Birdwatch News Archive
Natural England "fails to protect wildlife site"
Posted on: 15 Oct 2012
The RSPB has today submitted a formal complaint to the European Commission over the handling of a grouse-shooting estate in the South Pennines where a protected area of blanket bog habitat is under threat.
Following six months of investigation, the charity believes Natural England (NE) has contravened European environmental protection legislation in its dealings with the Walshaw Moor Estate, near Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire. This comes after NE came under much criticism for its poorly evaluated plans to start trial culls of Common buzzard on another shooting estate earlier this year.
The site, owned by retail tycoon Richard Bannister, is home to an important area of blanket bog, a globally rare and threatened habitat of delicate mosses which supports scarce breeding birds such as Merlin, Dunlin and European Golden Plover. Walshaw Moor is so vital for these species and habitats that it is protected by the highest European environmental designations. South Pennine Moors is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It is part of the South Pennine Moors Special Area of Conservation (SAC), designated under the Habitats Directive for an array of upland habitats including blanket bogs, transition mires, wet heaths, dry heaths and sessile oak woodlands.
The management of the estate – including burning and draining of the bog to maintain heather for grouse shooting, a process often detrimental to other wildlife – has caused Natural England to raise serious concerns in recent years. However, in March this year, without a clear explanation, Natural England suddenly dropped legal proceedings against the estate, including a prosecution on 43 grounds of alleged unconsented damage to the SSSI in order to secure their restoration.
Mike Clarke, RSPB chief executive, said: “The decision to lodge this complaint has not been taken lightly, but this is a vitally important issue which centres on the Government’s statutory duty to protect our natural environment. Natural England – the Government’s wildlife watchdog – has dropped its prosecution without giving an adequate explanation and without securing restoration of this habitat. It has also entered into a management arrangement which we consider has fundamental flaws. This combination of actions is probably unlawful and will do little, if anything, to realise the Coalition Government’s stated ambition to restore biodiversity.
“Natural England has an excellent record but at Walshaw it has not fulfilled its duty to protect wildlife. This has happened in the year that the Government seeks to review its environmental agencies. We think this case is a timely reminder that we need a strong independent champion of the natural environment.
“This is just one of several protected areas in our uplands, and this case may set an important precedent for how these sites are managed in the future.”
This case is particularly concerned with the management of blanket bog habitats: these typically have a high water table and are covered by a carpet of bog mosses and sedges. Blanket bogs are a globally scarce peatland habitat and the UK has a special responsibility for their conservation: Britain holds an estimated 10-15 per cent of the global resource. In the UK, they’ve been forming for around 5,000-6,000 years. In 2007, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee identified various pressures on the UK’s blanket bogs, including grazing, burning, drainage and erosion.
Campaigners in Hebden Bridge are adding their voice to the RSPB complaint, and Dongria Kondh from the locally based BAN THE BURN campaign group explained: “Inappropriate moorland management does not just affect birds: people suffer, too. Hebden Bridge was very badly hit by flooding in June and July this year, and in order to minimise the town's flood risk we need the upland catchment above the town to be managed so that large areas of degraded blanket bog are restored to a healthy state. We need a good cover of sphagnum moss to act as a buffer in heavy rainfall events, slowing the rate of run-off from the moorland tops.
"The catchment's blanket bog degradation is due primarily to the activities of grouse-shooting estates. On Walshaw Moor, we have seen erosion from unconsented tracks, very extensive drainage, and aggressive burning on blanket bog. The increased scale of this activity over the past few years may well have been a contributory factor to the severity of the floods in our town.”
DEFRA are currently undertaking a ‘triennial review’ of Natural England and other agencies. The review started this autumn and is expected to conclude early next year. It is possible that the review will result in structural and functional changes to Natural England. The RSPB regards it as vital that any changes result in an independent, science-led organisation with a core purpose of conserving and enhancing the natural environment in England.
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