England's moors: an update on this burning issue

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

England's moors: an update on this burning issue

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Four years ago I announced that the RSPB had taken the serious step of making a formal complaint to the European Commission raising our profound concerns at the state of our finest designated wildlife sites in the North English moorlands -  sites  protected on paper as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) but which have been failing to deliver for nature for too long.

Our complaint related specifically to the failure of DEFRA, through its statutory agency Natural England, to take adequate measures to tackle serious and persistent damage to one site in particular, Walshaw Moor in the South Pennines. Subsequently the complaint broadened to cover the other Northern English moorland SACs - focussing on the issue of burning the heather and vegetation on the areas of deep peat soils – soils that should be supporting healthy blanket bog and the wildlife that depends on it. 

The management of many of these places has been intensifying in order to produce more and more red grouse to support the driven grouse shooting industry see here, a land use that has shaped our hills, influenced some of our most iconic landscapes and had significant impacts on our wildlife throughout many decades stretching back into the 19th Century.

Today we have learned that our complaint and a separate complaint submitted by Ban the Burn have led to the European Commission beginning legal action against the UK Government by issuing a Letter of Formal Notice.  This is the starting gun of a full infraction procedure when the Commission considers a Member State has not applied the relevant laws properly. From the limited information we have it appears that the Commission share our wider concerns over bad application of the Habitats Directive with respect to the blanket bog habitats that are meant to be conserved by SACs in England.  We will update our page dealing with this case (see here) later today.

We welcome this move wholeheartedly. These are serious matters and much is at stake. 


Moor burn by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)


For anyone following these issues over the last four years it will not have escaped your notice that positions have become entrenched. This has manifested itself by, on one hand, repeated calls and petitions to ban driven grouse shooting in England and on the other vigorous defence of the role driven grouse shooting plays and especially the 'benefits' of burning. 

We want a resolution. 

We have been calling for reform of the way our hills are managed with proper regulation of an industry whose unfettered ambitions to produce ever higher red grouse numbers for the gun are causing growing concern over the direct and indirect  impacts on wildlife, including hen harriers and other raptors, the ability of our moorlands to cope with increasing rainfall and to play a part in reducing the risk of catastrophic floods downstream, and the impact on  deep peat soils that lock up carbon and prevent its release into the atmosphere and into our drinking water. 

Over the coming days we will see an intensification of the rhetoric from both perspectives. I fully anticipate repeated and sustained pressure for the RSPB to join calls for a ban. 

That is not our position. 

We will probably hear more from our critics, funded by backers linked to the grouse industry, who wish to deflect us from our purposeful work.  Will these be direct or via the pages of supportive newspapers? 

But now through the Hen Harrier Action Plan and this European Commission led process there is a chance of real progress. The challenge is now with DEFRA, Natural England and the driven grouse industry to respond constructively to the growing evidence that change is needed, and to do so positively - we will be returning to this critical issue regularly both here on my blog and on Saving Special Places

And I want to hear from you. If you are frustrated that the RSPB is not supporting calls for a ban or if you are outraged that decades of traditional management for grouse are being challenged by our actions or if you are in a place where you see scope for a constructive way forward please let me know your views.

Walshaw Moor from the air

  • Steve J (whoever you might be),

    As stated much earlier, I imagine that a south-western reintroduction could involve European lowland HH stock - a bit Like Scottish ospreys translocated to Spain, or Scottish golden and white-tailed eagles translocated to Ireland or Swedish and Spanish red kites translocated to Scotland & England,  respectively.  So, good to hear that the RSPB is on the case with Natural England and others.

    And I have suggested to Martin before, that a contingency plan to rescue any deserted HH eggs and chicks, and hatch and rear them, should be put in place. Such rescued stock could also be used for a reintroduction elsewhere, or reinforcement programme close to where they were abandoned.

    Keith Cowieson - RSPB member & volunteer - songbird, bird-of-prey, wader, waterfowl, seabird and uplands enthusiast.  

  • Keith - yes, I'm very familiar with Carl's work, thank you.

