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Moorland makeover - Visions for the future of the Dark Peak moors

PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 February 2019

A moorland bog

A moorland bog

andrew griffiths

We are living through times of great change for our countryside, none greater than in the uplands. Andrew Griffiths introduces a series of articles in which he examines three different visions for the future of our moors

The panel at the DWT event at the Dome. Tim Birch closest to camera, Derek Gow in the centreThe panel at the DWT event at the Dome. Tim Birch closest to camera, Derek Gow in the centre

It was a drizzly November night in Buxton to climb past the Palace Hotel, turn, and see the wet roofs glistening in the evening’s streetlights behind. A man walked his black labrador along the pavement and as he scrunched up his collar it was like a collective shrug on behalf of its people as the town in the hills hunkered down for another night of moorland weather.

I was heading for the Devonshire Dome. Built in the 18th century to stable horses and serve the nearby Crescent spa, it is the largest unsupported dome in Europe. It is now owned by the University of Derby and serves to offer students real-world work experience, so you can dine on food prepared by budding chefs, or offer yourself up as a willing guinea pig to the fresh white coats of the beauty salon. Or you can just hire out a meeting room beneath the splendour of this, the Peak District’s very own Hagia Sophia.

Tonight I had come in from the rain and was crammed into one of these rooms along with 200 others, listening to a panel of experts talk about their vision for a wilder Derbyshire. The event had been organised by the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust and they had achieved their full house because they had managed to assemble a nationally significant lineup of speakers to talk about their respective specialities. It included environmentalist Derek Gow, a thunderously engaging speaker, who is an enthusiastic advocate for reintroductions of animals such as beavers into the English landscape, and is a fine example of the ‘charismatic megafauna’ he talks about himself.

‘Rewilding’ is one of those terms we often hear that is seldom defined the same way twice. The hands-on conservationist might apply some of its principles to their landscape work and call it ‘restoring natural processes’. At the other end of the spectrum the newly sprung activist movement Extinction Rebellion may see it as a step along the way to overthrowing global capitalism.

The stream at William CloughThe stream at William Clough

The casual watcher of the press might have taken in something about reintroducing wolves into our landscape and thought it sounded slightly mad.

To its critics, rewilding is a flaky way of viewing the world for unrealistic dreamers. To its fans, it offers a new way of looking after our landscape and hope for pulling back humanity from the edge of environmental catastrophe.

If the catalyst for change requires a confluence of forces, then rewilding may be about to have its day. There is a succession of messages telling us that we need to do things differently. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report revealed that we are on target to breach the 1.5˚C warming by 2030 (‘12 years to save the world!’ scream the newspaper headlines). The 2016 State of Nature report told us that we are one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Another study from Germany discovered that they had lost 75 per cent of their flying insects over 25 years. These are the insects that pollinate the plants that provide our food. These are just three reports pulled out of what is becoming a teetering pile of despair.

None of this bodes well for any of us and has sent environmentalists into a paroxysm of gloom.

For the last 16 years, the Moors for the Future Partnership has done tremendous work restoring and rewetting the moors, such as here, on Kinder plateauFor the last 16 years, the Moors for the Future Partnership has done tremendous work restoring and rewetting the moors, such as here, on Kinder plateau

But salvation can take the strangest of forms and in this case it has come in the shape of Environment Secretary Michael Gove, Brexit, the end of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and Gove’s proposal to pay farmers instead for ‘public goods’. ‘Public goods’ means that farmers will be paid for the benefit the management of their land can bring to society as a whole. These benefits might include helping to prevent flooding downstream, locking up carbon in the peat and helping to slow climate change, or providing us with somewhere nice to go and experience things that help keep us healthy and so less of a drain on the NHS.

It is through this chink in the door that rewilding has slipped, seeing its chance for mainstream relevancy. It is how it has gone in a few short years from polemicist and journalist George Monbiot’s rallying call in his 2013 book Feral, to becoming the buzzword hovering on the lips of those sitting around the major decision-making tables today.

But the rewilders are not universally loved. Farming, both for good and for bad, has shaped our landscape for centuries. Such a radical overhaul of the subsidy system means that the way we use the land is set to change equally radically, and nowhere more so than in upland regions such as the Dark Peak. But that is not to say that farming is consigned to history and their land given over to scrub, as some farmers fear is the rewilders’ aim. But there is no doubt that the nature of farming is changing in the Peak District, and with it so too will the landscape.

Grouse shooting, tied in with farming as it often is, is another activity that has shaped the moors for well over 100 years. Driven grouse shooting requires huge numbers of grouse to breed in a relatively small area, and as when any population is artificially managed to achieve such a density, extensive predator control is required, as is specific management of the land. This land management has traditionally involved burning of the heather, which is greatly opposed by some conservationists – as is shooting itself.

But the grouse shooting community claim that their sport is an important tradition in rural areas, and sustains the rural economy in many villages where income is hard to come by – especially in the autumn months when tourism business falls off.

The grouse shooters and farmers would claim that their activities create a working countryside, and make at least some contribution towards its upkeep. But many of the urban dwelling middle classes who are anti-shooting and increasingly vegetarian would claim that it is their taxes which pay the subsidies for the countryside, so it should be there for them to enjoy as they wish. This is the crux of the debate, and this the latest chapter of one started on that spring morning in 1932 with the mass trespass on Kinder, when factory workers from Manchester confronted the gamekeepers of the shooting estates and asserted their ‘right to roam’. This contributed to the 1949 National Parks and Access to Countryside Act, and then the creation of the Peak District National Park in 1951 – the first National Park in the UK.

The National Parks structure is currently undergoing its first review, and it is fitting that this review is led by Derbyshire-based Julian Glover, and that his panel includes Jim Dixon, past CEO of the Peak District National Park.

These are some of the competing visions for how the change in the uplands will happen – for how our hills and moors will look. My rainy night in Buxton was a first step towards helping me discover how some of those involved would like to see the Dark Peak District develop.

Over the coming months, Derbyshire Life will talk to three key groups about their own personal vision for the future of the moors: the farmers, the grouse shooters, and the rewilders, where we will speak to Tim Birch of the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, about how a wilder Dark Peak might look.

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