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

  • Songbird Survival wrote

    'I am not really one for demonstrations, placard waving and all that.  I’m more conflict-resolution orientated, either through legal direct action or through collaborative & cooperative processes such as the HHAP.  I’ve seen enough of divisive, destructive and ultimately futile, counter-productive conflict to last several lifetimes.'

    So by your logic 'demonstrations, placard waving and all that' are the opposite of 'legal direct action' and are 'divisive, destructive'.

    In other words that peaceful demonstration is illegal and destructive. Wow just wow!

  • Well Keith Cowieson (Director of Songbird Survival) would you say Meadow Pipits are a songbird or not? I seem to recall Hen Harriers eat quite a few of them, you know like Sparrowhawks eat a fair few Blue Tits. I'm not sure either species is threatened (in a conservation sense) by raptor predation though, what would you say Keith?

  • Martin,

    I'm afraid your perfectly reasonable request for us to let you know our individual views on this issue has been hijacked, dragged off topic and turned into a slanging match with the usual ad hominem attacks (as so often happens on social-media these days).  

    So, over to you, and looking forward to reading your response in due course.  In the meantime, good luck and stick to the chosen course, we know it makes sense.

    Keith Cowieson, RSPB member & volunteer

  • Ha, Songbird Survival aka Sparrowhawk Demise. You have been owned, sir.

  • Keith C.

    You wrote

    'Clearly insufficiently compelling or revealing for the Derbyshire constabulary to take any action and this doesn't surprise me at all.'

    This is actually not true. I have written to the police and was told that action had been taken but that there was 'insufficient evidence to proceed. We have of course recorded this incident and it will be borne in mind for the future.'

    Not quite the same as your spin.

    Everyone except the Moorland Association is taking it very seriously although some of the other more usual suspects have been silent on the matter.

  • Keith Cowieson (Director, Songbird Survival, an organisation established by the game shooting fraternity in order to vilify birds of prey and other predators).......

    What you do and say as Director of Songbird Survival is relevant. On your Songbird Survival web site you, Keith, first correctly state that farmland birds as a whole continue to decline, but then you claim that this is due to predation. You claim the following:

    Our Songbird population should be increasing BUT IT IS NOT WHY NOT?

    • Predator & Scavenger numbers at record levels

    • Unnatural abundance & density of predators / scavengers ignored

    You list two factors driving farmland bird declines - and both reasons are down to predators!

    This sort of misinformation is toxic - it's just the sort of thing that prevents us going forward. It has the potential to drive illegal killing of birds of prey.

    When I've challenged you before by pointing out that in your home ground of Devon cirl buntings have increased very dramatically, despite there being loads of sparrowhawks, magpies and other predators, you have no answer.

    With regard to hen harriers, stamp out illegal killing, allow them to increase in numbers and spread into unoccupied, suitable habitat and, in good time, they'll re-appear in the west country.

  • James C

    Blimey!  Freelance eh?  That figures.  In answer to the inoffensive part of your post, hen harriers are not an issue for songbirds.

    Keith Cowieson, RSPB member & volunteer

  • Keith C.

    Please could you explain how, as you claim, a lowland Hen Harrier introduction fits the international guidelines concerning the removal of the threat and their international status. Hen Harriers are not yet threatened in the UK.

    It is true that the threat to Red Kite and White-tailed Eagle has not been removed from the uplands but this was not known at the time how far grouse moors would go in their illegality. I am not sure anyone realised how terribly bad they are even against a harmless species such as Red Kite. Those re-introduction have overall been a success but with great local losses and with what we know now i believe the first step would have been to ban grouse shooting before their re-introduction. With a ban the population of Red Kites in north-east England, Black Isle, etc. would be flourishing and i am sure there would have been a much more rapid expansion everywhere. From news this last few days it is obvious that any expansion near a grouse moor is being prevented but this will be hindering the spread of the species as a whole into new zones.

    The Red Kite and White-tailed Eagle re-introductions have overall being successful in that the numbers of both species have increased. As i stated above, i am not happy at all about the rate of increase because of the losses but as whole the threat has been reduced enough to make a success on a local level. The opposite is the case with the Hen Harrier. The population has decreased to near extinction in England and is in severe decline in Scotland and almost absent from grouse moors (i have the reference if you want). So the threat has not been removed at all quite the opposite it is getting worse as grouse moors intensify.

