Brexit and the end of European funding could change the way our moorland is run

Tim Birch, Derbyshire Wildlife Trust's Head of Living Landscapes

Tim Birch, Derbyshire Wildlife Trust's Head of Living Landscapes - Credit: Archant

Andrew Griffiths speaks to Tim Birch of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, to see how the growing rewilding movement would like to see things go.

Moorland managed by Derbyshire Wildlife Trust

Moorland managed by Derbyshire Wildlife Trust - Credit: Archant

Tim Birch is Head of Living Landscapes at the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. It was Tim who helped to organise November’s Buxton Devonshire Dome event, mentioned in my article in last month’s issue, which saw some of the UK’s leading environmentalists outlining their vision for a wilder future. I met Tim in the Derwent Valley for a walk through the woods beside the alarmingly depleted autumn levels of Ladybower Reservoir, while he explained the rewilding plan.

Tim is one of those people who can tell not just the bird from its song, but the behaviour that produces the call, too. So the alarm call of a nuthatch here, a robin moving there. Whole dramas are revealed to him as he walks through the woods, just by listening to the sounds.

These stories he reveals to me in brief breaks from his rewilding narrative. He suddenly stopped at one point and pointed ahead to bushes.

‘A song thrush,’ he says.

A dividing wall?

A dividing wall? - Credit: Archant

To me, it was just a soft, bubbling chuckle coming from within the tangle of branches.

‘It’s this year’s. When it gets milder they begin to practise their song for spring. Tuning up.’

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‘Tuning up.’ A young bird preparing for its future role, to sing. I liked that.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that Tim Birch is some meek birdwatcher, as the stereotypes would have it. He is a seasoned environmental campaigner who learned his trade with Greenpeace and the Rainbow Warrior, which some readers may remember as being more of a harpoon than a thorn in the side of big companies who were destroying the world’s natural resources, as these radical environmental activists then saw it.

Tim Birch at Derbyshire Wildlife Trust's Ladybower Nature Reserve

Tim Birch at Derbyshire Wildlife Trust's Ladybower Nature Reserve - Credit: Archant

He speaks with a passion that hints at those days as he tells me about the rewilding agenda in Derbyshire and his Wildlife Trust’s role in pushing it forward.

‘There is no reason why we couldn’t have ospreys back in this valley, they regularly move through on passage during migration between Scotland and Africa. We should be having healthy populations of goshawk too. They have been heavily persecuted in this valley for decades, and that has to stop,’ he says.

‘Hen harriers – there is enough space in the Peak District uplands to have at least 30 pairs of hen harriers. There is no reason why we couldn’t be coming here in the spring and watching these birds and their amazing skydiving, their courtship display. Such a spectacular bird, the “ghost bird” they call them.’

There is a long list of species reintroductions on the rewilding agenda: pine martens, red squirrels, black grouse, beavers, golden eagles… the list goes on. The big idea is to manage the land with a lighter touch, restore ecosystems and then over time much of the management will start to look after itself. Tim gives the example of crows, which currently are controlled as pests by gamekeepers, yet if goshawks were allowed to return, they will prey on crows, he says.

This is a building block approach, which ultimately will grow into rewilding projects on a ‘landscape’ scale. Alastair Driver is specialist advisor to the charity Rewilding Britain, which was created as a response to Guardian journalist George Monbiot’s 2013 book Feral, which has become something of a mascot for the rewilding generation. Driver was previously Head of Conservation for the Environment Agency, and is now involved with Rewilding Britain’s first funded project: ‘Summit to sea’, in mid Wales.

Many of the funding possibilities that are causing such excitement in the Dark Peak are as a result of the ‘ecosystem services’ the area can supply. These services revolve around continuing the Moors for the Future Partnership’s work restoring the bogs on the moors, locking up carbon in the peat, and acting as a natural flood control mechanism to protect the urban populations downstream.

