Monday, 15 December 2014

Monday: Perth - Moorland Forum Meeting

Today I headed north to Perth to attend the commissioning meeting for the Moorland Forum's Understanding Predation Project.  This project has had a long gestation, over 18 months, and it was a great relief that we have finally got to the start of this important work.

I am the project manager for the project, which has a budget of £220,000, and is due for completion at the end of January 2016.  The work started with a request from the Scottish Minister for Environment, early in 2013, and SNH has developed the concept with the Moorland Forum team.  The work will revise the Predatory Birds Report that the Forum published in 2005, but in addition we will integrate local knowledge into the findings.  Local workshops will be used at the start of the project to  gather views and seminars will be held at the end of the work to allow discussion of the findings.  It is likely that this work will provide some considerable challenges and we will need to make sure that those, from any walk of life, who have an interest in the issues are given a chance to contribute to the work and learn about the findings at first hand.  No pressure then!

There will be more about this project in the next day or so on the Moorland Forum website and the blog that I am setting up for the project.  If the issues are of interest, please feel free to get involved.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Friday: Edinburgh - HT Board Meeting

The final leg of the week took me from Boat of Garten to Edinburgh through a snow covered Aviemore.  There was some doubt about trains running to time, but they ran perfectly.

The HT Board meeting was held in the salubrious surroundings of the New Club, from a room which has an unimpeded, magnificent view of Edinburgh Castle.

The Board members rattled through a busy agenda.  I presented a summary of activity since the last meeting and we agreed plans for 2015.  It looks like being a very busy year with work being spread across England and Scotland.  Also, there is hope that my recent visit to Northern Ireland has re-kindled some good links; it is a part of the UK where the Trust's message could have some beneficial impact, and it is very close to our base in Dumfries.

For 2015, the Board agreed that I should continue to focus the Trust's efforts on five areas of work: heather management, heather beetle, bracken control, Scotland's Moorland Forum and peatlands.  In addition, Patrick Laurie and Sam Harrison will be running the Country Market & Sporting Sale, which will close at 12:00 on 1 May 2015.  In addition to backing me up, Anne Stoddart will be producing the Annual Report in August, and Clara Jackson who will be managing members and their subscriptions.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Thursday: Scotland - Cairngorms National Park

Talk of weather bombs across Scotland does not deter the Heather Trust, but on arrival, Boat of Garten looked much like this.  However, I reached my objective of The Boat Hotel, in time for a good breakfast.

I passed the day profitably and I was ready for a meeting with the Board of the Cairngorms National Park Authority, in the evening.  The Board is discussing a moorland paper tomorrow, and I had been invited, with others, to express my view of the issues.

The Board is considering a key issue of how to develop the management of the moorland area in the Park in the face of criticism about over-intensive grouse moor management, raptor persecution and bad muirburn practice.  It is a big task, as about 44% of the Park's area is under moorland management.  The Board recognises that the management of moorland fulfils an essential role, but part of the land use planning in the Park is to increase the area of woodland and montane scrub, and it is inevitable that this will put pressure on open moorland.

I expressed my opinion that the Park Authority must be prepared to lead the way in moorland management and suggested that the establishment of demonstration sites would provide an opportunity to show leadership.  I think that these sites would provide a platform for discussion that would be an effective way to introduce ideas to those who own and manage the land, with a view to gaining their support for the various initiatives within the Park.

One day I hope that my advocacy for demonstration sites will bear some fruit, as I think it is a very effective method to establish links, defuse lash points and influence management practices.

Wednesday: London - Upland Stakeholder Meeting

This was a day that I got some train miles under my belt.  The first leg was Dumfries to London and this was followed by catching the sleeper to Aviemore.

The draw of London was the Upland Stakeholder Forum meeting that is run by Defra.  It has been going about three years and is getting into its stride.  The role that is developing for this Forum is to provide a strategic framework for all upland issues.  However, the Group highlighted that the most important function for Defra is to show leadership and give direction to the discussions about the many and varied upland issues.

Lord de Mauley, the Defra Minister attended part of the meeting to hear at first hand about some of the issues.

We discussed the formation of the Uplands Alliance, and how a reformed Best Practice Burning Group might relate to the USF as a Best practice Group to represent the views and experience of practitioners.  The Group also discussed the proposal for Defra to facilitate a large application for LIFE funds (~£100m) to deliver improvements in peatland management across the UK over a 10 year period.  I am impressed by the scale of this thinking and it is exactly the sort of work that Defra should be tackling to show leadership.

