The controversial grouse moor burning season in the Peak District

Burn shooting cabin

Burn shooting cabin - Credit: Archant

October sees the start of the grouse moor burning season which is more controversial than ever this year, with ever louder calls for a ban. Andrew Griffiths investigates.

Moors for the Future Partnership conservation officer demonstrates the remote mower in action on the Dark Peak moors

Moors for the Future Partnership conservation officer demonstrates the remote mower in action on the Dark Peak moors - Credit: Archant

One day last Spring I was standing on a Peak District moor with gamekeeper Richard Bailey. We were just outside Buxton at the top of a steep sided clough. Ahead of us was an old rail track, now a trail, that came out of Buxton. As we talked we were walking through heather that came well above our knees. This trail was particularly popular with tourists during the hot, dry summers we have been having and those tourists brought with them holiday drinks and BBQs. It was, in his opinion, only a matter of time before the whole thing went up like a torch.

I was there because I was writing an article for Derbyshire Life about driven grouse shooting. As a committee member for the National Gamekeepers Organisation and coordinator of the Peak Moorland Group, Richard is keen to promote his vision of the positive effect that the presence of driven grouse shooting brings to the moors, for wildlife and visitors alike.

This apparently innocuous clough was interesting because Richard was not allowed to burn the heather to control the growth. Natural England, the Government’s adviser for the natural environment, had refused permission. This was because the peat was over 40cm deep and this put it into the category of ‘blanket bog’ and so Bailey was not allowed to burn the vegetation that grew on it - in this case, the vastly dominant species being heather.

But that 40cm definition applies even though ‘it isn’t characteristic blanket bog, in the sense that it is very wet, you stand on it and jump up and down, and within 100m you can feel the tremors,’ as Richard puts it. In fact, it is all rather dry.

Richard Bailey

Richard Bailey - Credit: Archant

This means his only option to control the growth of heather is cutting, which requires a tractor or some sort of vehicle to pull the machinery, but on this clough the sides are too steep for such access. So the heather is just left to grow and with it, in Richard’s (and others) opinion, so too does the fire risk. Given the topography of the Dark Peak on this side of the pennines, this predicament is repeated all over the moors.

I am speaking to Richard Bailey again because the burning season is about to begin. It starts in October and runs through the autumn and winter months until mid April. This is when the gamekeepers manage the moors to produce the surplus of wild grouse ready for next season’s shoots.

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The moorland is a deceptively simple environment. To understand the debate about its future, it is important to understand how it has come to look like it does now. The casual visitor may think it is a natural environment, but it is far from it - it is entirely created by Man.

The gamekeeper’s job is to produce a surplus of birds to shoot for the start of the grouse season on the ‘glorious twelfth’ - August 12. To produce this surplus the gamekeeper must manage the habitat to favour the grouse and reduce the number of predators that will take the young birds.

Shooting cabin, Kinder

Shooting cabin, Kinder - Credit: Archant

The heather is burnt in patches of around half an acre to produce a plentiful supply of fresh shoots for the grouse to eat. The birds also need wet ground on the moors to produce crane fly, which is the main food of the young grouse before it graduates to heather. The heather is left to grow longer around these burnt patches to provide cover for these fiercely territorial birds - hence the familiar chequerboard appearance of moorland.

Those who support driven grouse shooting claim that to manage the moors in this way provides many associated benefits: it provides good habitat for red and amber listed species such as curlew, golden plover, redshank, lapwing and snipe - all of which are threatened nationally, largely due to modern farming practices. It also, they claim, mitigates wildfire risk by keeping down the fuel load - that is, the sheer bulk of vegetation that builds up on the moor and which potentially can catch ablaze if it is left unchecked.

Talk to Richard Bailey and his frustration is palpable.

‘You think the people who are making the decisions have very little practical experience,’ he says.

Richard gestures up at the moors, at Goyt Moss, Shining Tor and Cats Tor, and tells me he hasn’t needed to cut or burn up there in 13 years now and counting, because it is so cold and wet the heather grows so slowly. But lower down, where the climate is milder, ‘if I was allowed to, I would want to cut or burn it every five years,’ he says.

The ideal Gamekeeper’s burn is a ‘cool burn’, where the underlying peat is barely touched.

‘We have to separate what is a managed, consented burn to what is a wildfire. A consented, managed burn is done when the ground is wet, and if you have got experienced people you can just flash the top vegetation off and you are leaving plenty of stick, you are not touching the peat.’ says Richard.

Wildfires will mostly happen over the dry, summer months and are usually started by a tourist’s BBQ, or a discarded cigarette, rather than the gamekeeper’s torch. In a wildfire, the underlying peat catches alight and they can burn for weeks. The damage to the moorland ecology is enormous. In the 2018 fire that burnt on Saddleworth Moor (which burnt a grouse moor incidentally) 7cm of peat was lost which will take 200 years to replace.

Richard’s worst case scenario is that burning will be banned, the value in mitigating wildfire learnt the hard way then some years down the line they will want to reinstate it but the gamekeepers’ skills will have been lost.