    The cirl bunting captive rearing project was conducted not in order to prevent the Devon population from recovering, but to encourage range expansion. Hen harrier brood removal is designed to prevent the hen harrier population from recovering on driven grouse moors, a sort of ''remove 'em or we'll shoot 'em'' sort of approach, if you like.

    Carl's work in Mauritius is not aimed at preventing species in Mauritius from recovering in order to protect commercial interests; it's designed to build up the populations in Mauritius, thereby preventing their extinction.

    To me, the question is not ''Would removing hen harrier broods and rearing them in captivity work'' - I have no doubt at all that it would. The question is ''Is it acceptable to take hen harrier broods with the express intension of preventing hen harriers from recovering on driven grouse moors''. My answer to that is, No, it's wrong.

  • Martin,

    Definitely my last on this.  Got back recently from Scotland where I attended the Scottish Government/Scottish Natural Heritage-endorsed ‘Understanding Predation Final Review Seminar’.  Very encouraging to participate in such a constructive, good-natured dialogue and collaborative working process. This involved a diverse group of attendees, representing many organisations and all shades of opinion.  You will be pleased to know that the RSPB Scotland team was in the vanguard of championing joint & collaborative programmes designed to increase overall understanding and foster mutual trust while seeking to address the plight of Scotland’s declining wader populations.  An excellent initiative and very good example of how conflict-resolution processes and discourse should be conducted.

    Steve J (whoever you may be),

    The cirl bunting recovery in Devon, and reintroduction in Cornwall is indeed fantastic news.  The latter of course being an excellent example of how best to conduct a brood management scheme – removing chicks from the nest, hand-rearing them in captivity before releasing them back into the wild and, in this instance, translocating them into a part of their former range.  In parallel, in order to reduce the impact that sparrowhawks have on the cirl bunting population, supplementary feeding of the local pair on dead quails was used in Cornwall.  And while on the subject of brood management, what about the superb work by Welsh biologist Professor Carl Jones, who has just been awarded the prestigious 2016 Indianapolis Prize for brood-managing the Mauritius kestrel back from the brink of extinction, despite bureaucratic indifference and establishment nay-sayers, see here - http://tinyurl.com/jyyahb2.  Sound familiar?  Several lessons identified for us all to learn there.    

    James Clarke,

    The recently amber-listed meadow pipit is indeed a songbird and has declined by ~40% over the past 40+ years according to the BTO.  Of interest, a long-term study by the James Hutton Institute has identified that low-intensity grazing involving both cattle and sheep improved the breeding abundance of upland meadow pipits.  Both over or undergrazing in the uplands is bad for pipit breeding success (and other biodiversity), militating against destocking of the uplands, see here - http://tinyurl.com/jsl6jam & here http://tinyurl.com/j4g8uqm   Meanwhile an often overlooked finding from the GWCT’s Upland Predation Experiment, showed that significantly increased meadow pipit breeding success (~23%) was achieved by predator removal alone, see here - http://tinyurl.com/nv2xacn .  Similarly, the increases achieved in populations of declining wader species were equally impressive – populations of the globally near threatened, nationally red-listed curlew (the UK’s most pressing bird conservation priority), red-listed lapwing and amber-listed golden plover all improved threefold on average, see here - http://tinyurl.com/h5ltjs6.  So, to reiterate, hen harriers are not an issue for songbirds.  Good habitat management and generalist predator control is good for the meadow pipit and upland wader species of conservation concern.

    Prasad (whoever you may be),

    I have no shooting interests and yes I presented at the Uplands Conference last year – you can see an account of proceedings here - www.newtonrigg.ac.uk/.../Martin_Holdgate_-_MULTIFUNCTIONALITY_CONCLUSIONS.pdf and could ask the RSPB’s Senior Uplands Policy Officer, another attendee, for further feedback.  I present to differing audiences several times a year and last presented to an RSPB group in 2014.

    Keith Cowieson - RSPB member & volunteer - songbird, bird-of-prey, wader, waterfowl, seabird and uplands enthusiast.

  • I spent nine hours last week driving round the North Yorkshire moors on a photography workshop and I must say that I was devastated by the destruction caused by the burning of the moors. Every road we went down was lined with burnt moorland,the red grouse stuck out like sore thumbs it looked like Australia when they've had a forest fire. What chance does wildlife have when people are prepared to do this to the Moors

  • Thanks again for all your comments.  I hope you had a lovely Bank Holiday weekend.

