Moorland Does Matter

BY IAN COGHILL

Back in August I failed to notice that Steve Carver had written a lengthy attack on my book Moorland Matters, using Country Squire Magazine’s ‘right to reply’. He started with a complaint that the oft repeated claim that the UK holds 75% of the world’s heather moorland is incorrect and that saying that there is less heather moorland in the world than rainforest is meaningless.

Well, in part I agree, it is generally a mistake to ascribe precise numbers to complex living systems, and I should not have done it. What I should have said is that heather moorland is globally a very rare habitat, for a tiny, crowded island the UK holds an extraordinary proportion of the world’s stock, people give estimates of 50% -75%, but it is impossible to be precise because of the uncertainty of defining what is and is not heather moorland.

Personally, I don’t think they are very different, but had I used the latter phrasing, Mr Carver would have not been able to use it to avoid addressing the more important issues I raised. Let us consider the things that his fixation on 75% enables him to avoid.

I maintain that heather moorland is globally rare and that Britain has still got a disproportionate amount of it. That these moors are often SSSIs, SACs, SPAs, AONBs and National Parks. That they are much loved and visited landscapes and that they have a great cultural and social heritage and support real jobs in economically deprived areas. Which bit of that did I get wrong?

I also say that the current model of conservation is not working and will not work because it actively excludes the people who own and work the land and it dismisses their skill and knowledge as irrelevant anecdote. The plan which, as ever, is to give more money to the giants of the conservation industry and ever more power to the regulator is doomed to fail. Is that not true?

Did I get it wrong when I said that wildfires had destroyed thousands of hectares of heather moorland where rotational cool burning had been stopped, releasing mind-numbing quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere? Were Forsinard, Moray, Winterhill, Darwen, Marsden, Dovestones, Stalybridge and Saddleworth figments of my imagination? Similarly, does anyone actually believe that grouse shooting causes flooding or that the RSPB are good at catching stoats or that nature reserves fledge more curlew chicks than grouse moors?

One thing he did dwell on was that I was apparently wrong when I said  that the alternative sources of income available to replace grouse shooting are forestry, farming, and energy generation. I apparently ignored re-wilding and here we get to the crux of the matter, as Mr Carver is a leading re-wilder. He is an author of the 10 Principles of Re-wilding, he earns his living studying and promoting re-wilding and he has designs on the uplands.

As I say in the book, it seems odd that re-wilders are so fixated about heather moorland. These moors were seen a few years ago, rightly in my view, as jewels in our conservation crown and internationally recognised as worthy of high levels of protection. Now according to Mr Carver and the conservation industry they are that dreadful thing, a transitional landscape, and as such are not to be tolerated. This is odd because there are other transitional landscapes kept in being by human intervention that are treated very differently. Hedgerows, hay meadows, coppice woodland and many reed beds would swiftly revert to various forms of woodland if they were not subject to regular and pretty beefy management. If it’s good for the hay meadow goose, why is it so bad for the moorland gander?

The answer is, that of all the landscape types, the one that the re-wilders think they are most likely to be able to play with are, they believe, grouse moors. They see rich people shooting things as ripe for attack and displacement and the only thing that stands in their way is the grouse moors’ capacity to outperform the conservation industry in the production of rare wildlife, the survival of rare eco-systems, the safe storage of carbon and the provision of eco-system services, and all paid for with private money. Their response to this is to ignore it, or if necessary, deny it. Grouse moors are essentially awful places because they say so. The fact that a few years ago they were wonderful and were given every designation under the sun was a mistake. All that is needed is to re-wild them and everything will be great. Whatever you would like to happen, will happen. When you ask them to be a bit more precise it all goes a bit woolly. When you complain about giving up the management that keeps the carbon safe and the ground nesting birds breeding successfully, for you know not what, they will say that re-wilding will generate self-sustaining eco-systems that will heal the wounds inflicted on the landscape over the last 10,000 years by beastly humans. Thus re-wilders don’t have to tell you what will do well and what will disappear, because what will magically emerge is nature as nature intended. Everything you could possibly want will be there. The abandoned land will magically revert wilderness and whatever it is will be good. Sometimes it sounds a bit like a religion and indeed some are somewhat tongue in cheek calling it ‘Pristianity’.

Mr Carver’s 10 Principles make it clear that re-wilding requires the full set of key stone species. As that includes bears, elk, wolves, aurochs, lynx and beavers, free to operate naturally over huge areas without human interference, even he must admit that we are unlikely to ever get there on a tiny island with 67 million people and 40 million cars. Thus what we are left with is not re-wilding, it is simply a form of land management based on hope and abandonment. As such, it is reasonable to ask its promoters, as you would other land managers, what will the outcomes be? Will it be more curlew, safer carbon storage, more recreation, what?

The best that Mr Carver could come up with was a mosaic of bog, scrub and woodland. Will that generate a healthy cash flow? Well, no, of course not, as he knows. So he says that it will be paid for out of the public purse, or more accurately by you and me. But why should the public pay for an existing mosaic of bog, heather and trees, being replaced by a different mosaic of the same things? Why should we give our money to already rich people and organisations for doing nothing?

Why would we pay for ecosystem services when grouse shooting provides them for free?

But it is worse than that, the people who own and manage these places believe that abandoning management can be predicted to result in the loss of rare ground nesting birds and a greater risk of catastrophic wildfire destroying vast amounts of stored carbon. So the tax payer may be paying to make things worse. But these views can be ignored, as re-wilders have often ignored the locals when their views are ‘wrong’. This despite Principle 7 beginning, ‘Re-wilding requires local engagement and support’.

All this is tragic. I’m sure Mr Carver is sincere in wanting to make the world a better place and equally so when he says he wants to talk. But he must surely realise that starting a dialogue with the people who own and manage the uplands with, ‘The problem is grouse moor management’ is hardly genius.

Our moors were trashed by over a century of unrestrained industrial emissions. They were mined for minerals and ores. The people he casually attacks, wouldn’t take the fencing grants, or the forestry grants, the grants to put in roads and tracks, or the headage payments. These moors only survive because they were kept for grouse shooting.  If he genuinely wants to have constructive dialogue he would be well advised to stop blaming them and start by saying a simple ‘Thank You’. It would be a better place to start.

Moor owners are aware that they need to adapt and are continuing to do so. They are content to discuss new ideas that can be incorporated into their existing management, if they know that they will result in benefits to conservation and society. They are unlikely to be interested in discussions based on their imagined guilt and how best their culture and way of life can be expunged.

Ian Coghill is a life-long conservationist and a keen participant in country sports. Following retirement of a 42 year career as Director of Community Safety and Environmental Services for Birmingham City Council, he became Chairman of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust for over a decade, until his retirement a few years ago. His career and connections have enabled him to observe first-hand the pressures that the countryside and its wildlife are under. A copy of ‘Moorland Matters’, Ian’s book, can be acquired here.