Friday, 24 July 2015

Rewilding - What is your view?

Photo: Farmer's Guardian

On the back of the launch of a new charity 'Rewilding Britain' The Farmer's Guardian has published an Insight Article that sets out the arguments for and against.

What do you think?  Is there a place for re-wilding in the UK? If so, where?!

My starting point is that I do not dismiss re-wilding, but I do not see a place for large-scale, hands-off re-wilding.  However, there may be areas where less intensive management could be of benefit, and it could take place alongside other, more traditional management.

On reintroductions, I think we need to be careful what we wish for, and we should be careful of being driven by purely, romantic views.  There is an argument that having some of the larger predators would help with deer management by removing the sick and infirm without needing a bullet, but I do not see how you discourage the same predators from taking sheep.

There is talk of developing a moorland strategy / vision in Scotland and the intensity of management might well be an area for discussion, as part of the development process.

Respect, Trust & Honesty

I have just finished drafting the Trust’s Annual Report and I found myself writing about the need for respect, trust and honesty in our dealings with different organisations who have contrasting views. This was in the same week that we had two public debates about the best approach to heather burning: Amanda Anderson of the Moorland Association and Pat Thompson from RSPB appeared in Country Life; Tim Baynes from Scottish Moorland Group and Duncan Orr-Ewing from RSPB were interviewed on Radio Scotland.

I was struck by what a waste of time these exchanges were, as no-one is going to trot out anything but their safest party line on these occasions. In my view, this type of exchange only serves to feed sensation, deepen the trenches and sell publications / increase ratings.

We do not need sensation; we need sensible, balanced, positive debate. Partisan exchanges, or broadcasting sound bites through social media, might create heat, but we also need light. Without this, the habitats, wildlife, birds, communities, landscapes and features that we claim to represent will continue to suffer. We are making great strides in many areas, it is not all bad news, but we could achieve so much more if we could only develop respect, trust and honesty in our dealings with other organisations. If we then added a degree of compromise and tolerance, how much better could we all serve the uplands and moorlands of the UK.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Burning in the Uplands - My Cup is Half-Full

Details of the RSPB-led Study
A new study led by the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science has revealed the extent of moorland burning across Britain’s upland areas. This is the first time upland burning has been mapped in detail across mainland Britain. 

Using aerial photography and satellite images, 45,000 1-km squares were mapped across Scotland, England and Wales, and revealed that burning occurred across 8,551 of these squares, including 5,245 squares in Scotland.  In the ten-year period covered by the study, from 2001 to 2011, the number of fires recorded increased rapidly by 11 per cent each year.

For more information see the RSPB press release.  The paper has been published in Biological Conservation, Volume 191, November 2015, Pages 243–250.  The abstract of the paper can be viewed online and the full paper is available to download for a fee.

This study is useful as it helps to build a picture of what is going on, but while it has highlighted the problems, it has not addressed possible solutions.  I suspect that this was not part of the research brief, but increasingly I believe that we need to put more effort into joining problems to solutions, if we are going to make progress.

It is relatively easy to use burning to fuel a rant about the state of our peatlands, but we should remember that these areas were, until recently (very recently in the life of peat), regarded as wasteland.  These are slow moving habitats and it will take a long time, under consistent management, to improve their condition.  I would be among the first to agree we need to improve the way we manage burning in many areas, and through this the condition of peatland, but before we discard the management tools, which after all have got us the habitat we all now value highly, we need to think about how the peatland is to be managed, and by whom.

In the short term, my action plan for peatland includes:
  • Continuing to raise the profile of peatland - it is an important habitat that needs sensitive management;
  • Encouraging the revegetation of bare peat areas to reduce erosion by wind and water;
  • Introducing guidelines for traditional peat cutting (for domestic purposes only);
  • Agreeing what long-term management is required to improve the condition of the peatland; and
  • For highly degraded sites, seek funding for capital works to, for example: 
    • reprofile peat hags, 
    • block man made ditches and other drainage channels to raise the water table, and
    • introduce sphagnum mosses to wet sites, where absent.
Longer-term action will rely on the owners and land managers to make the right decisions for the management of the uplands and the peat stocks they contain. This is an area that needs to be looked at separately.

We should not forget that burning takes place to support: crofting; upland agriculture and commons management; and deer stalking, as well as grouse moor management. Picking on grouse moor managers and then using the detrimental side of burning as a stick to beat them with is potentially self-defeating. Privately funded grouse moor managers are a significant proportion of the upland work force, and if their efforts can be correctly focused, alongside the full range of other managers in the uplands, they should be seen as part of the solution, not the problem. We need the support of these people to deliver the objectives we seek.