    The idea of releasing birds in the lowlands to get shot in the uplands is just plain cruel and not sound conservation.

    What you call 'conflict resolution' is to me just making deals with criminals. 62 years of breaking the law doesn't give a right, quite the opposite it is organized crime supported by various sections of the elite. It is feudal and has to stop. This isn't being extreme it is being rational. In what other field would this injustice be allowed? Change the units and the the scenario and where would it have lasted so long. Substitute Hen Harriers killed with anything, babies attacked by dogs or victims of knife crime, take your pick and no where else would any one else have got away with it for 62 years and even supported by tax payers money. Next time you or your neighbours house gets broken into just remember you can always open negotiations with the criminals and let them go and even give them a hand with their next robbery. When you go to the police to report a break in they can just tell you where the neighbourhood is with the lowest crime. The police could merge with the Citizens Advice Bureau. Wow don't tell Osborne.

    Another thought experiment which helps put things in perspective is to imagine how an alien would view this.

    It works just as well with a child or someone who has lived outside the UK and helps remove all the cultural and historic bias.

    No one in their right mind would come up with the solution of moving nests and trying to get a wild migrant bird to breed away from the area where crime occurs.

    It is insane. What's next? Invisible laser Skywar nets in the air which prevent Hen Harriers from flying into the death zones.

    That would work.

    Or we could just ban it.

  • Keith Cowieson, thanks for confirming your identity. I know putting 'honest debate' and 'director of Songbird Survival' in a single sentence is a somewhat surreal juxtaposition, but thank you for owning up to it, even if you don't feel quite able to claim to speak on the organisation's behalf despite being its director (nothing to be ashamed of, is there Keith? Or do you simply think that Songbird Survival as an organisation is simply irrelevant here?). James (Jim) Clarke, freelance ornithologist (views, logically enough, are my own), RSPB membership pretty much dependent on Martin's response here.

  • Sorry Martin in haste i have accidentally taken your quote out of context but i still think all my points stand.

    I don't see any clarity in the RSPB position on the way forward against raptor crime but your clarity and position on Walshaw Moor etc. are exemplary.

  • James C (whoever you may be),

    I am commenting here in a personal capacity as an RSPB member and volunteer in response to Martin's request to let him know our views on this topic, hence the self-explanatory tagline.  

    Keith Cowieson, RSPB member & volunteer  

  • And finally, in the interests of honest debate, could you confirm/deny that you are a director of Songbird Survival, Keith? Perhaps then add it to the RSPB member and volunteer tagline? Perhaps also some declaration as to whether the views expressed are simply personal ones or those of the organisation. I think that would be pretty standard if you are a director of an organisation Keith.

  • In fact, while we are at it, perhaps Martin/RSPB would like to comment on that? What loss rate would be acceptable for a SW reintroduction?

  • Would you like to come up with some figures for the percentage of birds likely to remain in the release area Keith? Or to put it another way what percentage of the birds that don't remain in the release area and are subsequently killed on grouse moors would you regard as being acceptable 'collateral' for getting a few pairs to nest in the SW?

    As for the decoy footage you state 'certainly appears to depict suspicious behaviour, but equally could depict something else'. What else do you think it might be depicting Keith?

  • Steve J (whoever you might be),

    When I talk of divisive and inflammatory rhetoric, as stated, I’m referring to both extremes of the debate ie those irreconcilable types who are incapable of, or not prepared to accept, compromise in order to secure the long term goal.  In conflict-resolution, it is often necessary to isolate the extremists and zealots, on both sides, in order to work with the moderates to make progress.  This is what all the parties who have signed up to the HHAP, including the RSPB, appear to have done, so good on them.  

    As also stated, the plan has only been in existence for 3 months, so it needs to be given a chance to succeed.  And this is the path that the Society has decided to follow.      

    I’m familiar with IUCN guidelines for reintroductions and am firmly of the opinion that a south-west of England programme, perhaps using European-sourced lowland birds, would stand a good chance of success if the reservations expressed by the Society can be addressed satisfactorily.  Red kite, white-tailed eagle, golden eagle and osprey reintroductions in the British Isles, Ireland and Spain respectively have met with success, so I’m fairly confident that the same could be achieved in this case.

    Finally, I agree that law enforcement is equally important – it is of course an integral part of the plan.

    Keith Cowieson, RSPB member & volunteer