UK’s moorlands under threat from pollution and poverty

UK’s moorlands under threat from pollution and poverty

24 August 2008

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United Kingdom — A piercing whistle brings the lambs bounding up the hill, corralled into a tight, wild-eyed bundle by Fern, the sheepdog. Sunlight glints off the reservoir below, while beyond the heather-cloaked moors are shimmering purple.

‘Oh, it’s a beautiful spot all right,’ says farmer Peter Wood, 62, as he surveys his fields, bordered by proud drystone walls, high up in the Derbyshire Peak District. ‘But if it wasn’t for my lad working for me for next to nothing … well, we might as well shut the door and be done with it. And that’s a fact.’

It’s a sombre fact, but just one of many dictating government policy as a desperate battle is waged to protect the UK’s uplands. Many Britons decamp on holiday to our spectacular highlands, but few realise how crucial they are to everyone’s workaday lives. Moors, mountains, hills and valleys provide food, drinking water, a weekend recharge for urban-weary batteries, rare birds and butterflies, and a powerful arsenal in the escalating war against climate change.

But their future is fragile. ‘The uplands are facing a huge threat,’ says Pat Thompson, uplands conservation officer at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). ‘It’s as urgent as standing here in 20 years’ time with your grandchildren asking: “What on earth were you lot doing in 2008?” ‘Erosion, the legacy of overgrazing, artificial drainage, unregulated burning of moorland, and industrial pollution of the atmosphere have degraded vast areas. Much is at stake, but the problem is that there are many stakeholders. And as the powerful environmental lobby captures the government’s ear, there are competing interests, each with a voice to be heard.

The fight to preserve the uplands has made them a battleground of tension and feud. The hill farmers’ financial plight, the grouse shooters’ wealth, rows over burning heather, accusations over poisoned birds of prey and water companies’ demands – all are thorny issues that add up to a complex jigsaw.

The National Trust is now calling on government to deliver a clear strategy. One immediate concern is keeping farmers on the hills. Dan Houseago, of the National Trust, says: ‘We are asking farmers to do so much more than just produce a sheep. We are asking them to ensure a beautiful, colourful landscape, to protect all sorts of rare and wonderful birds, to provide lovely habitats for shooting and hunting, to give us clean drinking water and carbon storage as well as food. It’s a big, big ask.’

With declining incomes and an average age of 58, the farmers who work these challenging areas, where poor soil conditions leave few options other than raising sheep and cattle, are finding life very tough. Until recently, subsidies helped them to balance the books – the more livestock they raised, the more they got in payments. The hill farm allowance (HFA) compensated them for staying on the hills – a grant to safeguard rural communities in areas officially designated as ‘less favoured’.

But today, environmentalists point to damage caused by overgrazing, drainage and burning, the legacy of generations of farmers seeking to eke out a living. Now they receive payments for acreage rather than number of livestock to encourage them to de-stock, and other grants are stringently pegged to the environmental benefits they can provide for all of us.

The result has been that upland farmers are being driven out, and sons and daughters are turning their backs on the family heritage. ‘That is sending shock signals across the environmental movement,’ says Thompson, ‘because we recognise the incredibly important contribution that livestock and well-managed husbandry makes to the uplands. It’s vital. We cannot afford to lose this incredibly skilled workforce, and right now we are losing them.’ A new study indicates that sheep numbers have declined by up to 60 per cent in some areas of the Scottish uplands. Environment Secretary Hilary Benn announced last month that the hill farm allowance would be replaced by a special uplands environment payment in England.

From too many grazing animals on our hills, the fear now is of too few. Grazing is essential to keep vegetation down, to prevent grass wastelands where little thrives. Well-managed upland is essential. The upland areas cover 40 per cent of Britain’s land mass and provide 70 per cent of our drinking water, and their beauty attracts 100 million day visits annually. They offer refuge to threatened species, including the black grouse, ring ouzel, curlew, golden plover and twite. They preserve 75 per cent of the world’s remaining heather moors. As climate change tops every agenda, too few are aware that its peat and blanket bogs store some 5 billion tonnes of carbon – the equivalent of more than 20 years of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions. If cared for, peatlands could absorb 41,000 tonnes of carbon a year. But if dried out, they will release 381,000 tonnes a year into the atmosphere or the water table.

