Natural England’s situation is hopeless, says Walshaw Moor monitor as Defra rejects legally binding targets for moorland restoration

Upper Calderdale Wildlife Group says the situation with Natural England is hopeless following Defra’s recent rejection of Natural England’s recommendation to set legally binding, strong targets for improving conditions at Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

The quango’s ability to protect Walshaw Moor, above Hebden Bridge, was already limited.

With its budget slashed over the past decade and a half by central government, Natural England hasn’t had the staff to monitor the Walshaw Moor Estate Site of Special Scientific Interest – even though, as a Natura 2000 site, the grouse shooting moor is supposed to have the highest level of conservation protection.

Walshaw Moor is one of the rare areas of upland blanket bog in the UK, and as such, should be protected as a vital carbon sink on a par with tropical rainforest. But its management for intensive driven grouse shooting is at odds with protecting this vital habitat, and the wildlife it should support.

Ban the Burn and other moorland protection groups have repeatedly informed Natural England of the Estate’s violations of its legally binding Catchment Restoration Plan

For years, Ban the Burn, Upper Calderdale Wildlife Group and Wild Moors members have been monitoring Walshaw Moor Estate’s implementation of its agreement with Natural England, and have been sickened by evidence of many destructive breaches of the Estate’s obligations to rewet the moor, refrain from burning on blanket bog, repopulate the sphagnum moss and other key blanket bog plants, and protect the area’s wildlife.

Since 2019, Ban the Burn and Upper Calderdale Wildlife Group moorland monitors have repeatedly informed Natural England of Walshaw Moor Estate’s violations of its legally binding 2017 -2042 Catchment Restoration Plan.

In October 2020, Ban the Burn made a formal complaint to Natural England about their failure to investigate 8 examples of Walshaw Moor Estate’s burning of sphagnum and apparently unconsented infrastructure construction that the group had first reported in June 2019. We supplemented this in March 2020 with information about the Estate’s construction of 10 more new grouse butts that year.

“The situation with Natural England is hopeless” – Upper Calderdale Wildlife Group moorland monitor

The moorland monitors say Natural England has effectively ignored their efforts. One recently said,

“Like other moorland monitors, I am very disillusioned with the whole thing and don’t even like going up on Walshaw Moor. The situation with Natural England is hopeless and I have had no meaningful correspondence with them regarding our challenges and complaints. They just will not engage.

“The last correspondence with them was March 2023, to complain that Walshaw were burning again and did they have a license for this. All Natural England said was they were classing it as a tip-off and that they had passed it on to their enforcement officers.

“I think it has proved pretty fruitless over the years as the time and energy it has taken us has yielded little results. Until a change of government nothing will change.

Natural England has publicly acknowledged its lack of “effective responsive monitoring”:

“Areas of current concern relate also to the intensity of implementation of monitoring and to the control of damaging activities on sites (including from external factors). A clear priority stressed in consultation meetings with NE staff and external stakeholders has been the need for effective, and responsive monitoring in future with clear feedback to the management of each site, thus supporting progressive improvements in site condition.”

Natural England’s call for government to set legally binding target to restore protected sites to favourable condition by 2042 – the request Defra didn’t want the public to know

In July last year, Natural England’s boss,Tony Juniper, wrote to environment minister Rebecca Pow about the government’s commitment to halt species loss by 2030. In the letter, he said a legally binding target to improve conditions at Sites of Special Scientific Interest would “provide the greatest likelihood of success”.

He added that “many protected sites are in poor condition” and said setting a target under the Environment Act 2021 to improve them would,

“help to ensure sufficient priority is given to targeting resources, such as through ELM [the Environmental Land Management farm subsidy scheme]”.

Tony Juniper’s letter was only made public because OpenDemocracy fought to obtain it from Defra, which initially rejected a Freedom of Information request submitted in January 2023. Defra only released the letter in July 2023 after Open Democracy appealed to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

In a separate submission to Defra, Natural England said the target should be,

“to restore 75% of our one million hectares of terrestrial and freshwater protected sites to favourable condition by 2042”.

The quango added:

“This would give statutory weight to this critical component of nature recovery.”

Defra has announced non-legally binding target

It seems that all Defra has done, is to announce last January a non-legally binding “interim target” for 50% of Sites of Special Scientific Interest to have “actions on track to achieve favourable condition by 31 January 2028”.

