This is turning into a ‘join-the-dots’ good news story, as York Council has now joined the Mayor of Doncaster and Calderdale and Wakefield Councils in proposing an end to grouse moor burning and pushing Defra to impose a ban that has been in the offing for years.
Grouse shooting estates routinely set fire to heather moorland because grouse require a mix of old and new growth for nesting habitat and food requirements. As the numbers of grouse on each moor has exploded (as estates seek to make as much money as possible by cramming as many grouse onto the moors as they can) columns of smoke have become as much a part of the moorland landscape as mammal traps and ‘keep out’ signs.
Does that matter? It really does. An IUCN report on peatland estimated that the UK may host between 8.8 and 14.8% of Europe’s peatland area and about 13% of the world resource of blanket bog. They state that though blanket bog has a species-poor assemblage it “contains an exceptionally high proportion of species with legal protection under UK and European conservation law“. Blanket bog forms the largest expanse of semi-natural habitat in the UK, but almost three quarters of peatlands in England are already damaged or degraded, according to Natural England, with burning a key driver. The Committee on Climate Change, which advises the government on environmental action, subsequently recommended the practice be banned to protect peatlands from further damage.
Shooting estates nominally signed up to a voluntary agreement to limit burning, but the grassroots organisation Ban Bloodsports on Yorkshire’s Moors, which monitors ecological damage on grouse moors, compiled more than 550 reports of peatlands being burnt by shoot operators across just Yorkshire last year alone. The RSPB, on a page looking at burning on Northern England’s protected blanket bogs, says that “information from Natural England suggests there are over 400 consents to burn blanket bog on grouse moors in north England’s European protected areas, covering around 950 square kilometres of the (deep) peat soils this precious habitat depends on“.
If NE, the government, and the estates can’t sort the issues around burning out, perhaps the councils whose boroughs include grouse moors can?
There are many ways to tackle the exploitation of wildlife and the environment that grouse shooting depends on. Legislation protecting wildlife and the environment has largely been ignored (we’ve documented the ‘lockdown killing spree’ many times on this site), but removing one of the primary tools estates use to modify precious moorland habitats could be key to reining them in.
Support for a burning ban from York Council, which provides local government services to around 200,000 people in an area covering approximately 105 square miles, would undoubtedly be a hammer blow for grouse estates in their ‘annus horribilis‘: Natural England (the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England) is headquartered in York, and the government has suggested that the House of Lords could be relocated there.
The council’s concerns are not overtly wildlife-based (or anti-shooting), but flooding. Peatlands in the headwaters of the River Ouse contain sphagnum moss which acts like a sponge to hold rainfall in the hills, which in turn prevents flooding. When the moorland is burned the mosses are damaged, leading to large amounts of rainfall being channelled downstream.
Ban Bloodsports on Yorkshire’s Moors are quoting Cllr Keith Aspden, Leader of York Council, who has written to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, George Eustice MP:
“With hundreds of fires deliberately started on Yorkshire’s iconic moorlands this season to engineer game bird breeding habitat, the Government must act to protect the upland environment.
“The continued burning on moorland in Nidderdale and the North York Moors damages peatland hills, which are intended to serve as a flood barrier keeping downstream communities safe. Due to the damage caused the increased run-off waters are now being channelled downstream further increasing the risk of disastrous floods taking place.
“A ban on this ecologically destructive practice is vital in order to protect our environment, wildlife and communities. We urge you to commit to delivering on this Government’s promise before the grouse moor burning season opens in less than three months, to ensure our local communities, wildlife and environment is protected from any further harm.”Cllr Keith Aspden, July 2020