Thursday, 27 March 2014

Linking Fire Ecology and Fire Risk - Seminar, Manchester, 12 June 2014


NERC Knowledge for Wildfire, 3rd wildfire@manchester KE event

Linking fire ecology and fire risk:
Understanding the first helps plan for the second

Keynote speaker: Professor Brian Oswald (Stephen F Austin State University, Texas, USA)
Discussion: led by the practitioner community

Hanson Room, Humanities Bridgeford Street BuildingUniversity of Manchester

12 June 2014, 1.15pm – 4:30pm

This is a free event but places are limited.  
For more details and a booking form, contact  
The deadline for applications is 12 May 2014

Monday, 24 March 2014

Sky lanterns in the News

Daventry District Council in Northamptonshire is the latest organisation to make a stand against Sky Lanterns.  See the article on the Council's Rural Services Network.

When you stand back from it, the 'ooh-aah' factor cannot be enough to justify the fire raising, or the littering capacity of sky lanterns and the associated risk to the environment, to property and to livestock.  There must be a better way for people to express their views.

Well done to Daventry District Council.  More please!

Deer Management and Sheep Ticks

Knowledge Scotland has published the results of research into the effects on sheep ticks of deer management by culling or fencing.  The research has shown that deer management can reduce tick numbers by >94%.

"The results are very clear that more deer result in more ticks, and that deer management can be used for controlling ticks."  This link takes you to a summary that provides links to the research papers.

See the related article that considers the 'Controlling Ticks by Treating Deer with Acaricides'.  This idea has been around for over 10 years and was based on the success of treated White Tailed Deer in the USA.  As the article indicates, there are practical issues that have so far prevented the treatment of Red deer in the UK.  Some issues are not mentioned in the article: how to prevent individual deer obtaining an overdose of acaricide at treatment stations, how to keep acaricide out of the food chain and the impact of treatment with acaricide on the value of the venison.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Nicholas Hawkings-Byass

I was saddened to learn of the death of Nicholas Hawkings-Byass, the founder of MFH Helicopters and driving force behind the aerial application of asulam for bracken control.  He was well known throughout the UK amongst the bracken control community and he leaves a large gap.

Without his dogged determination it is unlikely that the business of aerial application of pesticides and herbicides would have survived recent challenges, and all those who use a helicopter to apply asulam for bracken control are in his debt.

Friday, 7 March 2014

"Peatlands put in peril as demand for grouse shooting takes off"

Photo: Getty Images
The title is taken straight from the article in The Independent today.  It is an example of the sort of rhetoric that fills column inches and achieves nothing positive for our uplands.  'Debate by press release' is never going to get us very far and is a sad indication of the state of the relations between the RSPB and Natural England.

Note that the quote from the Moorland Association should read 'wildfire' not 'wildlife', which makes a bit more sense.

From my perspective, the best thing we can do is to ignore this type of exchange and get back to the job in hand of building dialogue and consensus wherever we can find it.

As an aside, it is good to see the Director Scotland for the GWCT, and Heather Trust Board member, getting his photo in The Independent.  Nice dogs!

Upland Guidance Events for Natural England

These events have been postponed.

We had been asked by Natural England to set up four events in March & April to 'user test' the draft upland guidance coming out of the Upland Evidence Review.  The events would also have considered the recent Moorland Infrastructure Guidance and also the work that has been developing a Better Outcomes approach within Natural England.

As a result of the uncertainties surrounding the guidance, particularly in relation to burning and restoration (see the earlier post), a decision was taken to postpone the events to allow more time for the guidance to be developed fully, so that the detailed Practitioner Guidance can be included in the scope of the events.

The events had been planned at Whitfield, Northumberland; Spaunton, North York Moors; Moscar, Peak District; and Dartmoor Forest.  I am grateful to those who kindly agreed to host these events and I am sorry that it was not possible to complete the process.

I maintain that the type of 'talk & walk' events organised for a diverse range of delegates are incredibly valuable and that we should do more of them.  This style of event provides an opportunity for people to hear and gain an understanding of the views of other people, and gets all of us out of the silos of our normal thinking.  The added attraction of taking everyone out onto an area of hill, fell or moorland is a further, valuable feature that mixes people up and places the discussion in context; these areas look different when removed from PowerPoint.