‘The frustration is, if we lose burning as a management tool, you will have generations of practical knowledge which gets thrown away,’ says Richard, ‘That is the really worrying thing.’

The prospect of a ban on moorland burning is real. The Committee for Climate Change has called for an outright ban on burning on peat soils to help meet our 2050 net zero carbon emissions target. Environment Minister Zac Goldsmith has said the voluntary approach to reducing burning has not worked and that Government will introduce legislation.

Conservation organisations are sufficiently satisfied with the weight of scientific evidence that burning is harmful to the ecology of blanket bogs that they have called for a ban.

Brexit, the end of CAP funding and the move towards payment for ‘public goods’ has valued the moors for their role in carbon sequestration (Derbyshire Wildlife Trust see the future role of those managing the moors as being one of ‘carbon farmers’), their role in clean water collection (70% of our drinking water falls on these moors) and Natural Flood Management - restoring the bogs so the water is held up for longer on the tops of the hill when big storms are raging.

These ‘ecosystem services’ benefit all those of us who live downstream - which is the vast majority of us. The question is, can management for driven grouse shooting fit into this new ‘big picture’? And indeed does it feel the need to, given that much of this land is privately owned?

Dr Alexander Lees is a Conservation Biologist at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is also a keen ornithologist and lives in Glossop and looks out over the Dark Peak moors. He cannot have imagined when he moved there that one day he would see a Lammergeier Vulture flying over his Glossop garden - but he has.

Alexander might broadly be considered to be on the ‘rewilding’ side of the debate, and there are a number of big, rewilding projects underway on the Peak District moors already. He would like to see a mosaic of habitat, less sheep and more cattle such as Belted Galloways - ‘They create a very different type of sward, more scrub, they will create a much more diverse and better environment than intensive sheep grazing.’ he says.

Unlike some in the conservation organisations, Alexander is not against shooting as such.

‘For me it is not about land uses, it is about land covers,’ he says. ‘I am quite happy to share land uses with hunters and shooters and anyone else who can get the job done, to produce a more diverse upland environment. I am anti driven grouse shooting because I think it is a very poor use of land.’

Confronted by the clough in Richard Bailey’s example, Dr Alexander Lees sees a landscape that has been stunted by intensive grouse moor management over generations. The constant burning and cutting has led to heather - a species which has evolved alongside fire - becoming dominant, and this has further dried out the peat which in turn has increased the fire risk.

In his narrative, it has prevented the vegetation entering a natural ‘succession’, where trees and shrubs would eventually take over on these lower slopes, and cold, wet blanket bogs re-establish on the tops. Eventually the landscape would reach a ‘climax state’, when it would become stable and essentially manage itself. But the constant interventions of the grouse moor managers prevents this natural succession and traps the land in a kind of perpetual adolescence.

Alexander’s vision is that these cloughs become ‘temperate rainforests’, ‘these lush, sessile hanging oak woodlands’ as he describes them: ‘Once you get into a broadleaf woodland habitat, you are into a habitat that doesn’t burn.’ he says.

Alexander acknowledges that during the transition period there will be an increased fire risk, but: ‘I don’t think that is reason enough to say we cannot have these richer landscapes, because we have to embrace a few risks in transition.’ he says.

There are those on the driven grouse shooting side of the debate who think the campaign to stop moorland burning is a proxy campaign to attack shooting itself. They feel it is too soon to call the science on moorland management and that the evidence that exists is inconclusive and doesn’t justify a ban.

I am interested to know what effect a ban on burning on peat would have on the sport of driven grouse shooting. I asked Simon Gurney, the Peak District representative for the Moorland Association, an organisation which represents the interests of grouse estate owners.

‘I am hoping common sense prevails and it won’t come to that,’ he says. ‘It won’t be good for it, that’s for sure.’

Grouse moor managers are not against cutting, it is a technique they use a lot, not least because you can cut when you can’t burn - when it is raining for instance. Climate change and the trend towards milder, wetter winters is making this a necessity. Simon has experimented with a remote control cutter loaned by Moors for the Future Partnership to work on steep slopes (his verdict: yes it will cut where tractors can’t access but it is very slow, very expensive and just not practical).

But Simon’s real concern is wildfire.

‘In the situation we have got at the moment, we have got a block of heather growing like hell in the middle of the Peak District, which is so potentially dangerous you could end up with a fire on an east wind going from south west Sheffield to north east Manchester. That is not an exaggeration it is a very real possibility.’ he says.

He is conscious that driven grouse shooting presents an ‘easy target’ for some, with ‘the cliche of wealthy people getting out of range rovers or helicopters, which we don’t see anyway.’

He is keen, as the Moorland Association always is, to stress the social and economic benefit of driven grouse shooting to rural communities, and the local employment opportunities it creates.

I finish with something that has been niggling at me, an odd question given that his membership owns such a large part of the land we are discussing: does he feel welcome up on these moors?

Simon thinks for a good few moments. ‘I wouldn’t say I feel unwelcome,’ he says. ‘But I am always aware that there will be people watching us who don’t like what we are doing. But they don’t really understand.’