    I'll try and offer a few comments to the questions you raise...

    ...on promotion of the issue to the RSPB Members, this has featured in various recent editions of Nature's Home, discussed at our AGM and Members' Weekend and yes, I have occasionally blogged about it.  I am sure that this issue will continue to be profiled and a subject of heated debate.  Under the terms of our charitable constitution, our Council is the decision-making body for our policy

    ...on the subject of the proposed reintroduction in the south-west of England, we are on the group that is scoping it.  It is led by Natural England and it is early days.  Clearly the group will be guided by the IUCN guidelines, but I think that the exchanges regarding other raptor reintroductions highlight the differences of opinion about the relative merits of embarking on a reintroduction prior to the eradication of all persecution.

    ...in terms of Defra's stated desire for a thriving economy, there is growing evidence of the direct economic value of tourism associated with birds of prey, and I increasingly expect the value of clean water supplies, stored carbon etc will result in different incentives for more favourable land management

    ...worth remembering that driven grouse shooting is carried out in Scotland as well as England.  The current ban grouse shooting petition would, if it reached 100,000 signatures be debated by the Westminster Parliament.  Environmental issues are devolved and so this would not affect the situation in Scotland.  That said, the Scottish Government is considering licensing...

    ...should the petition reach the 100,000 mark and a debate does take place in Westminster, of course we would brief about the environmental consequences of driven grouse shooting and the urgent need for reform.

    I'll say more about all of this in a separate blog.

  • What I think this shows is that the kind of highly intensive moorland management that is needed to achieve the very high density of red grouse demanded these days by driven grouse shooting interests is hugely damaging to wildlife and people and illegal under both UK and EU law (the UK Habitats Regulations and EU Habitats and Birds Directives).

    That's why the EU is now taking action against the UK government - it has allowed driven grouse shooting interests to intensify grouse moor management, contrary to UK and EU law, and to kill birds of prey, contrary to UK and EU law - it's simply turned a blind eye.

    And the hen harrier brood management / removal / meddling / abduction now proposed will, I predict, also be found to be illegal, if not in trial form, then 'at scale' - so Defra is planning on trialling a scheme to suppress hen harrier recovery which it cannot apply at a meaningful scale without further contravention of its own and EU laws, all to appease driven grouse shooting interests.

    The way forward, hopefully precipitated by legal action by the EU, is to moderate the demands of the driven grouse shooting folks - they must reduce the intensity of grouse moor management, allow damaged grouse moors to recover, accept a lower density of red grouse, and allow hen harriers to once again occupy the English moorlands from which they have been driven by illegal killing and disturbance by game keepers.

    Great work, RSPB and Ban the Burn.

  • Keith i should thank you for the opportunity to think more about the comparison between Red Kite and White-tailed Eagle introductions and the possible(?) re-introduction of Hen Harriers in the English lowlands. Surely that isn't really going to happen and is it with RSPB support?

    It have always worried about the re-release of species which are very likely to be killed on grouse moors. The north-east was obviously a problem area and the Black Isle has actually proven to be a terrible Black Spot.

    I argued the case yesterday for the difference between these species but it has always troubled me that all that effort, time, care and even money spent on re-introduction is destroyed in a shot by the criminal element. Plus the simple cruelty of it all (cannon fodder is the phrase that springs to mind), made it seem very wrong but in my mind i tried to justify it for the end goal. But as James C has asked 'What loss rate would be acceptable...?'

    There seems to be something fundamentally flawed about this balancing the books way of thinking when the problem hasn't been resolved and which is a requirement by international guidelines for re-introductions.

    If this were the developing world where we have no control and it was a threatened species migrating over several countries e.g. Spoon-billed Sandpiper, only then would that kind of desperate thinking make sense. But we have all the cards, this is totally within our control we even have law behind us. Laws are being broken and this has continued for 62 years and it is only getting worse as shown intensification of grouse moors and by population losses in Scotland.

    Now all the pieces have fallen into place this dilemma was resolved in one single stroke.

