UK government stonewalls EU investigation into blanket bog burning

The EU Commission has invited Hebden Bridge campaigners to comment on findings from the first stage of its investigation into Natural England’s 2012 management agreement and Higher Level Stewardship agreement with Walshaw Moor Estate Ltd (WMEL).

Both agreements cover Walshaw Moor Estate Ltd ’s intensified use of the moors for its grouse shooting business.

On behalf of over 90 Hebden Bridge residents, Dongria Kondh presented a complaint to the Directorate General (Environment) of the EU Commission in January this year. Now the EU Commission has outlined the information the UK government has provided in response to the complaint. Unfortunately it adds nothing to what was already in the public domain, and glosses over questions about whether Natural England acted unlawfully in signing the new Management Agreement and Higher Level Stewardship Agreement with Walshaw Moor Estate Ltd (WMEL).

Background to the complaint

Walshaw Moor Estate is part of a Natura 2000 site – an area protected under EU directives  that aim to conserve wildlife and habitats. In 2011 Walshaw Moor Estate Ltd, intent on intensifying its grouse shooting business, faced prosecution from Natural England for 45 breaches of these laws.

The offences consisted of 30 incidences of moor gripping (digging drainage ditches), the construction of 5 tracks, the construction of 5 carparks, the creation of 2 ponds by peat extraction, the construction of earthworks (shooting butts) in 2 locations and 1 incident of using vehicles likely to damage the site.

But early in 2012, Natural England dropped the prosecution and signed a new Management Agreement with Walshaw Moor Estate Ltd that consented to many of the activities that it had recently been prosecuting Walshaw Moor Estate Ltd for. This was followed a Higher Level Stewardship Agreement, paying Walshaw Moor Estate Ltd over £2.5m of public money over 10 years, until 2022.

These payments are to compensate Walshaw Moor Estate Ltd for the restriction of its activities on the moor, under the new management agreement. Activities that Natural England judged criminal enough to warrant prosecution. Activities which Walshaw Moor Estate Owner Richard Bannister told Natural England he would claim more than £26m compensation for, if Natural England stopped him from carrying them out.

Lawfulness of the management agreement still unclear

In January 2013, Hebden Bridge residents asked the EU Commission to investigate the lawfulness of the new management agreement. This depends on the adequacy of the Appropriate Assessment (a form of Environmental Impact Assessment). The Appropriate Assessment looked at the impacts on wildlife and habitats of the activities allowed under the new management agreement – such as heather burning, grazing, track construction, grip blocking and so on.

Information that the UK government has given the EU Commission sidesteps the question of the adequacy and lawfulness of the Appropriate Assessment. Now the campaigners are asking the EU Commission to go back to the UK government and ask them to review  impartial scientific evidence about whether or not there is no reasonable scientific doubt that the proposed operations will not adversely affect the integrity of the site.

This is the legal standard that the Appropriate Assessment must meet, in order for the management agreement to satisfy wildlife and habitats protection laws.

New evidence has emerged about the existence of scientific doubt over the conservation effects of heather burning on peat bog. In May 2013, Natural England published Evidence Review NEER004, on “The effects of managed burning on upland peatland biodiversity, carbon and water”. The Evidence Review clearly states that currently available scientific evidence is not sufficiently strong or consistent to allow a judgement about the effects of burning that is beyond reasonable scientific doubt.

Of particular relevance to the Walshaw Moor Estate Ltd Appropriate Assessment, the Evidence Review says,

“There is relatively little evidence on the effects of differences in burning rotations on peatlands.”

It continues,

“…overall these vegetation responses to burning, in particular the tendency to dominance of graminoids and/or heather may reduce the chance of maintaining active, functioning peatland. Similarly, where restoration is an objective for modified, degraded upland peatland habitats, burning may perpetuate dominance of graminoids or heather.”

This seems to belie any claim that the Appropriate Assessment shows that no reasonable scientific doubt remains that Walshaw Moor Estate Ltd ’s proposed operations will not adversely affect the integrity of the protected Natura 2000 site – the criterion that Appropriate Assessments must satisfy in order for Management Agreements to be lawful.

Natural England’s Evidence Review calls for further scientific research into the effects of managed burning.

Dongria said,

“There is no scientific or other justification for saying the Management agreement will lead to favourable condition, given that it allows burning on bog, and sphagnum has not been shown to regenerate under burning regimes.”

According to the National Trust, managed burning “Should not occur on blanket bog, which is a fragile habitat, vulnerable to disturbance and drying out by burning.” This is why the National Trust is phasing out burning on blanket bog and deep peat soils, like those on Walshaw Moor. Unless burning stops, the National Trust is convinced that,

“…the bog is likely to get worse in terms of habitat quality and the species that the areas can support.” (National Trust, 2013)

Questionable conservation objectives 

Managed grazing and heather cutting or burning serve the conservation objective of preserving heather moorland. This is vital for estates dedicated to the mass production of red grouse for the sport of shooting, but it is associated with a serious decline in upland species.

The 2013 State of Nature report, published in May, shows that, of 877 upland species for which information is available, over a period of up 50 years 65% have declined and 37% have declined strongly. This compares to a 60% decline of wildlife species in Britain as a whole, over the past 50 years, with 31% having declined strongly

Uplands conservation objectives and practices with a broader focus than the preservation of heather moorland seem likely to deliver far better outcomes in terms of protecting and enhancing biodiversity.