This landscape has been formed through centuries of management. Farmers like Wood are crucial, but he is not alone in feeling frustrated by the policy pendulum of recent years. Crookhill Farm, which he rents off the National Trust, is perched high in the idyllic Hope Valley, but he would have no hope of maintaining its 320 acres and 800 sheep without his son David, 32, who fits work on the farm around jobs as a contract shepherd, shearer and sheepdog handler. Battered by rising fuel and feed costs, Wood is forced to sell most of his stock as store lambs, as he cannot afford to fatten them, thereby handing over potential profits to lowland farmers with richer pasture. The bed-and-breakfast business run by his wife, Janet, provided pin money for holidays, as did his sideline as a sheepdog trainer. ‘Now they are vital lifelines.’

He must accumulate a requisite number of points to qualify for the higher end of the new environmental schemes, but like many is struggling to tick enough biodiversity boxes due to his farm’s size and situation. He has his seven miles of drystone walls, but will they count? ‘Drystone walls are a hugely important landscape feature, and we believe they are not being given anything like sufficient points weighting in recognition of the actual cost of maintaining them,’ says Will Cockbain, an uplands officer for the National Farmers’ Union.

Changes to subsidies are said to have reduced their worth to moorland farmers by at least 70 per cent in the past 20 years, and there are fears that the new environment schemes will not make up the shortfall. ‘Depopulation is the main danger,’ says Maurice Retallick, 65, who farms 500 acres on Dartmoor. Today he has mainly cattle; he has cut the number of his ewes from 1,200 to 200, partly due to foot-and-mouth fears and also in keeping with environmental requirements.

‘We’re all dyed-in-the-wool farmers round here and very loath to give up. But the next generation are thinking twice about it. I know of five or six young farming couples who have split up over the pressures. We lose farmers, we lose livestock. And once we start losing livestock, we start losing the uplands.’

Hill farming is not the only concern. Wood’s farm lies 15 miles from Sheffield off the A57 ‘Snake Pass’ road which wends it way through the Peak District’s moors towards Manchester. This year 1,000 acres of that moorland is blooming for the first time in living memory, thanks to Geoff Eyre, 63, an agriculturist and part-time hill farmer who has pioneered a revolutionary germination technique which has made him the world’s expert in heather restoration. Part of the expense was covered through government schemes, and the rest came from private moor owners. Just a handful of birds were recorded on the land before the re-seeding five years ago. Today there are thousands.

Eyre has his misgivings about the moors’ future. One worry is over government policy to restrict heather burning. Grouse moor managers have always done this. It creates a mosaic of different lengths of heather needed for the wild red grouse, the game bird found only in Britain, and the sport of grouse shooting is worth £12.5m to rural economies in England each year. Adrian Blackmore, moorland policy officer for the Countryside Alliance, said: ‘If it wasn’t for grouse, the well-managed moors that make up parts of the uplands as we know and love them would be a barren wilderness of grass and old heather supporting no wildlife.’ Through burning and the control of predators such as foxes, stoats and crows, gamekeepers also provide for ground-nesting wading birds, he maintains. A recent survey by Natural England of 17 moorland sites of special scientific interest found that the RSPB’s Geltsdale reserve in Cumbria had the lowest numbers of moorland birds compared with the keepered grouse moors surrounding it – due, Blackmore claims, to lack of predator control.

The RSPB worries about bad burning, where the fire gets out of control and leads to erosion. The government now only allows burning under tight restrictions. But Eyre feels it has gone too far, and that overgrown heather and grass risk wildfires of Californian proportions. ‘If we have an east wind, in 10 years’ time here in the Peak District we are going to end up having to evacuate people out of Manchester because the moors are burning and smouldering away.’

With so many agendas, bodies like the National Trust fear a ‘chaotic and unplanned’ evolution of the uplands. With public money difficult to get, private partnerships could be the way forward. Houseago believes water companies – which spend hundreds of millions a year cleansing water of pollution caused by erosion and farming methods – could invest in encouraging farmers to help provide cleaner, cheaper drinking water. He also sees potential in carbon offset markets. ‘You can get your stocking rates right, stop eroding, stop draining, stop it drying out and oxidising into the atmosphere, hold water on bits of land, turn them into a store of carbon. Carbon markets could make millions.’

Without such radical ideas there are fears farmers like Wood may be the last of their line. ‘Who knows?’ he shrugs. ‘My lad lives and breathes the farm. He loves it. But can he afford to keep it on? That’s a difficult one.’

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