The Heather Doctor - Peak District farmer and engineer Geoff Eyre
PUBLISHED: 00:00 31 July 2019
Joe Dimbleby of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust meets Peak District farmer and engineer Geoff Eyre who has restored our precious uplands with a mastery of invention.
Geoff Eyre likens his moorland restoration work to gardening on a grand scale. Over the last 30 years he has pioneered methods of collecting the seeds of upland native plants and sowing them, singlehandedly restoring more than 40 square miles of wild moorland to its former glory. This has been mostly done in his 'spare time' alongside running his 200 acres of farmland, the 1,000 acres of grouse moor he bought in 2012 and the family business, an Agricultural Merchants, which has been operating in Brough since 1885. Growing up in the stunning surroundings of the Hope Valley he developed a passion for wildlife: 'I love being out on the moor. From a very early age I'd be off for hours after rabbits or helping the gamekeepers.'
After the Second World War, the drive for food security meant many of the Peak District's privately-owned moors were sold to local farmers and cleared for agriculture and forestry. During this period, more than 40 per cent of the UK's historic heather moorland was lost. The National Trust (NT) became a big landowner in the Park in the 1950s and in the late 1980s there was a call for moorland flora to be restored, backed by public funding in the form of MAFF and Joint Nature Conservation Committee's Environmentally Sensitive Areas programme. Geoff rose to the challenge, setting to work on 5,000 acres across the Peak District including the National Trust's Howden Moor, on which he still rents the shooting rights.
He said, 'In one case what is now the United Utilities company asked for help with a large area of bare peat created by wildfire. The soil was too acid for anything to grow so we dropped lime on the area by helicopter and then sowed strips of everything from turnips to sunflowers. I planted fast growing rye grass in one area and no one believed it would work but within a few weeks there was a patch of bright green like a lawn on the hill. People said you shouldn't grow grass, but it established a soil structure for the heather to follow and it worked.'
A self-taught engineer and inventor, Geoff applied the same principles to moorland restoration that you would to agriculture. By adapting existing agricultural machinery, he developed a special harvester, which even incorporates pizza spacer discs that rotate and pre-clean the seed. Once cut, the heather is processed at Geoff's farm supplies business where a series of custom-built machines separate the seeds from the brash. After discovering that fire stimulates heather germination, Geoff extracted a liquid chemical from heather smoke using a pair of water-cooled radiators acting as a cheap condenser. The seed treated with the extract went from five to 80 per cent germination. In all, Geoff has managed to cultivate 40 different moorland plants, including the microscopic spores of Sphagnum moss, and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Liverpool University for his work.
Gathering the seed is only the start of the process, getting it to establish is another challenge. Geoff has applied a deep understanding of moorland ecology and agronomy learned from years of practical experience to develop a range of fascinating techniques from harvesting sorrel seed on the hill with a Flymo to covering clay pellets in Sphagnum spores so they can be cast using a fertilizer spreader.
To establish a seedbed, herbicide is used to kill off bracken or molinia grass, which are monocultures and provide little in the way of habitat. Bracken is inedible to livestock and its spores are carcinogenic. When the cover has died back, Geoff scatters the seed, a mix of plants such as heather, cotton grass, bilberries, crowberry, native cranberry and deschampsia. He has also discovered that certain plants make good pioneer species by forming a platform for others. For example, deschampsia protects young heather from extremes of weather while it gets a foothold and Sphagnum provides an ideal bed for berry species, while sheep sorrell works well after bracken. The results are spectacular. Vast expanses where once barren swathes of bracken or molinia grass held sway are transformed to colourful mixes of different heathers, varieties of grasses and the magical sight of red and blue berries growing through the extraordinary sponge-like structure of the Sphagnum.
Once the habitat is restored, the wildlife returns with insects, reptiles and many of our most loved and threatened birds, including curlew, ring ouzels, lapwings, skylarks, dunlins and golden plover in abundance. On one 1,500-acre piece of molinia restored to moorland, bird counts went from six to 1,000 with the highest density of lapwings in the area, 30 pairs of ring ouzels, 69 pairs of curlew and good numbers of white hares as well as several species of birds of prey.
The work of maintaining habitat for specialist moorland birds continues partly through grazing regimes. In the 1980s headage payments led to overgrazing and a lot of heather was destroyed. Today, the number of sheep on Peak District moorlands has been reduced by two thirds, but it is a delicate balance and Geoff feels it may have gone too far the other way. He said, 'The reduction in sheep is a concern, as grazing helped create natural firebreaks and good nesting areas for rare birds.' The ancient stone walls that criss-cross the Peak District are to keep the sheep in and on his own moor Geoff employs a stonewaller who is restoring this important part of Derbyshire's rural heritage.
As well as grazing, the other key management technique is controlled burning or muirburn, which rejuvenates the heather and other plants, including peat-forming Sphagnum moss. Geoff said, 'In my experience, Sphagnum only seems to spore after fire. It is then able to cover a large area and lock up the carbon in the peat.' By burning between October and April when the earth is damp and cold, grouse moor managers avoid fire getting into the underlying peat or soil as it would destroy the heather they depend on and they don't want to have to put out a wild blaze. About 30 years ago, Geoff developed a variation of this method known as 'cool burn' which enabled burning earlier in the year when it's wetter and so safer. Cool burn involves cutting a fire break strip around a small patch of older heather and using a flame thrower to get a line of fire going sufficiently to travel without spreading beyond the edges. This technique allows speedier regrowth from root stock in the first year and is now used on most of the UK's grouse moors. He said, 'To demonstrate how effective it is, I bury a Mars Bar at ground level, the burn goes over in a matter of seconds, singeing off the heather without even burning the wrapper or melting the chocolate, so you can imagine that the peat and mosses underneath the heather remain unharmed.'
This form of burning is not only controllable it also creates a series of firebreaks across the moor, which will be vital as the threat of wildfire grows. In addition, the ATVs that gamekeepers have specially adapted for managing cool burn can be employed in the event of a wildfire when normal fire engines are not capable of getting on to the moor. Geoff is concerned the current reduction in a careful muirburn regime in the National Park could lead to devastating fires in the future.
He said, 'In 1993 four local grouse moors were designated SSSIs by English Nature (EN) because of the wildlife produced by the management system. Natural England (NE) recognised the benefits it brought. Since then NE and the National Parks Authority have moved away from grouse management and there is a danger that all the work will be undone, putting wildlife at risk.'
Heather moorland is a unique ecosystem of which the UK has 75 per cent in the world and needs to be managed to continue. Its open vistas, stunning colours and unique wildlife are much loved the world over, but were driven grouse shooting to end, it would be lost along with all the threatened species that depend on it.
Looking ahead Geoff will continue to restore the heather on his own moor and repair his stone walls. His advice to fellow conservationists: 'You have to like solving problems and be prepared to persevere.'