Hebden Bridge campaigners support the idea of allowing the uplands to “rewild”, in the National Trust’s sense of “restoring vegetation”. This is the National Trust’s conservation objective for a significant proportion of the uplands it manages in the High Peak. It will allow the growth of more native trees in the cloughs, regrowth of lost and reduced scrub and woodland, and more wet bog species on the blanket bog.

The conservation value of diverse upland habitats is also indicated by the example of he Cairngorms. Although woodlands cover only about 17% of the Cairngorms, they are the main habitat for around 39% of important species, while moorland, covering some 42% of the Cairngorms, appears to support only 3% of the Cairngorms’ important wildlife species.

This is not to say that Hebden Bridge campaigners advocate replanting moors with woodland. It is simply evidence that the competent UK authorities could take into account when responding to the proposition that a conservation objective of restoring a variety of uplands vegetation is likely to be more successful, in terms of promoting habitat and wildlife biodiversity, than the current focus on preserving heather moorland – particularly in the case of Walshaw Moor Estate Ltd.

The UK uplands conservation policy of preserving heather moorland has contributed to the situation where no UK national park is rated higher than category V (next to the lowest of six categories) in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s directory of protected areas. In contrast, most of the world’s national parks are category II: “Large natural or near natural areas set aside to protect large-scale ecological processes.” Some are category I: “Strictly protected areas set aside to protect biodiversity,” or “wilderness”. Hebden Bridge campaigners would like to know why the UK competent authorities allow grouse moor owners to define large areas of the moorland.

Conflicts of interest and the power of grouse shooting lobbyists 

To this end, the Hebden Bridge complainants are asking the EU Commission to investigate the power of the grouse shooting lobby. First, they want the competent UK authorities to say whether, how and when Media House (the public relations companied hired by Walshaw Moor Estate Ltd ) lobbied Defra against Natural England’s prosecution of Walshaw Moor Estate Ltd.

Hebden Bridge campaigners also want answers from the UK competent authorities about whether – given his clear conflict of interest – it was allowable for grouse moor owner Richard Beynon MP to hold the post of Secretary of State for Defra with responsibility for overseeing Natural England’s work of enforcing EU Habitats and Wildlife Directives on Walshaw Moor Estate Ltd. Walshaw Moor Estate Ltd ’s clear business aim is to intensify grouse shooting on the protected Natura 2000 site.

So far, the EU Commission has not reported any UK government response to these aspects of the complaint.

Nor has the UK government commented on the lack of any formal monitoring of the Walshaw Moor Natura 2000 site, to assess what is happening under the new management agreement.

Hebden Bridge campaigners are asking the EU Commission to find out from the UK government who, if anyone, is collecting evidence of blanket bog restoration on Walshaw Moor, under the new agreement that allows burning on bog? This is particularly urgent, given that the National Trust has stopped burning on bog since they consider it would not allow restoration to occur, and in the light of Natural England’s evidence review NEER004, on “The effects of managed burning on upland peatland biodiversity, carbon and water”.

Hebden Bridge campaigners hope the EU Commission will persist in investigating their complaint, by taking up these questions with the UK government and pursuing them vigorously and rigorously.

Have your say

The EU Commission’s letter explaining their findings is downloadable here. If you’d like to comment on the UK government’s initial response to the EU Commission’s investigation of Hebden Bridge residents’ complaint, please contact us, or comment in the reply box below this article.

Information sources not already linked to in the article:

Natural England’s Evidence Review NEER004 (May 2013), “The effects of managed burning on upland peatland biodiversity, carbon and water”

P.Shaw and DBA Thompson, 2006. The Nature of the Cairngorms: Diversity in a Changing Environment


Upper Calder Valley Plain Speaker (previously known as Changing More Than Lightbulbs) has had considerable responsibility for Ban The Burn’s media communications since the campaign’s launch in 2012. The Hebden Bridge residents’ complaint to the EU Commission came out of the Ban The Burn campaign.

3 thoughts on “UK government stonewalls EU investigation into blanket bog burning

  1. A very comprehensive update – thanks.

    Have you requested (FoI/EIR) to see all the correspondence between Natural England and Defra relating to this case? Defra will be taking advice from NE, or indeed not. Analysis of their correspondence should give some indication of whether Defra is taking their advice. You could ask for all the correspondence between officials and ministers but I expect this will be rejected.

    Natural England are developing a new standard for natura 2000 site conservation objectives. If Walshaw Moor’s conservation objectives change, how will that impact on the trajectory towards (or away from) favourable conservation status.

    I also took a complaint against Defra to the EC and it went through the Pilot Mechanism. Or rather it got stuck in the pilot mechanism. The Commission seemed a little reluctant to really push Defra, and Defra were typically belligerent (bellicose) in their refutation. Sadly the organisation I was workign for at the time (Grasslands Trust) folded before the complaint was resolved – so I believe it is still in the mechanism, in suspended animation!

    • Thanks for the suggestion. I’ve made loads of EIR requests, including requests to see various emails between different parties. Some of these were successful, but not the one asking about Media House lobbying of Defra. I think there may be at least one Natural England reply to an EIR request that I haven’t yet posted on the website, I kind of temporarily ran out of energy.

      My impression from EIR replies, and from events like the rescinding of Natural England’s Vital Uplands policy & cuts to Natural England’s funding in “the bonfire of the quangos”, is that Defra has been driving this (rather than taking advice from NE).

      I’ll have a look for info about Natural England’s new standard for Natura 2000 site conservation objectives. Do you by any chance know where to find it?

      I hope the Commission will push Defra on this complaint. A good thing about it is that it’s from citizens, not an organisation – so at least it won’t collapse because an organisation folds, since there isn’t one.

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