Also outside the scope of the study are the considerable changes that are already taking place in the uplands. As demonstrated by our Golden Plover Award, and the take up of support from the Peatland Action project in Scotland, landowners and managers are beginning to embrace the 'love your peatlands' message. We still have a way to go with this, but momentum is building.

During the 'bogathon’ visits, in Northern England last year, which the RSPB were part of, we agreed that burning should remain as one of the management tools, but it needs to be applied intelligently, not by rote.  We need to adjust burning techniques and rotations to suit the requirements of the land, including peatland, and this may mean less, or even no, burning in some areas.  This might save grouse moor managers some work!  

Also, the alternative of cutting heather, should not be ignored.  Cutting cannot be used everywhere, but the Trust's recent studies have recorded that some grouse moor managers are getting excellent results through cutting alone.  See our Members' Briefing on Heather Management in the Reading Room on the Trust's website.

I believe that the picture is for from being as gloomy as the study would have us believe.  The winds of change have started to blow, and with encouragement I believe that momentum is building behind improving our management of burning and the condition of our peatland.  My cup is half-full!

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Scotland's Moorland Forum - Understanding Predation Project

The Questionnaire

The Understanding Predation project aims to capture the views of as many people as possible, from anywhere.  Responses are not confined to Scotland.  While the project will welcome responses from organisations, it is personal views that count most. The project wants to hear what individuals think, not just what organisations would like their people to think!

Have you completed a questionnaire yet, and have you done enough to draw the attention of colleagues, members and/or supporters to the opportunity that the questionnaire offers people to express their views?  The questionnaire responses will influence the final report from the project, and although the project is based in Scotland, the output will have wider relevance.

Understanding Predation – Information at a glance
Project webpage
Project Blog
Questionnaire – Online version
(for submission of response)
Questionnaire – pdf version
(to preview the questions)   
End of online questionnaire
Completion of workshops   
31st July 2015
Project Review Seminars
27th October – Perth
3rd November – Inverness
12th November - Edinburgh

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

England: Improving Peatland

In the last 2 weeks I have been on two visits to consider the regeneration of sphagnum moss.

The Peak District
The ascent of Kinder Scout
Last week it was the Peak District and an outing of the new Uplands Management Group (UMG) - the successor to the Best Practice Burning Group.  The Moors for the Future project hosted the visit and we were marched up to the top of Kinder Scout to look at the restoration work the project has been carrying out.  Starting from almost completely bare peat 10 years ago, the transformation has been remarkable and the scope of the project has been extended to include inoculation with plugs of sphagnum moss.

Revegetated ground - top of Kinder Scout
Sphagnum Moss requires wet conditions to grow successfully and this is difficult to achieve on top of hills.  However, the project team reckon that high rainfall can provide good conditions for sphagnum, even where the water table is well below the surface.

The cost of all the restoration work is high (about £12,000 per ha), but the stability of this important area of peat is increasing so that it will stay there long term and not succumb to the combined forces of gravity and erosion by wind and water.

While chairman of this group, I would like to see the Group tackle how to improve the coverage of sphagnum mosses on areas, which are not so critical, and where there is no big funding pot.  The importance of the sphagnum message needs to be demonstrated to land managers, so that they can improve the conditions as part of their normal management.  Tell them clearly what is required and there is a chance it can be achieved; if they do not know the requirement, there is no chance.

Keighley Moor

The USF on Keighley Moor
The Upland Stakeholder Forum met near Keighley, yesterday, and this included a visit onto Keighley Moor, above the reservoir, as guests of Yorkshire Water (YW).  This was one of the moors included in the 'bogathon' visits last year but it was good to go back and bring other members of the Forum up to speed with the work being carried out by YW.

The driver for YW is water quality and their emphasis has been on raising the water table by blocking grips and revegetating bare peat.  To YW's credit they have taken the grouse and farm enterprises with them, and all are enthused by the work.  The gamekeeper, farmer and area officer for Natural England joined the visit and it was great to see everyone working towards a common goal.  This is an example of the Natural England Outcomes Approach working in practice.  More please!

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Scotland - More funding for the Peatland Action Project

The Peatland ACTION project has been allocated a further £3m to spend during the current financial year on peatland restoration projects.  This follows the £5m spent up to the end of March and supplements grants available under the new Scottish Rural Development Programme.

For more details and links to online information see the Moorland Forum blog post.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Heather Trust at the Scottish Game Fair

The Trust will be appearing in force over the next three days at the Scottish Game Fair at Scone.  With thanks to GWCT, we have a stand in part of their main exhibit with the World Pheasant Association.  Anne, Patrick and Samantha will be here and we will be delighted to see you.  Several Board members will also be present.

The highlight of tomorrow will be the award of the Golden Plover Award at 4.30pm.

We hope that any member or supporter who is at the Fair will come and see us.