Thursday, 22 May 2014

Recent Activity 2: Defra and the NE Upland Evidence Review

Rather later than anticipated, here is the promised update following the meeting of Defra's Upland Stakeholder Forum (USF) at the beginning of May.  I have developed this to include a summary of the recent developments with Natural England's Upland Evidence Review and Upland Guidance Refresh, which form part of the work of the USF.  This post also encompasses some comment about the input from the Best Practice Burning Group.  This interlinking may appear to complicate matters, but it is significant.  We must not attempt to consider issues in isolation, especially when they are so  important.  Nature works in a joined up way, with much interdependency between the different systems, and if we want to understand and engage with what is going on, we must work in the same way.

What follows is lengthy and involved.  I fear that a casual reader of these words may already be confused and turned off, but if you have an interest in the English uplands, I would encourage you to wade through this.  It is complicated, but it is also important for the future of these areas.

Defra Upland Stakeholder Forum meeting
The Defra Upland Stakeholder Forum meeting was held in London on Thursday afternoon, 1st May.  Briefings were provided about the New Environmental Land Management Scheme (NELMS), and the thinking behind the moorland uplift (the increase in the CAP payment for farmers on moorland), but a lot of the discussion took place around Natural England’s ‘evidence to advice’ phase coming out of the Upland Evidence Review that concluded in May 2013.  In the all pervasive corporate speak, this work operates under the title of the Upland Guidance Refresh.  There is support for much of the output from this work, but part of the guidance from the ‘restoration of blanket bog’ and the ‘effects of managed burning’ topics, which has been considered together, has proved to be contentious.  During the meeting, Natural England expressed regret about the way that some of the guidance had been published, with some justification, and this was gratefully acknowledged.

The Upland Evidence Review and the Upland Guidance Refresh
To refresh memories, reports from all the review topics were published on 30 May 2013 (see the NE website) and the five topics covered by the Upland Evidence Review (UER) were:
       The impacts of tracks on the integrity and hydrological function of blanket peat;
       Restoration of degraded blanket bog;
       The effects of managed burning on upland peatland biodiversity, carbon and water;
       Upland hay meadows: what management regimes maintain the diversity of meadow flora and populations of breeding birds; and
       Moorland grazing and stocking rates.

As part of the next ‘evidence to advice’ phase, the Uplands Guidance Refresh, three levels of guidance are being produced:
  • Tier 1: Quick Start guidance – the approach, processes and systems that Natural England staff will use in the uplands, which is relevant to all uplands casework;
  •  Tier 2: Upland Principles – summary guidance to provide a non-technical summary for each of the five topics to be used by Natural England Staff; and
  •  Tier 3: Upland Practitioner - detailed guidance to provide more technical guidance for all five topics, along with links to further information and technical reports, where appropriate.
The Tier 2 guidance for the burning and peatland restoration topics covered by the UER has been combined into one document and this was published in draft in time for consideration at the first meeting Best Practice Burning Group this year, on 11 February.  The guidance came in for heavy criticism and it made for an ‘interesting’ meeting!  For my sins, I had been asked to chair this meeting, which gave me little chance to express my own concerns, but it was clear that there was little, if any, support for this Tier 2 guidance.

As part of the stakeholder engagement process of the Upland Guidance Refresh, with the Moorland Association, Yorkshire Water and the RSPB, I had already been invited to attend a further meeting with Natural England, during the week after the Burning Group meeting.  This gave me an opportunity to express the Trust’s views fully.  This small group met again on 17 April to visit a moor at the north end of Nidderdale and it was during this visit that a better understanding between the various factions started to emerge. 

The Best Practice Burning Group next met on 30 April and this was a site visit in Coverdale.  Here the Burning Group was shown a grouse moor that was being managed sensitively for peatland re-wetting while still producing grouse.  More progress!

It is not all bad news.  Natural England has expressed a genuine desire to get the UGR guidance right and the message could be worked with, but the form of the initial Tier 2 guidance about burning and restoration was bound to cause offence to owners and managers of moorland and lead to alienation.  It had started from the wrong direction. 

There is widespread acceptance that management of deep peat needs to be more sensitive to the needs of these areas, but a complete ban on burning is not the answer.  The social and economic interests associated with peatland areas must be taken into account and other impacts must be considered.  A large, negative impact on grouse production would remove a vast amount of investment into these areas, and the loss of burning as a tool could lead to a large increase in food for wildfires.

I am not proposing that the messages coming out of our increasing knowledge, understanding and appreciation of peatlands are ignored, far from it.  However, I cannot accept that a ban on burning is the panacea for all ills, as it is often presented.  A much more intelligent, joined-up approach is required that reflects everyone’s interests.  The value of our uplands, moorlands and peatlands to provide natural services (ecosystem services) is being recognised and this is of benefit to all of us.  However, our regulators must learn to work with the owners and managers of land and to do this some compromise is required.  Everyone cannot have everything they would like.

Working together with compromise and understanding will achieve much more in the longer term than short term initiatives imposed against the grain of current upland management tradition.

Where to Next?

1.  The Upland Guidance Refresh.
Currently, the Tier 2 guidance for the burning & restoration topics has been mothballed and the development of the Tier 3 guidance is being planned using a more collaborative process.  This will allow stakeholders to have some input to the development of the guidance rather than being presented with Natural England’s solution to comment on.  This is a move towards proper consultation which will be mush more effective!

I will be part of a sub-group of the Burning Group to help with the development of the Tier 3 guidance.  I will be working alongside the Moorland Association, the RSPB, Yorkshire Water, the National Gamekeepers Organisation and a grouse moor manager.  This will involve several site visits to different parts of the English uplands so that we can feed a range of different conditions into the guidance.

Assuming we can achieve some balanced acceptable guidance at the Tier 3 level, the hope is that the Tier 2 guidance can be re-visited and revised in the light of agreement about Tier 3.

2. The Upland Evidence Review - Phase 2
In the meantime the UER has moved on and phase 2 is considering new topics:
  • Heather beetle (we are not doing this, but we will be fascinated by what is produced)
  • Habitat restoration (initially a wide search to identify priority habitats for detailed review).
  • Wind turbines and bats (onshore)
  • Wind turbines and birds (offshore)
3.  User Testing
Earlier in the year I was asked to organise four events to take place in March across England to test the guidance coming out of the Upland Guidance Refresh process.  It was decided that the guidance was not ready for testing and the events were postponed.

I believe passionately that discussion with a cross-sector group, while standing in 'the purple stuff', is an invaluable tool in the effort to raise understanding of upland management issues and how they interrelate.  I very much hope that we can return to run these events, later in the year.

4. Other Initiatives
There is plenty else going on in England, and I will report on additional topics as time is available.  These include:
  • The formation of an Uplands Alliance;
  •  The development of the National Centre for the Uplands at Newton Rigg College, Penrith;
  • The development of a Peatland Carbon Code to provide a route for private sector funding into peatland restoration;
  •  The work of the England & Wales Wildfire Forum.