Moorland DOES Matter

BY DR STEVE CARVER

Steve Carver replies to Dominic Wightman’s review of Ian Coghill’s book “Moorland Matters”:

It matters for a whole host of reasons including carbon storage, water supply, flood mitigation, biodiversity and wildlife habitats. For Ian Coghill it matters for grouse, and though he rarely shoots them himself (he’s not a rich man and is at pains to point this out) he has fallen in love with these vast and apparently wild landscapes. He is passionate about how their management should be left to those who have been looking after them for generations and is vehemently against what he sees as undue external interference from the nature agencies and NGOs.

Moorland FACTS also matter. The promo video by the publishers for Ian’s book says it is “forensic, insightful and at times a revelation”. The foreword by ex-Environment Minister Owen Paterson MP heaps on the praise, describing Ian’s command of the science behind conservation as “unparalleled” and suggesting that “Moorlands have been misrepresented and misunderstood while the public has been deliberately misled about them”. Like Dom I’m told in Chapter 1 that “Globally, heather moorland is much rarer than tropical rainforest … what still survives, after decades of disgraceful and tragic loss, makes up 75% of the entire earth’s stock of this incredibly rare habitat.”  This is attributed by Ian to a paper by Tallis, Meade and Hulme published in 1998. The revelation here is that having read Tallis et al for myself (and I did read it carefully more than once) I can find no mention of this statistic. This suggests that Ian’s knowledge is somewhat less forensic and insightful than we are led to expect, and yet it is a figure that Ian returns to again and again throughout the book.

I’d heard the 75% “fact” so many times before that I had begun to believe it myself, and so I have used my spatial data analysis skills to do a bit of research and conduct my own analysis. It’s a long and complicated story but I took the time to write up my findings in a blog, the result of which is that even Ian’s own Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) now agree that the figure is “unsubstantiated” (see here). As for being rarer than tropical rainforest, well by the same metric so are urban areas, orchards, and car parks, making this little factoid nothing more than a convenient soundbite. So, yes, the public are most definitely being misled since by my calculations the actual percentage is less than 50% and, in all probability, nearer to 10% depending on the definition of heather moorland used.

Why does this matter? Well, later while Ian is talking about the definition of deep peat as being greater than 40cm thick (something he doesn’t like because it now places limits on heather burning) he tells us that “Where carbon and moorland are concerned, we keep coming back to uncertainty … We can’t be sure of the area managed for grouse in England, let alone the whole of the UK, so how can we be sure about anything?”.  We are then told that the new limits on burning are “a result of the RSPBs campaign … who are happy to compare 40cm of cold, wet peat on the top of the Pennines with Brazilian rainforest”. The irony of both these statements is not lost on me having been told by Ian that we should value grouse moors as being rarer than rainforest in one breath, and then that the exact figure of just how much of them are left in Britain is a known percentage. So please forgive me if I take pretty much everything else in this book with a pinch of salt. But as Ian says on page 56, “If you repeat a lie often enough and loudly enough, people will believe it.”   

As a scientist (of sorts) I know when I’m being spun a yarn and so the 75% and rarer than rainforest nonsense sets the pattern for much of what follows. There are chapters on fire and floods (no mention of the EMBER project nor Natural England’s Wildfire Evidence Review), alternative land uses (no mention of new ecosystem service delivery models based on ‘public money for public goods’), Rewilding (the same old lazy journalistic treatment of Knepp and Oostvaardersplassen with no upland examples), raptors (strangely skips over much of the evidence on illegal persecution), red-list species and predation (a one-sided story with only basic ecological understanding). I could easily write a few thousand words addressing some of the inaccuracies here but there simply isn’t the space. His basic message is “we know what we’re doing, so leave it to us”. But here is the kicker: despite the odd citation here and there, only after the book is finished do we learn that all that we have read is just Ian’s personal opinion. Yes, an opinion based on a lifetime’s experience and talking with people who live and work on the moors, but on this hugely complicated and febrile issue he simply leaves the reader to “decide for themselves what the science says”. Thanks for that Ian.

Some of the issues surrounding the human dimension are tricky to deal with. Grouse moors are imbued with a sense of tradition and local culture and are often a key source of employment supporting the rural economy with external income from estate owners and their clients. If driven grouse shooting were to cease, what would replace it and the jobs that depend on it? Ian suggests it would be more commercial forestry, sheep grazing and wind turbines. Perhaps this is because he’s stuck in the mindset of ‘people, profit, planet’, whereas I might venture in these challenging times that we need to reorder this simple mantra to ‘planet, people, profit’ because with no planet, there will be no people and certainly no profit. Private money is all well and good but tends by its nature to be self-serving and, while supporting the peculiarities of grouse moor economies, is likely to have change forced upon it as it is overtaken by the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss and the corresponding need for radical shifts in the land economy financed from the public purse to support ecosystem service delivery through Nature-based Solutions.

One thing Ian is right about however is the need for dialogue. Constructive and respectful communication between all stakeholders, including the shooting organisations and their members, together with the nature agencies and NGOs all around the same table. Currently they remain at loggerheads, stoking the fire over disagreements on raptor persecution, heather burning, carbon emissions, red-list species, predator control and flood mitigation. Nothing will come of this sorry tale unless both sides are prepared to compromise. There needs to be a basic recognition that one size doesn’t fit all, that land management is incredibly context-specific and that this ought to be reflected in both policy and action on the ground. In his own words Ian recognises the problem and where it leads: “I have watched a broad consensus turn, with remarkable speed, into one of the worst conflicts in modern conservation, and I am deeply saddened by it.” By his own admission “Grouse moor management is not perfect”. Nothing is. It can be improved, everything can. Something has to change.

That something is grouse moor management itself. There is already a movement away from grouse shooting on public and corporate land where leases are not being renewed. This is partly due to political pressure, but also because of the growing realisation that we desperately need to do things differently to address the climate and biodiversity crises more urgently. Most moorland in the UK is not natural. It is a man-made landscape having been managed for centuries by farmers (and latterly for driven grouse). Most of the large areas of contiguous heather moorland seen in England (but also in areas of Scotland such as the eastern Cairngorm and Southern Uplands) are held in a state of arrested succession by burning, cutting and past cycles of drainage and grazing for the sole purpose of grouse. Given the opportunity, many would revert to a mosaic of heath, scrub and trees depending on the prevailing conditions of soil, topography and climate. Ian himself admits that “Nature reclaims its own with amazing speed …” so where possible there is the opportunity to embrace ecological change for the common good together with the need for management and all that entails. Science will be the key, not hearsay, and so I agree again with Ian when he says, “the search for better science continues and the evidence changes” and with it so should our approach to managing our moors. That is what matters.

Dr Steve Carver is Director of the Wildland Research Institute & Co-Chair of IUCN CEM Rewilding Thematic Group.

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