‘You can’t secure public goods or ecosystem services benefits by just having localised sites,’ Driver told me. ‘You really need to be operating at a significant scale across land and water to be able to demonstrate these societal benefits.’

There is talk of a major rewilding project in the Peak District to be announced soon. How to pay for all this is a common criticism of rewilders, and when they say ‘ecotourism’ it often results in a rolling of the eyes from their detractors. But the reintroduction of ospreys on Rutland Water, for instance, is generating meaningful revenue by way of people paying to photograph them, as are pine martens in Scotland, and wildlife tourism is big business in the Western Isles of Scotland.

‘I think there is a really exciting future and there is no reason why we cannot have this. We are on the doorstep of Sheffield and Manchester. Thousands and thousands of people should be able to come out and see amazing wildlife in the Peak District,’ says Tim.

Nobody can say this definitely will work, but nobody can say it definitely won’t either. Like the nesting platforms being built to tempt down the ospreys passing over, it is a case of ‘build it and they will come’. Hopefully.

With its theme of connectivity, there is nothing really new about what the rewilders are calling for here – the government-commissioned Lawton Report concluded that our spaces for wildlife needed to be ‘bigger, better, and more joined up’ back in 2010. It is what our major conservation bodies in the Peak District and elsewhere, such as the National Trust and the RSPB, have been working towards since. But the term ‘rewilding’ seems to have achieved some popular currency – even if not everybody is entirely clear what it means. But if it just gives an overall focus to the ‘big picture’ and manages to garner that public support, it will have achieved something.

Tim Birch took me to the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust’s Ladybower Wood nature reserve. Up a rough track through the woods and out towards the moor and we eventually came to a wall. On the other side of the wall, the upland opened out onto a moor managed for grouse shooting. On the Trust’s side, the land had not been burnt, cut, and barely grazed for 40 years and the heather grew waist deep, with brambles wrapping in between and silver birch dotted around. On the other side, the marginal ground was grazed, leading to the low-covered, familiar chequered moor the rotational burning of heather by gamekeepers produces.

Here, for Tim, is the issue of connectivity writ large, a sharp delineation both on the land and in his mind between ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

‘One of the problems we have at the minute, is that we have this small reserve here, and my colleagues at Sheffield Wildlife Trust have a reserve, but there are probably three or four miles in between these two reserves which are intensively managed grouse moors,’ he says.

‘The intensive predator control they have in those areas, particularly snares and traps for weasels and stoats, they often ring our nature reserves. So we are protecting wildlife and encouraging wildlife, yet any wildlife emerging from our nature reserve such as foxes, weasels and stoats can get snared and trapped and killed in the surrounding land. So connectivity for wildlife across the landscape in these areas is just not possible for some species.’

Raptors are another bone of contention between the rewilders and the grouse moor managers. Tim would hold the management of grouse moors to blame for the lack of hen harriers, for instance. Indeed the Dark Peak has a dark reputation for ‘raptor persecution’. Despite all the publicity surrounding this issue, two hen harriers that fledged in the region disappeared in suspicious circumstances last year and a red kite and short-eared owls were illegally shot.

But the rewilding movement is having to grow up quickly. The Peak District, in land use and management terms, is like a closely knit family. The fact is that much of the Dark Peak moorland is used for shooting and everybody is going to have to learn to rub along together.

While Tim is adamant that ‘business as usual’ is not an option for shooting as far as rewilders are concerned, he can see the potential for discussion with a less intensive rearing regime for game, which would allow for a wilder moor, discussion on any predator control, and reduced burning of heather.

‘I don’t want to come here in 20 or 30 years time, walk on these moors, and still see nothing but meadow pipit. These moors can be so much better than that,’ says Tim.

‘I am very pragmatic, I want to see change. If we can have constructive discussion with people who are currently shooting that could enable significant change to happen, then I am absolutely up for that discussion.’

It will be interesting to see if any compromise can be reached between the two seemingly incompatible camps of driven grouse shooting on the one side of the wall, and the popular appeal of the rewilding agenda on the other.

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