The Forum also allows an opportunity for members to share ideas and news of up and coming events.  Topics included CAP Reform, the Defra sponsored Hen Harrier initiative, and Natural England's Upland Outcomes Framework.  Some of this falls well short of being riveting but the Forum provides a useful opportunity to air this sort of information.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Tuesday: Bog-athon Cumbria

Today was not an ideal day for this, but a hardy team assembled above Mosedale on the east side of the Lake District to take on the worst that the weather could throw at us. In this area, the blanket peat sits on top of the fell and that was where we had to go.  The photo says it all!

This was the final planned Bog-athon visit.  The visits have served to move debate forward and demonstrate that, correctly applied, the Outcomes Approach being introduced by Natural England has value. It is a way of thinking, not a solution in itself, and involves in reaching a consensus about to objectives for the management of the area.  Extending the coverage to include Exmoor and the Lake District was well worth the effort.  If nothing else, these last two visits have served to emphasise how parts of the uplands can be so different, and how a 'one size fits all' approach to their management is a complete non-starter.

Today, grazing was the only management available, or required, for the area of (very wet) deep peat that we looked at, but it must be recognised that it is a delicate balance to maintain the appropriate levels of grazing while providing the farms with enough income to survive.  Also, it was clear that large commons require a large amount of staff input from Natural England to get them into grant schemes and then support the scheme through its life.  The Outcomes Approach that has been at the core of Bog-athon maybe desirable, but there is a question mark over whether NE has the resources to implement it fully.  

Monday: England - Best Practice Burning Group

I was chairman for the 38th meeting of this Group, yesterday, but we could possibly be nearing the end of this long run.  I was a founder member of the Group way back in 2003, when we were all a lot younger.  One of the highlights of the Group's work was the success of the advice provided to Defra about the review of the Heather & Grass Burning Code, and the regulations behind it, that was launched in 2007.  The Group has made a lot of progress, but maybe it is time for a change.

A suggestion was discussed for the Group to reform as an Uplands Best Practice Group that will provide practitioner input to Defra's Upland Stakeholder Forum, which is now gathering momentum. In the new guise the Group would be better able to provide practitioner input to debates beyond burning, and it was noticeable yesterday that much of the discussion was about peatland management, springing from the Outcomes discussions focussed on the 'Bog-athon' process. See the previous post.  If this change goes ahead, the Group is likely to establish small task groups to address specific topics and these could include issues around burning.

The Uplands Alliance is also in the development stage and it appears that its work will focus principally on research and policy issues.  Some clear thinking will be required to make sure that all the groups work together efficiently and effectively so that we avoid any hint of duplication and serve the best interests of the uplands.

Friday: Bog-Athon Exmoor

What, no heather?
Much though the term 'Bog-athon' is overused, it is the easiest way to describe the purpose of the visit to Exmoor, last Friday.  The aim was to bring a moor in the south-west England, into the Bog-athon process, and link to the other work that was carried out in June.

Bog-Athon is a manifestation of the new engagement process being adopted by Natural England.  This provides for early consultation with the owners and managers of the land and is a much healthier process. I welcome this change and wish to encourage this development.  This is why I was happy to travel to Exmoor and take part in the visit with Natural England.  I was also able to use the is it to catch up on the progress of the Graze the Moor project on Molland Moor, that I am running.

During the visit we looked at the peatland restoration work being carried out as part of the Mires Project and discussed other management work.  It served as a reminder that the balance of upland issues is different on Exmoor in the south-west.  We were also able to brief members of the Moorland Initiative Board of the Exmoor National Park Authority in the afternoon.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Grouse shooting - benefits

As the grouse shooting season draws to a close, The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) and the Moorland Association have highlighted the key facts about the value of grouse shooting and the benefit it brings for the economy and the environment.  

This information has been sent to all MPs:
  • Heather moorland is rarer than rainforest and 75 per cent of it is found in Britain because of grouse moor management.
  • Grouse shooting in England, Wales and Scotland supports conservation work and is worth an estimated £100 million a year.
  • Grouse shooting in England, Wales and Scotland supports the equivalent of more than 2,500 jobs.
  • Conservation for grouse shooting is landscape-scale management.
  • 79 per cent of upland EU Special Protection Areas are managed as grouse moors and up to five times more threatened wading birds are supported on moors managed by gamekeepers.
And for those who prefer their facts in pictures, the buzzword is 'infographic'.