Peatlands for Birds; Fens, Mires & Bogs

Peatlands for Birds; Fens, Mires & Bogs was a three day conference in Sheffield, facilitated by Prof Ian D Rotherham of Sheffield Hallam University.  An excellent series of thought provoking presentations which offered useful updates across a series of complex and at times controversial issues.  Blog readers might ponder the relevance to our local moors, but there are similarities of issues that peat sites, whether upland or lowland face.

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Delegates saw first-hand the issues around multiple stakeholder interest in a site on the visit to the Peak District Eastern Moors.  Here condition of the site and the complexities of trying to accommodate all stakeholders interests within the framework of a protected site designation were discussed.  The Peak District National Park is the second most visited park in the world with an estimated 25 million day visits a year.  Despite this one of the principle problems from various stakeholder perspectives is the loss of the Ranger Service which has left the sites open and without any information being made available to visitors once they are out on the moors.  Funding generated from the increased visitor based economy does not go back to those who provide and manage the resource.  The dry heather moor is vulnerable and has been the target of deliberate, malicious fires during drought periods. Increased night time use of high impact mountain bike and joggers lights is visible across two to three kilometres.  Aggressive drainage in the 20th Century and failure to redress and rewet the Eastern Moors by grip blocking is exacerbating the situation.  A case might be made that some of the issues are also to be seen here on Hatfield Moors and Thorne Moors?  Without sufficient aforethought the rush to ‘develop’ visitor attractions and experiences we risks the very nature and resources remaining on these beleaguered peatland sites?

Left above: Prof Ian D Rotherham explaining the issues of stakeholder interest with right illustrating three interests (do-walkers, mountain bikers and ecologists/archaeologists).

The scene was set on day two by Prof Ian d Rotherham of Sheffield Hallam University who sought a “wild but not wilderness” future for the moors.  Whilst they had a rich and well recorded history, albeit not as detailed as might be liked in today’s evidence based society, there was an agreed need to safeguard their future so that they continued to be a resource for public benefit through contribution to carbon sequestration, through water purification and slowing the flow as well as their benefit to wildlife and to human recreational pursuits.

Advocates for management for grouse shooting, especially driven grouse shooting tried to persuade the delegates that this traditional and popular sport was not the preserve of the rich.  Proponents presented a case of concern about the fate of ground nesting birds and the need for predator control to address this issue.  Interestingly but hardly surprising was the failure to mention or acknowledge the illegal raptor persecution which appears to be on the increase on areas of upland moors managed for grouse shooting.

The slides above, amusingly reported as shouldn’t really be included as part of a presentation to conservationists, mmh …. so the audience isn’t sufficiently astute to be able to differentiate reality from spin or understand that the figures offered in some scenarios are oft short of fact?  

What was also interesting to learn was that the neglect of sheep in the uplands which could result in sick animals dying and being left out until infrequent shepherding visits located animals or visitors reported fallen stock.  Eventually they might be collected and then left dumped to rot down which attracted predators who were then in turn blamed for losses of ground nesting birds.  The audience also learned of the damage that sheep can inflict on breeding waders such as Lapwing, Curlew and Snipe, albeit unintentionally from results obtained through a Natural England funded study.

Prof Des Thompson of Scottish Natural Heritage, the keynote speaker on Day 2 provided an overview of the issues from a Scottish perspective.  Afforestation tax breaks afforded to landowners under the Thatcher Government until  1988 when Nigel Lawson ended the public support have subsequently required expensive restoration.  The Scottish Government has now set a target of 20,000 hectares a year being planted with trees.  It was a relief to hear Rob Soutar (ex Forestry Commission Scotland ) provide assurances that this would not be on blanket bogs as had historically been the case.  There was recognition that this might have the potential to impact on the woodland-grassland margins important for such species as Black Grouse.

Above left Prof Des Thompson and Dr Colin Shedden (BASC) and right the costed example of tax incentivisation to afforest uplands.

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Other differences between Scotland and England is that Vicarious Liability exists in the former.  The Scottish Government are considering introducing a licensing system for shooting alongside introducing taxation of income generated by this sporting industry.  Perhaps Westminster might be encouraged to consider this option as a method whereby England will benefit from much needed income into HMRC Treasury and if this income stream were ring-fenced then it could be used to restore, manage and monitor the management of the uplands for public benefit?

It was particularly pleasing and an honour to introduce Dr Lucy Ryan to delegates and who enthralled the audience with a well-received presentation on our very own Nightjar project.  The outstanding science which underpinned the talk shone out as exemplary.

Natalie Bennett, a veritable champion for persecuted raptors particularly the Hen Harrier considered that it was not the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Regulations  that had failed “bioabundance” but the politicians.  Whilst a conversation was needed with landowners delegates were reminded that persuasion had failed in terms of the management of Walshaw Moor and as a consequence  it was considered that  failure had made a significant contribution to the catastrophic floods  suffered by residents of Hebden Bridge.   Discussion also raised the issue of Brexit and the need to ensure that if “better than Utopian” were not possible then environmental safeguard regulations were at “least as good” as those the EU had provided.  It was interesting to hear a politician (with a degree I agriculture) advocate the need’ to do’ politics rather than have it ‘done to you’ and to hear that the science should be gathered and used in the fight for environmental safeguard and conservation.

Natalie Bennett P4B hrk 764 web

Angela Smith MP, the Hen Harrier Champion for England in Westminster sent a clear message to the delegates  that “The persecution of the Hen Harrier has to stop BEFORE any progress can be made”.  It is hoped that the representatives from the shooting groups in the audience heard that message and that they take it back to their membership.

Angela Smith MP P4B hrk 865 web

 

Dr Richard Lindsay reminded delegates that the UK is a significant emitter of carbon into the environment from peatland loss and that it was important to consider fens in the wetland system and neglect of these resulted in fen carr and he used the example at Foulshaw Moss where the re-introduction of lagg-fen had seen it become the wettest he had known. Thereafter bogs become self sustaining as a climax system.   Dr Lindsay also advocate caution from results of short term studies and that the results might be treated with suspicion and warned the audience that burning alters the structure of the surface of the peat and relies upon the eventual regrowth of sphagnum to help recovery.  We need to think timescales, a veteran tree lives for 800 years and takes 800 to die with conditions for some species such as the Queen’s Executioner Beetle becoming right over time.

In summing up Dr Pat Thompson (RSPB) echoed the anticipated call for more research and monitoring and concern around how this might be funded post Brexit.  There was a recognition that there were certainly challenges but also opportunities for our beleaguered bogs.

Certainly delegates left with much to think about and much to follow up on but in the interim, the first Ring-tail Hen Harrier has been seen on Thorne Moors.  When will the first ‘Silver Ghost’ arrive?  I saw one 7 October last year, so eyes peeled …. please let us know if you ‘catch the early bird’ via execsec@thmcf.org

 

 

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