    To quote Jim Morrison wrote 'The only solution isn't it amazing?'

    Ban Driven Grouse Moors now.

    And yes we should have done it before the Red Kite and White-tailed Eagle introductions.

  • Well done for taking action on Walshaw Moor.  I look forward to seeing how this case progresses and sincerely hope that the residents of Hebden Bridge are pleased with the final outcome.  

    In terms of Hen Harriers and the Action Plan - RSPB are clearly doing everything they can to keep the landowners at the table, but look at the statement issued by the Moorland Association, after an armed man was filmed hiding near a plastic Hen Harrier in the Peak District.  If the MA cannot bring itself to at least describe those images as suspicious, as all the other agencies involved did, then I fail to see how they can be a part of the solution.  

    A major weakness of the Plan is the fact that it includes no targets.  Without a set number to work towards, shooting representatives can talk about a ‘positive trend’, when we’re actually still in single figures for successful nests in the whole of England.   Was the lack of a concrete population target informed by the experience of the multi-agency Peak District Birds of Prey Initiative, which was last year forced to report that it had not met its expectations for numbers of breeding Peregrine Falcons, Merlins, or Goshawks?

    It’s understandable that shooting interests are keen on the lowland reintroduction element of the Hen Harrier Action Plan, because that would see English numbers rise, even if they don’t increase in the northern uplands.  The GWCT are quite open about this: –

    “There may be areas where a high game interest predominates, as is currently found…  on some upland areas, where contiguous properties are managed principally for grouse.  In these regions some predators could be scarce as a result.  We see nothing intrinsically wrong in this, provided it is offset by good numbers of the same predators in other regions”


    The GWCT want gamekeepers to have the right to cull Hen Harriers – “limited culls, target predator densities and other mechanisms should be used to serve the long-term interest of the predator as well as the game population”.

    So, any agreement with driven grouse shooting representatives is working towards an endgame where Hen Harriers eventually have to be ‘controlled’, in some way.   As allowing the birds to be killed legally could never be acceptable, we’ve been presented with ‘brood management’ – and the RSPB will continue to be pressured to agree to this (and pressured not to agree to it, too).

    I would be interested to read Martin’s views on the second of the Plan's two ‘success criteria’, which states that the Hen Harrier population should ‘coexist with local business interests and… contribute to a thriving rural economy’.  It strikes me that it’s the UK’s job to have a thriving rural economy that operates without excluding legally protected Hen Harriers, rather than it being the Hen Harrier’s job to create economic prosperity for people!  

    We need to see many more Hen Harriers breeding successfully in the uplands and they should be joined by many more of our native raptors - including Goshawks, Peregrines, Merlins and Golden Eagles.  And as the Walshaw Moor case demonstrates, raptor persecution is just one part of the story when it comes to reviewing the environmental impacts of driven grouse shooting.

  • Richard E,

    I know, it's devastating, me and Red Kite languishing on zero, just behind Martin and Black Gull with one each - shades of the Eurovision Song Contest all over again.  I guess I'll just have to unfriend you all....

    And it looks like Celtic will win the Scottish Premiership, with Aberdeen not having the consistency to maintain their valiant challenge, again.  

    Wonder how Formatine United are getting on, they're the last hope.....

  • Keith. You have very kindly shared your interest in the RSPB as a 'member and volunteer'.

    Would you mind also sharing your shooting interests as it isn't mentioned in your Songbird Survival profile.

    I notice you were a speaker at this conference


  • Here are Songbird Survival's links to shooting. The trustees seem to have changed so we need a more updated source but gives an idea


    and for the RPUK's insight some more discussion here



  • Well Keith C not a single "like" for any of your comments so far! Could you be in minority of one? Rally your troops.


  • keith,

    please could you change 'insufficiently compelling or revealing' to something more like the facts.

    When i wrote to the police accusing them of that very thing they were very clear to point out that i was mistaken. I liked that.

  • 'ad hominem' means 'to the man'

    I'm laughing at Songbird Survival not a man.

  • Prasad,

    You’re correct, I should have written ‘…..for the Derbyshire constabulary to take any ‘further’ action.’

    Keith Cowieson, RSPB member & volunteer