Grouse moor management in the Dark Peak
PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 May 2019
In the last of a series of articles looking at the post-Brexit future of our Dark Peak moors, Andrew Griffiths talks grouse moor management with two gamekeepers, and speaks to head of Moors for the Future, Chris Dean
Walking the moors with Richard Bailey one afternoon in March, I could have been forgiven for thinking I was out with a member of the fire services. His talk was concerned with fire, its dire consequences, and 'wildfire mitigation' – that is, the best way of stopping fire from starting in the first place. And I'd only come up here to talk about grouse.
Richard is a gamekeeper on a driven grouse shooting estate. A gamekeeper's job is to manage the moor in such a way as to produce a shootable surplus of birds during the short grouse shooting season.
This is my third in a series of articles for Derbyshire Life, looking at the future of the moors post-Brexit and the end of Common Agricultural Policy funding (CAP). So far I have discussed future visions with rewilders, farmers, and today it is the turn of the grouse moor managers. It is Richard's opportunity to communicate to a general audience what a broad remit his work covers, a chance he feels the shooting community all too infrequently gets.
Richard Bailey's preoccupation with fire is understandable. He is part of the Fire Operations Group, alongside the Peak District National Park Authority and other bodies involved with taking care of the moors. Last year saw him standing shoulder to shoulder with the county fire services fighting the Stalybridge fire, which spread across the media almost as quickly as it did the moor, producing a now famous image of a shopper walking the high street of a nearby town wearing a gas mask. That fire burnt for weeks.
Today he had brought me to Derbyshire Bridge near the top of the Goyt Valley, a moor which set alight last May bank holiday, another blaze he was involved with fighting. 'The wildfire went from Derbyshire Bridge and took out 40 hectares of land,' says Richard. 'It was May, all the birds were nesting – grouse, curlew, skylark, meadow pipit, short-eared owl.'
These are birds (and many endangered 'red list' species) which are often found on grouse moors as they can benefit from the management regime gamekeepers provide.
'If the fire had crossed the river at the bottom, which we just stopped it from doing, it would have burnt 120 hectares. So for me, yes, this winter, all the time, I had in my mind wildfire mitigation.'
Burning is a management tool that has been used by man for millennia, but now burning on the moors has become synonymous with grouse moor management, and to some it is as controversial as shooting itself.
Burning is a traditional tool for gamekeepers, as the birds feed on the new growth burning encourages. Richard believes that this burning regime, alongside rewetting, has associated benefits for other wildlife such as wading birds, provides effective wildfire mitigation, and allows for a more effective response if the worst should happen and the moor become ablaze.
But Natural England, the Government body charged with looking after our natural environment, has decided that anything with a greater depth of peat than 40cm is deemed to be blanket bog – or potentially so – and has imposed what is so far a voluntary ban on the burning of heather.
The moor that caught fire beside Derbyshire Bridge has had a no-burning and a cutting-only policy for heather for a number of years now, and Richard believes that it demonstrates the dangers of this approach.
'This is as wet as could be, this ground,' says Richard, looking around the recovering moor. 'We have all the grips blocked, it is full of sphagnum, yet it burnt for 40 hectares. It took hold because there was long, burnable vegetation. There is a big fuel load because we can only cut on here, and it grows so quickly, and in the right conditions it is combustible.
'Traditionally, when we were allowed to do rotational burning, the heather was in a shorter vegetative state so the fuel load was reduced, and you had less wildfire.'
At another moorland location I found myself again photographing someone in heather long and deep enough to conceal a man. The first time, rewilder Tim Birch had been demonstrating to me the potential of moorland if it was left to its own devices. Today, gamekeeper Richard Bailey was using it as a warning to show what will happen if the 'one size fits all' approach to a ban on burning is imposed across all the moors. It is, he says, if the conditions are hot and dry, an 'accident waiting to happen'.
We were on the steep side of a clough. In the distance were Shining Tor and Goyt Moss, moors Richard also manages. Up there, at higher, cooler altitude, he tells me that the heather grows very slowly. But down here in the clough, the heather 'grows like stink', as he puts it. Yet both have the same classification as blanket bog, and the same management restrictions apply: he cannot burn and he cannot cut in the clough because the sides are too steep for a vehicle.
'This is common in the Peak District, because it is really undulating,' says Richard. 'You get the fuel load on the sides of all these clough edges and from a wildfire point of view it is a wonder we don't have more.'
Chris Dean is Head of Programme Delivery at Moors for the Future Partnership. On the subject of wildfires, he points out that between 1973 and 2003, when Moors for the Future started, there had been 400 wildfires in the region, and many of those had been on Bleaklow, which at the time was largely bare peat. He also reminds me that last year's Stalybridge fires were on grouse moors which had been subject to management burning. So while there is undoubtedly a strong link between the amount of vegetation on the moor and wildfire risk, it is not the whole story. But then there are rarely simple stories up here on the moors.