With our independent, UK-wide overview, the Trust is uniquely placed to run these events well.  I will continue to advocate that we are missing opportunities by not getting people together in this way more often.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Wildfire in Scotland - being taken seriously

The appointment of a Wildfire Project Manager by the Scottish Fire & Rescue Service (SFRS) is very welcome.  Group Manager Garry Burnett is an old friend as he had been involved with the Scottish Wildfire Forum (SWF) in its early days.

This appointment was reported in today's edition of the P&J and also Highland News.

Garry will be working directly to Assistant Chief Officer Robert Scott who is the Chairman of the SWF.  This appointment is a clear and very welcome statement of intent by the SFRS to treat the threat posed by wildfire seriously.  We have some distance to travel to being muirburn issues together with wildfire but this appointment will help us move faster in the right direction.

In my role as Vice-chairman of the England & Wales Wildfire Forum (EWWF), as well as being on the Executive Committee of the SWF, I will be seeking a more integrated approach to wildfire north and south of the border.  There are many potential benefits of closer working.  Another important group to bring into this arena is the Chief Fire Officer's Association Wildfire Group.  This is made easier as the chairman of this Group is Paul Hedley, the Deputy Chief Fire Officer for Northumberland Fire & Rescue Service, who is also a leading light of the the EWWF.

It is a world that is full of acronyms, and there are many hurdles to be jumped, but the threat from wildfire must be given a higher profile before we are forced to pay more attention by the next spate of wildfires.  It is not 'if', it is 'when'.

Well done to the SFRS for grasping this issue so positively.

A Review of Natural England's Upland Evidence Review

The first phase of Natural England’s Upland Evidence Review was completed at the end of May, last year, with the publication of the five topic reports that covered:
  • Tracks on blanket peat
  • Restoration of blanket bog
  • The effects of managed burning on upland peatland
  • Upland hay meadows
  • Moorland grazing and stocking rates
Full details and downloads are available from the Natural England website.

On behalf of the Trust, I supported the Upland Evidence Review by contributing to the production of the Tracks report, and I am also a member of the Defra Upland Stakeholders Forum, which has had a role overseeing the Review.  

As a result of this involvement, I have seen the draft internal guidance that Natural England is now producing.  This next phase of the work is the ‘evidence to advice’ phase that is developing the evidence established in the five topic reviews into guidance that Natural England can give to its staff when dealing with land management issues.  Note that this is internal advice for Natural England staff and is not advice for the owners and managers of land.

The internal guidance is being developed at three levels:
  • Quick start – things to think about
  • Upland Principles – summary guidance
  • Upland Practitioner – detailed guidance 
The quick start guidance provides context and I have no issue with this.  The Upland Principles have been drafted in four sections, as the burning and restoration topics have been addressed in one paper.  I am happy with the approach that has been adopted for three of the papers but I have difficulty with the burning and restoration paper.

The burning and restoration paper was published after the other three and was circulated for discussion at the meeting of the Best Practice Burning Group, last month.  The late circulation of this report and its contents was bound to produce some fireworks, and we were not disappointed.  The challenge was that I found myself as Chairman of the meeting and had the task of producing a coherent response to the paper from the meeting.

The week following the Burning Group meeting I was treated to another review of the Upland Principles papers at a meeting with Natural England in Newcastle.  This was part of the stakeholder engagement process and the Moorland Association and the RSPB joined me.  Again the main bone of contention was the burning and restoration paper.

We were also given an insight into the development of the Upland Practitioner detailed guidance and a sensible approach seems to have been adopted to this.

So what are the sticking points with the process, the development of the Upland Principles guidance and the burning and restoration paper in particular?

I am not content that effective stakeholder engagement has taken place.  I have been privileged to be invited to attend several meetings and the Upland Stakeholders Forum has been briefed by Natural England.  However, I am not convinced that the feedback that has been provided from these meetings and briefings has been acted on.  There is a feeling that this process has been window dressing and box ticking, rather than meaningful engagement.  On many occasions, I have been presented with the Natural England solution to the issue in a paper a few days before a meeting and asked to comment on it.  This does not feel like a two-way, engagement process to me and appears to be more focused on obtaining external validation to the views that Natural England want to express anyway.

The burning and restoration paper has several 'red line' issues that relate to a stated objective of stopping burning on blanket bog.  I am fully supportive of the principle that burning should only take place where it is going to achieve benefit and that peatland is a sensitive area where burning may not be appropriate.  However, in my view the statements in this draft guidance go beyond the evidence, and I cannot support this as it is drafted.  I believe it to have approached the issues from the wrong direction: it has started highlighting where conflict exists whereas it would make much more sense to me to establish positions of agreement and work from these. The direction of travel set out in this paper can be supported, but the presentation and the final objective goes too far and appears to be aimed at alienating the managers of peatland.  If this is its aim, it has been effective.

