 150 cars and 8 coaches. It has been manned 6 days a week for 23 years by the same charming and very polite car park attendant with the ticket machine. The charges are £1 per car and £5 per coach.

On Monday 1 June, he did not turn up for work. Bristol Zoo management phoned Bristol City Council to ask them to send a replacement parking attendant. The Council said "That car park is your responsibility." The Zoo said "The attendant was employed by the City Council... wasn't he?" The Council said "What attendant?"

Gone missing from his home is a man who has been taking daily the car park fees amounting to about £400 per day for the last 23 years...!

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The Commission on Scottish Devolution (The Calman Commission)

The Commission reported, yesterday. It was established by the Scottish Parliament and the United Kingdom government with a remit: To review the provisions of the Scotland Act 1998 in the light of experience and to recommend any changes to the present constitutional arrangements that would enable the Scottish Parliament to serve the people of Scotland better, improve the financial accountability of the Scottish Parliament, and continue to secure the position of Scotland within the United Kingdom

Although the Income Tax proposals may have scooped the headlines, there are several recommendations that are relevant to our activities, and I have summarised these below:

Matters to be devolved
5.10 Funding for policy relating to animal health should be devolved whilst responsibility for funding exotic disease outbreaks should be retained at a UK level

5.13 The regulation of airguns.

5.17 Following devolution of marine powers to Scotland, creating a Scottish sea zone, the commission agreed that the natural extension of this was to devolve all nature conservation responsibilities to Scotland as soon as possible.

Retained at UK Level
5.2 There should be a single definition of each of the expressions “charity” and “charitable purpose(s)”.

5.3 A charity registered in one part of the United Kingdom should be able to conduct its charitable activities in another part of the UK without being required to register separately.

Closer working between Parliament & Governments
5.18 Funding by the Research Councils should be re-examined so that Scottish institutions [such as the Scottish Agricultural College] delivering a comparable function to institutions elsewhere in the UK have access to the same sources of research funding.

The Final Report and Executive Summary are available as downloads.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

United against Cowboys and Criminals

BASC has awarded the Tim Sedgwick Trophy to the former Scottish Minister for Environment, Mike Russell MSP, to acknowledge the stand he took against pressure to ban snaring in Scotland. Mr Russell is now the Minister for Culture, External Affairs and the Constitution but in his acceptance he states that, "Working with all sorts of organisations, including BASC, we were able to unite against the cowboys and criminals and to ensure that we maintained the highest standards of game and wildlife management."

That will do for me. I certainly believe that snaring is an essential part of moorland and upland management in a bid to protect vulnerable and important species. It can be cruel to be kind, but that is nature's way.

For more details see the BASC press release site.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Dartmoor Farmers Association - marketing native-breed beef & sheep

This initiative has been set up to move away from the commodity-driven supply to the premium-branded quality, traceable market producing meat with a strong environmental and socio-economic provenance.

See the Farmers Weekly report and the Dartmoor Farmers Association site for further details.

This type of scheme is not new and has been tried all over the UK with different degrees of success. Every area is unique with different problems relating to proximity to population and markets, slaughter facilities etc. but it strikes me that it should be at least considered by areas where such schemes could provide benefit.

One of the 'unseen' benefits could be in the reported increased willingness of farmers to work together - not something that hill farmers have been renowned for. The initiative has also acted as a focus for the levering of funds from a variety of sources that would not otherwise have been available to support the hill farming industry on Dartmoor. My view is that unless hill areas have a viable farming industry that is sympathetic to the requirements of the land, these areas will wither and will change into something that no-one wants.

This fits in well with my cry that the farmers must be allowed to farm, but to do this, they must be seen to be willing to take charge of their own destiny.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Scottish Hill Farmers to Benefit from review of LFA Scheme

£15m is to be made available to hill farmers in Scotland over the next 2 years through LFASS.

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Richard Lochhead, addressed the Scottish Parliament this afternoon and stated that this would mean an extra £1,300 for average sheep producers in the Highlands or £1,600 for a beef producer in Orkney. A revised LFASS scheme will be introduced next year which will see a further increase in payment rates – a total rise of 38% compared with 2009.

This is more like it! I approve of the link to active farmers in vulnerable areas. This is where the funding is needed. The NFUS approve. See the NFUS press release and The Scotsman's article for more details.

Upland Tracks

An interesting seminar took place in the North Pennines on 22 Apr 09 to discuss Upland Tracks. The seminar was organised by the North Pennines AONB Partnership, in collaboration with Natural England and the Moorland Association, and the presentations given at the seminar have just been made available here.

Although aimed at an English audience, the presentations included one from SNH to provide a Scottish perspective, and most of the issues are relevant throughout the UK uplands.