Chris is worried that we sometimes lose sight of why these moors came to be so damaged in the first place. Back when Moors for the Future started in 2003, vast areas were bare peat, all signs of life killed off, mostly by pollution from surrounding factories pumping out coal smoke. It's easy to forget what that was like: the issues that affect air quality today are largely invisible, but back then it was thick and acrid and left its mark on your clothes and face as well as your lungs. And on the moors too, where it fell with the rain and created a potent mix of sulphuric acid which burnt the moor black.
Back then, in 2003, the Moors for the Future remit was to 'turn the moors purple again', clad it in heather. But 16 years is a long time in conservation science (and politics) and that is no longer considered to be a good idea. Now, with a greater appreciation of the role the moor plays in determining the quality of our water and carbon sequestration – locking up carbon in the peat – to mitigate climate change, the aim is all about 'rewetting the moors', re-establishing sphagnum, a bog forming plant, and aiming for heather cover of between 50–60 per cent.
I caught up with Chris on a visit to the Fitzwilliam Wentworth Estate, near Strines. We met the estate's land agent Anthony Barber-Lomax, and estate gamekeeper Tom Adamson, then we picked up the photographer and drove out in a convoy onto Bradfield Moor.
The sun shone and the wind blew strongly so we huddled behind the shooting hut to talk so that my voice recorder had a fighting chance of picking up the conversation.
Now that Environment Secretary Michael Gove has stated that post-Brexit, public money will only be paid for public goods, grouse moors will most likely be asked to demonstrate how their activities benefit society as a whole in a way they are quite unused to doing. So I began by asking Anthony Barber-Lomax if he was confident he could demonstrate a 'public good', and what was he doing up on the moor that benefitted us all downstream?
'In an area like this we are talking about water quality, flood control, carbon storage, and potentially carbon sequestration and so accumulation,' says Anthony. 'The agriculture is fragile without subsidies, so the focus in future is more on conservation and land management.'
'We have been talking about the return to a more sphagnum-based habitat. That suits everybody, that is good news, we are up for that.'
'From our point of view the least productive ground is the 100 per cent heather dominant ground,' adds Tom. 'Our most productive ground is with sphagnum and bilberry and all the other species. Wherever you find sphagnum you will usually find broods.'
'I think the industry is genuinely understanding now that we are actually all singing the same tune,' says Anthony. 'I've been in the industry 20 years, and the focus now, people's appreciation of what they are managing, has moved on quite considerably.'
So on the top of the moor at least, in the cold and wet of the re-forming sphagnum bogs, a consensus is being reached between all interested parties: the conservation bodies are happy, the rewilders are happy with its minimal intervention management style, and the grouse moor managers are happy with it as a habitat for the birds. But how to get the moor to that state is a different matter.
'The unique problem in the Peak District is that on these moors, blanket bog is at the edge of what is called its “biological envelope”,' says Chris. 'It is at the edge of where you would expect blanket bog to survive, because it is only just on the boundaries of being wet enough and cold enough.'
Chris tells us that this biological 'edge-land', combined with the destructive legacy of industrial pollution, means that the moor is drier than it should be and doesn't have that deep layer of peat.
'So if you walked away from this landscape now and there was no management taking place at all, it would produce a lot of biomass because of the drier state it is in at the moment, which would create a large fire risk,' he says.
To get the moor to the stage where it needs little or no management still requires considerable management in many areas. 'We are a long way from that yet,' says Chris. But Anthony would claim that grouse moors are constructive partners to have along on this journey.
It isn't that grouse moor management is without its controversy: predator control for one, where gamekeepers will kill predators to maximise the number of grouse they can help survive until shoot days. The illegal act of raptor persecution is one example (I did challenge them about this and all condemned it outright), but the control of legal species, such as fox, stoat and crows, is a more difficult issue.
One reason is that the birds many of us like to see that the moorland landscape is famous for – ground-nesting wading birds such as curlew and golden plover – all do well on grouse moors, no doubt at least in part because of the predator control that gamekeepers carry out.
Anthony mentions the plight of the curlew, a species in serious decline. 'Over the last 20 years their numbers nationally have halved,' he says. 'But their numbers here over that same period have quadrupled. That is typically down to predator control.'
As we were winding up the interview, we spoke about the way grouse shooting is portrayed in the mainstream media. Chris said that he thought the media liked to create conflict, to make a story, and that there is a danger of tarring everyone with the same brush. Fair point. Then, just as I am about to switch off my recorder, Tom interjects with: 'You maybe think the public perception is bad but you meet people on the hill and they say “What do you do?” and you tell them you're a gamekeeper and they ask: “Oh, that's interesting, which bit do you look after?” I don't think there is that public perception or I don't think it is a majority. I haven't come across a situation where I feel I can't say: “I'm a gamekeeper.” I think the idea that the public is against us is wrong.' u
Richard Bailey is a coordinator of the Peak District Moorland Group, which aims to demonstrate the environmental, social and economic benefits of a well-managed grouse moor. Richard gives talks to local groups, contact at: email@example.com