I would like to finish this rather lengthy post on a positive note:
  • I fully support the Upland Evidence Review process;
  • Natural England have tackled a difficult job effectively;
  • The 'evidence to advice' phase is a critical part of the process if it is to have long-term value;
  • Much of what has been produced is very valuable; and
  • People with knowledge and experience to enhance that available within Natural England stand ready to help develop the guidance.
The message to Natural England is several fold:
  • Help is available but it must be harnessed into the process that develops the guidance, not kept at arms length;
  • Presenting the solution is not stakeholder engagement;
  • Genuine engagement with stakeholders to achieve partnership working is the only way that we can make progress;
  • Any drive that exists within Natural England to influence the nature of the advice, regardless of the evidence, must be resisted; and
  • All the review documents in the world will achieve nothing unless there is appropriate action on the ground; this requires support and understanding from the managers of the land.
A final thought: it has been muted that there are groups of landowners in Northern England who might on their own initiative be willing to work together to deliver multiple objectives across a large area of land.  What a revelation this could be! Such a group would be able to achieve far more overnight than the current system, with all its expensively produced guidance, could ever achieve.  If Natural England wants to provide long-term, lasting benefits for the uplands of England, ways to support such an approach should be sought.

Natural England might have to sacrifice some control but the benefit to the land, to the communities and the diversity of species could be enormous.

Maybe that is what this is all meant to be about. 

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Soil samples: 10 things you may not know about peat

Photo: Paul Turner, RSPB
See the rather zany article on the BBC News website that has been written in support of the Peatland conference taking place in Caithness, this week. someone had clearly been given a task to come up with 10 bits of knowledge about peat and appears to have found the task challenging.  The list starts off well, but dips when it refers to 'Peat is sexy', which may be stretching a point!

General Licences - restrictions in Scotland

General Licences is a topic that is easily overlooked but their profile has been raised by recent events in Scotland. They are issued annually by all the devolved administrations in the UK and run from 1 January.  See the BASC website for links.

First, what are they? The BASC website contains the following definition: 'General licences are issued by government agencies to provide a legal basis for people to carry out a range of activities relating to wildlife. By definition you do not need to apply for general licences but you are required by law to abide by their terms and conditions.'

In Scotland, the significance of General Licences has been raised by changes introduced into the 2014 licences. There are 14 General Licences and the SNH Website has full details and links.  The first three licences are most relevant to the Trust's activities, and the late changes introduced into these  licences have implemented the Minister for Environment's wish to be able to remove the right to use the General Licence from people on certain areas of land. The clause that has been introduced states:
"SNH reserves the right to exclude the use of this General Licence by certain persons and/or on certain areas of land where we have reason to believe that wild birds have been taken or killed by such persons and/or on such land other than in accordance with this General Licence."

Robbie Kernahan, the Wildlife Operations Unit Manager for SNH, is leading on this and he was interviewed on the the Out of Doors programme on Radio Scotland on 1 March.  The interview lasts for about 5 mins and starts at 23:50 - it will be available to 'listen again' until 7 March.

Understandably the ability to remove the right to use the General Licences without a criminal conviction has raised concerns.  See the GWCT website for a commentary, but in general the concerns are that:
  • The measures are not proportionate;
  • Removal could have serious collateral impacts on conservation through the inability to maintain biodiversity and protect a range of vulnerable species; and
  • The economic impact on businesses and communities could be considerable.
There will be an opportunity to apply for reinstatement of the General Licence on a personal basis but there are obvious concerns about how and when this could be implemented. A recent meeting to discuss how the criteria to be applied before a General Licence can be removed has highlighted these concerns. Indications are that SNH will rely on Police Scotland for guidance on proof, and this raises questions about the competence of the police in this area.

Is this an example where the need to be seen to be doing something about the illegal killing of raptors will result in collateral damage to other species that will be self-defeating?  It is certain to produce a whole raft of bureaucracy, which I fear will not provide any benefit for the birds, the innocent victims of this problem.

While I despair at the continuation of illegal activities, I would like to see emphasis placed on positive measures rather than waving the big stick.  I hope the 'Understanding Predation' project that Scotland's Moorland Forum is developing will prove to be a far more effective use of resources and achieve benefit for the birds without risking a negative impact on other conservation.