There is no doubt that there are some uncertainties surrounding upland tracks and their status and the need to obtain consent for repair, improvement or to create new ones. I think that there is a need for any guidance that is to come out of this initiative to have the full support of the uplands community. To impose it as a regulation based list of do's & don'ts would be a mistake. I cite the example of the Heather & Grass Burning Code 2007 which has been well accepted as it had a lot of input from the industry. With our links to all sectors throughout the UK uplands the Trust is well placed to at least assist this process, if not drive it. We are working on it.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Studland Fire

On 20 May, there was a fire on the National Trust’s Godlingston Heath at Studland, on the edge of Poole Bay in Dorset , which is reported to have wiped out wildlife across 2.5 hectares (6 acres) of heathland.

The report brought to mind several issues:
  • It should come as no surprise that the fire occurred. Heathland and fire are related like Tom and Jerry or bread and butter - you do not get one without the other.
  • 28 fire appliances attended the fire. In the whole of Dumfries & Galloway, which is roughly 100 miles long by 30 wide, there are only 21 fire appliances. Like many parts of the UK uplands, D&G contains areas of high conservation value, but it would be fortunate if even one fire appliance was able to get to a fire.
  • We cannot rely on the Fire Services to manage our fires, we must manage to reduce fire risk - prescribed burning, reducing fuel load by grazing.
Heathland will always burn, it is a question of when rather than if, especially in an area close to population, as at Studland. There is no doubt that Studland Heath is an area of high conservation value, and we do not wish to see such areas subjected to wildfires, but there are likely to be some benefits coming from the disaster; it would be good to avoid rushing to doom mongering at the first sight of a flame.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Electronic Identification of Sheep & Cost Sharing

Shadow farm minister, Jim Paice, has claimed that English hill farmers will be worse off by £1,000 under new government regulations. The additional costs for a typical hill farm with 600 sheep are made up of an annual cost-sharing payment of £247 and an annual electronic identification (EID) charge of £762.

The grazing of our uplands by sheep is an essential part of management in most areas. Certainly, there has been bad practice in the past and the effects of overgrazing are evident in many areas, but without sheep our uplands would look very different.

Are we risking the financial viability and future of our hill farms by introducing these extra charges to say nothing about the extra bureaucracy involved? Stock numbers are already falling, and aside from food production issues, we need viable hill farms as the only means of providing management input in many areas. I argue that leaving such areas as unmanaged wildernesses is never going to produce a happy outcome. We must support and encourage our hill farmers not burden them with additional costs and red tape.

Additional information is available from Farmer's Weekly Interactive and the National Sheep Association is strongly against EID. The DEFRA website has a useful summary of the Cost Sharing Proposals (the consultation runs until 30 Jun 09).

Heather Cutting & Baling

Although I would always advocate that burning heather is the best solution, cutting is an alternative where burning is not possible or undesirable. Clearly cutting is only possible where there is machinery access and it might be of particular interest when the existing heather is old and rank.

I have been on the lookout for a moor where it is possible to 'cut and cart' old heather for some time as there is a market for it! We have a link to a firm that uses heather as a bio-filtration medium and although the payment is unlikely to cover all the costs of the process, the income might make the removal of the heather financially viable. The website has more details here.

I am disappointed that despite circulating details and contacting many people we have not yet found a moor that will benefit from this approach. I am convinced that such a place must exist. Let me know if you have such an area or know of somewhere.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

The Ecosystems Approach

Natural England has published a consultation seeking views on a draft policy document that
sets out the agency’s approach to ecosystems.

This is a complex concept that can be difficult to get your head around, but it is hear to stay
and we need to understand how it will guide the formation of policy. If you feel it is a gap in
your knowledge, Natural England’s document provides a very useful summary.

The valuation of ecosystem services presents an interesting challenge for economists. Some
might argue that this is like comparing apples with pears, but if values of different decisions
can be compared it informs the policy making process. For example, the paper includes an
estimate that it costs £128m to remove agricultural contaminants from drinking water in
England & Wales and perhaps we should be comparing this cost with the financial benefits to
agriculture arising from the contaminants. I did not say it was easy!

Monday, 1 June 2009

Natural England - Director Uplands

I am delighted by the recent appointment of Martyn Howat as Director Uplands. Martyn has left his post as Natural England’s Regional Director in the North East to take on this job and he will still be based in Newcastle.

I have been part of the Moorland Burning Working Group under Martyn's chairmanship that advised DEFRA on the new Heather & Grass Burning Regulations & Code and I have appreciated his commitment and passion for the uplands. His appointment will help to provide a unifying force within Natural England for the Uplands and help raise the profile of these areas.

The Trust hopes to meet with Martyn to discuss how we can help Natural England achieve its objectives for the uplands.