Monday, 20 May 2019

In search of sustainability

In our latest blog the Trust’s Director, Anne Gray, reflects on a year in post and offers some thoughts on the Trust’s unique role and the reasons why it needs continued support. 

I started as Director of The Heather Trust in March last year.  It’s been a year to meet people, listen, understand, and get to grips with the opportunities and challenges the Trust faces in the current political, policy and financial environment.  

I’ve traveled to Exmoor, Powys, the Peak District twice, Northumberland several times and across Scotland, as well as quarterly trips to Defra in London and to corresponding upland and moorlands fora in Scotland.  This has been to provide project management, training, advice and representation work to further the interests of good moorland management.  Some weeks I’ve barely seen home, whilst others it has been head down at my computer to plough through consultations, correspondence and the business of keeping the Trust running.  All of this I have to say has only been possible with the support of the small, but dedicated, Heather Trust team. 

In relation to Britain’s moorlands, The Heather Trust occupies the space between environment, rural economy and society and seeks to reconcile the various interests involved in moorland management at a time when many moorland management practices are being challenged.  As such, our vision is for sustainable, resilient moorlands for the benefit of everyone.

The Trust’s watch words might be “moderation in all things”.  It was formed because its founders understood that fragile moorland and upland environments could not sustain intensive production, whether that be grouse, sheep or anything else – there needs to be balance.  I’m told in the early days the discussion was pretty much grouse and sheep, so perhaps ‘anything else’ didn’t get a look in.  However, the principle is even more relevant today, when we have so many more calls on our moorland and upland areas.

Lapwing by Garry MacLennan, Invermark

If you read the press or follow social media however, it appears there is precious little moderation around.  In these media, the debate about moorlands and how they are managed has probably never been more fraught.  In the last year I’ve watched how polarised debates about wildfire management, predator control, trees and rewilding, mountain hare numbers, sport shooting and even farming have become.  Not that these topics were without a range of viewpoints before last year, but everything seems to be more entrenched and embittered.   

It used to be that science and evidence could be relied on to get everyone back to a more objective place, but selective pieces of research are now hurled around like brickbats in games of one-upmanship that are not constructive.  This is nowhere more evident than in the debate about managed burning on blanket bog where some science on specific issues such as carbon storage, vegetation response or water quality exists, but none yet which draws the relevant threads together to give the complete picture. 

This could all be very depressing and make a moderate wish to simply pack-up and go home.  However, I don’t think these media fairly represented who most of us are and, if we are to end the impasse and move forward with these issues – and we surely need to, then it will require people and organisations, such as The Heather Trust, that can bridge the chasm to make it happen.

What is truly at the heart of these issues is how society deals with environmental concerns such as climate change, water management and biodiversity losses.  In very recent weeks, with demonstrable civil protest supported by a plethora of worrying environmental science, there can be little doubt that these issues increasingly will be the focus of government’s policy and legislation programme. 

Land management, whether it be farming, game, forestry, water supply or, indeed renewables is increasingly finding the spotlight shone on it.  On the one hand, I know why this is.  Land and how it is managed matters when it comes to solving environmental problems.  It is about the only sector that can sequester and store carbon, reverse biodiversity losses and it is likely the most cost-effective way to manage water quality and flood risk.  On the other hand, that we have not in the past always used land in ways that will achieve this is the collective responsibility of society, and not exclusively of those who have been supported and encouraged to grow more, feed the nation and support the rural economy.  While I understand completely the frustrations of those, especially the young, who protest and call for change, what I find much less helpful is the criticism and blame culture that seems to be developing alongside the protests.  It is time to solve these less than straightforward issues together, and we’ll not do it while pointing fingers.

Open Hill Highland Cattle

One thing that the Heather Trust has long advocated and which I am 100% behind is the idea that we need to take the best of what we already know about managing moorlands, gleaned from both practitioners and science and evolve it.  Too often, public policy has caused management which is not flexible enough for the local context and which flip flops from one extreme to another.  Livestock headage payments leading to overstocking and over-grazing in some places and their universal removal leading to under-grazing and associated issues in other places is one example.  There are plenty of others and unfortunately it is something that is still happening, and badly needs to change.

The Heather Trust is a charity, we rely on membership, donations and on payment for work we do to facilitate discussion, reconciliation and change.  We are small and we need to grow to be truly effective.  If you believe that the way forward for moorlands across Britain lies in resolving the tensions between environment and economy, then we need to hear from you.  We need members, but we also need ambassadors for, and who can demonstrate, sustainable moorland management.  If this is you, then get in touch.

We are always keen to work with other organisations on collaborative projects, and again if this is you, get it touch.

I’m sure my second year at The Heather Trust will be no less busy and challenging than my first has been, but I remain committed to the ideal of a balanced approach and resolving tensions, and I hope you can support me in that.

Anne Gray