Saturday, May 01, 2021

Grouse or Nature?

  The scientific consensus is that burning heather damages peatland formation, making it “difficult or impossible” to restore these habitats to their natural, waterlogged state, capable of storing vast quantities of carbon, about as much as all the forests in the UK, France and Germany.

Burning older heather creates tasty young shoots for the grouse to eat and removes cover for predators such as foxes and stoats. However, the way grouse estates manage the nation’s uplands has now come under intense scrutiny, as scientists and, belatedly, ministers have realised the vital role the peat that covers much of the country’s moors could play in sequestering carbon.

Scotland announced last year it was planning to impose a complete ban on burning on all types of peatland, with licences granted only for limited purposes, such as habitat restoration. It also falls short of the recommendations of the government’s climate change committee, which has called for a total ban on burning on peatland as part of a wider package of changes to the way land is managed, in order to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

However, the government has only a new partial ban will still leave almost 40% of blanket bog in England vulnerable to burning and about 70% of shallower, already degraded upland peat – which scientists believe also needs to be restored where possible to take full advantage of its unrivalled capacity to soak up carbon – at risk of further damage. There will also be a range of exemptions for English estates keen to carry on burning on blanket bogs, including areas that are steep or inaccessible for mowing. 

 Grouse estates are mostly owned by business tycoons and aristocrats and often the source of the only local employment in many rural areas.

The bar of the Red Lion Hotel & Manor House decorated with stuffed grouse and many of the rooms have gun cabinets. In summer months the road outside is lined with gleaming new Range Rovers and sports cars. Katy Verot, one of four sisters who run the hotel, is already booking in shooting parties. “From the Glorious 12th, it’s massive. Most are from down south. There are lawyers and banking types. There’s landed gentry, too – a lot of dukes and ladies come up to shoot grouse,” she says. “Some are extremely wealthy. They might start in Devon, shoot somewhere in the Midlands, come up to us and then go on to Scotland...You are talking £3,500 to shoot a day, so you have got to have the cash,” she says. “They will eat and drink here.”

Mick Bray looks through his binoculars at multiple fires smouldering on the Duke of Devonshire’s Bolton Abbey estate in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales. He watches as blurry figures blowtorch the heather, and gently shakes his head at what he sees as needless destruction.

“I live here and I love running on the moors. But I hardly ever see any wildlife apart from grouse. It’s a monoculture,” he says. “I want it to be what it could be. I want it to be reborn. I want to see all the raptors coming back and nature doing its thing.”

Hen harriers, peregrine falcons, short-eared owls and red kites should all be common sights on the dales. But a report for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority found that many raptors were diminished or absent from suitable habitats.

“Tourists wander around and think they are in a wilderness,” says Bray, who grew up nearby and first went walking in the moors with his dad. “But they don’t see the traps everywhere and the persecution of raptors. There is no real nature here.”

Luke Steele, director of the Ban Bloodsports On Yorkshire’s Moors group, commented, “It is an endless cycle of damaging the environment and wildlife so that more grouse can be shot.”

A peatland that is 10 metres deep can have 30 times the amount of carbon stored in the same area of tropical rainforest. However, this carbon is not currently locked away safely, because approximately 80% of the UK’s peatland is in a degraded, damaged state. As soon as the peat loses its watery protection, the carbon in the millennia-old rotted plant matter starts to oxidise and is emitted as CO2. Every year the nation’s dried-out peatland releases more carbon per year than all of the oil refineries in the country, with research showing that burning hinders the regrowth of mosses that play a vital role in keeping moors waterlogged.

Richard Lindsay, head of the University of East London environmental research group and an international authority on peatland conservation, explained,  “I’m glad the government has recognised burning on peatland is damaging. But there is no logical reason to restrict the ban to protected areas, or just to deeper peat for that matter. Peat is peat. It is clearly more of a political decision than a scientific one...It completely undermines our position as president of Cop26.”

Pat Thompson, senior policy officer at the RSPB, says the estates exterminate any threats to grouse to maximise the numbers of birds to be shot each year. “They kill almost all predators. They kill foxes, crows and stoats legally,” he says. “They’re also often involved in killing protected wildlife such as badgers, pine martens and, of course, birds of prey.”  Thompson accepts that some bird species do well on grouse moors – curlews, peewits, red kites and the like. “They are in abundance because anything that might prey on them has been removed,” he says. “These ecosystems are completely out of balance.”

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