Walshaw Moor Estate, run as a grouse shooting moor by local businessman RIchard Bannister, already appears to be in that 50%. Actions to achieve favourable condition are identified in the Walshaw Moor Estate Catchment Restoration Plan 2017-2042 (agreed between the Estate and Natural England). Although Walshaw Moor Site of Special Scientific Interest is in unfavourable condition, the Estate’s Catchment Restoration Plan has as its “Vision” “the restoration of the moor towards favourable condition.”

Defra’s “unfavourable recovering” designation was a “mistake”, says RSPB

But the RSPB’s head of site policy, Kate Jennings has said that the “unfavourable recovering” designation means little:

“Many of these ‘recovering’ sites are not recovering at all. Natural England put many SSSIs into this category a decade ago because it assumed that entering into a plan or agreement with the landowner would automatically lead to the restoration of the site, without considering whether the plan was being funded, implemented or proving effective.
“A decade on, the evidence clearly shows that this was a mistake. The little SSSI monitoring that Natural England has carried out in recent years shows that ‘unfavourable recovering’ sites are being downgraded to ‘unfavourable no-change’ or ‘unfavourable declining’. This is despite large amounts of public money being spent on agreements which were never going to drive recovery, including some which allow moorland burning to continue and so perpetuate damage to these precious places.”

This is confirmed on the government website,  which says that the Site of Special Scientific Interest designation: unfavourable (recovering condition) simply means

“if current management measures are sustained the site will recover over time.”

Walshaw Moor looks like one of those “recovering” Sites of Special Scientific Interest that aren’t recovering at all

After years of fruiitless correspondence with Natural England, documenting Walshaw Moor Estate’s breaches of its moorland restorationn agreement with Natural England, the moorland monitor recently said,

“I was walking on the estate at the weekend. What I saw and heard was depressing. They have done a substantial amount of cutting which although is preferable to burning, still degrades the habitat. The land is scarred with it as far as the eye can see.
“What was just as depressing was the complete lack of birdlife. Although we were up there hours, there was the odd corvid and a couple of meadow pipits. There was no sign of the short eared owls we had seen earlier in the year displaying and interacting . This is the second year these owls have shown promising signs of breeding only to come to nothing. Oddly, there was no sight of grouse either.

“I have heard that there was only one days shooting last year at Walshaw, the Heather beetle is rife this year {which may explain the intense cutting} so I doubt there will be much shooting this year.

“I suspect Bannister knows Grouse shooting is not bringing in the grants he wants, and that he uses Walshaw Moor to offset his massive tax bills from his other businesses.

“There are a lot of unhappy shooters around these days!”

Local conservation groups say restoring land for biodiversity, carbon capture and people is the future – not grouse shooting

Commenting on Yorkshire Water’s 2021 decision to end grouse shooting tenancies on two of its moors (including Baitings, Turley Holes and Higher House Moor, near Hebden Bridge), Wild Moors founder Luke Steele told the Yorkshire Post that business-savvy estate managers will begin to consider shooting ‘less relevant’ as the value of naturally regenerated land began to rise, as predicted by the property industry. He added,

“The world is fast moving in a direction where restoring land for nature, carbon capture and people is at the forefront of solving climate change and biodiversity loss.

Turley Holes was one of MoorLIFE’s blanket bog restoration sites during its five year project from 2010 to 2015. This work restored 893 hectares of damaged peatland to self-sustaining, active blanket bog.

The Upper Calder WIldlife Group moorland monitor welcomed United Utilities’ recent decision to cease grouse shooting on all its 56k hectares of Lancashire moorlands, and hopes this will put Yorkshire Water under similar pressure – pointing out that,

“Yorkshire Water have meetings to discuss strategy with United Utilities,  so who knows what decisions they will come to? Their decision not to renew grouse shooting licenses on Turley Holes was done very quietly  and I wonder whether Yorkshire Wwater have an under -the-radar approach to ceasing Grouse shooting licenses in contrast to the bolder but very contentious approach of United Utilities.
Speaking to someone who works for United Utilities, she has had death threats and an attempt to run her off the road by disgruntled shooters since the decision. Security for staff has been stepped up with guards being employed. It shows you what sort of people they are.”

2 thoughts on “Natural England’s situation is hopeless, says Walshaw Moor monitor as Defra rejects legally binding targets for moorland restoration

  1. Pingback: Walshaw Moor Estate owner agrees land sale to property management company, if planning permission’s granted for huge wind farm on SSSI – Save And Restore Walshaw Moor

  2. Pingback: Walshaw Moor Estate owner Richard Bannister looks to swap 5,300 brace of red grouse for 65 x 150-200m wind turbines – Turning Calderdale Green

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