Ban The Burn

Ban The Burn is a Hebden Bridge-based campaign. I wrote about it for New Interationalist in August 2012 & again in February 2014 and in between, added updates as they occurred. In Jan 2013 the campaign went to Brussels to ask the EC to investigate a potential misuse of European funds. This saga looks set to to last a little longer yet…

(Scroll to the bottom of the page for the August story, which covers the background.)

February 2014: Why is taxpayers’ money being used to fund flooding?

(first published in New Internationalist online, 20.2.14: newint.org/blog/2014/02/20/floods-natural-defence/)

“Money’s no object” when it comes to mopping up floods, Cameron proclaimed. It seems that money’s no object when it comes to creating floods, either – especially when it’s public money, falling into the pockets of rich landowners.

Natural England (the government’s environmental advisory body) uses taxpayers’ money to pay large landowners to manage estates in an environmentally sensitive manner. Unfortunately, “environmental stewardship” has, in some cases, meant burning and draining of protected sphagnum-rich bogs, to create heather moorlands ideal for rearing and shooting grouse. This despite ample evidence that burning and draining harms water quality and wildlife, while increasing flood risk.

Recent research has confirmed that healthy blanket bog sucks up water, whereas dry, burnt bog is far less absorbent and increases run-off – meaning that more water rushes downhill into rivers and road drains. Blanket bog is precious for a number of reasons – it’s a globally rare habitat which acts as a biodiverse carbon sink – but right now, flooding is the big story.

In 2012, the funky northern town of Hebden Bridge flooded. This NI blog considered Natural England and millionaire estate owners to be potential culprits. A Brownfield Briefing referred to a “smoking gun” – allegedly being held by the shooting industry. George Monbiot has, in the last week, pointed to land (mis)management being responsible for this winter’s floods in Somerset. It’s becoming apparent that the way we interfere with soil and vegetation affects how much water ends up in our lanes and lounges – it’s not all about weird weather, nor is the uber-demon of climate change solely responsible.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) complained to the European Commission about unlawful land management practices, undertaken in the name of environmental stewardship. Natural England, implicated in this mismanagement, conducted its own Upland Review – and conceded that bog burning was not the best idea; but under pressure from stakeholders operating from a position of power and privilege, NE has struggled to implement best practice in the uplands.

Leeds University’s hydrological research (2012) suggested that deliberate burning of peat blocks the soil’s pores, impeding infiltration of water into the soil. South West Water, working to restore peat bog on Exmoor, discovered that the amount of storm water running off the moorland has reduced by a third compared with pre-restoration run-off. That, researchers from the University of Exeter explained, is the equivalent of “104 Olympic-sized swimming pools of water removed from the river system flowing down to major population centres.” In February 2014, Professor Richard Brazier said: “This enhanced water storage could, when replicated [...] provide a significant buffer against downstream flooding.” With swathes of the south under water, and the country demanding something be done about flooding, this is exciting stuff.

Now, Natural England has put out adraft guidance document relating to the restoration of peatlands. This document concludes that burning of blanket bog has negative impacts and should be phased out. Hallelujah!

But wait… the Hebden Bridge flood victims are not yet mollified.

“We think of Natural England as an ally, not an enemy, and we hope they’re going to help create a safer environment for those of us living in valleys and near flood plains,” said Ban The Burn supporter Penny Eastwood.

“Having said that, we think this draft is a bit toothless. It doesn’t convey the URGENCY of restoring our uplands. It doesn’t speak to people with flooded homes, devastated businesses and hiked-up insurance to pay for. We need this bog degradation to be banned, and we need taxpayers’ money to be spent on protecting the public, rather than being squandered on environmentally hazardous practices.”

Are Natural England’s hands tied? Their draft refers to partners with whom they’ll need to work out a process to reduce bog-degrading activities. The language is woolly, the stance not exactly robust. Home owners and taxpayers would like to know exactly when and how payments to ‘stewards’ who harm vital uplands will cease. If our government’s advisory body is stuck between the rock of vested interests and the hard facts of environmental and climate realities, there may yet be work for tenacious grassroots groups to do.

March 2013

Ban The Burn received a small grant to help further the campaign, from The Edge Fund.

Jan 2013

Legal Challenge; Misuse of Funds

Campaigners are asking the European Commission to investigate a potential misuse of European funding by Natural England (NE), the UK’s nature watchdog.

A representative of the Ban The Burn campaign, based in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, will travel to Brussels on 10 January to meet officials from the Commission’s Environmental Compliance Unit.

Legal reviews are being requested due to:

  • Natural England’s decision to drop its prosecution of Walshaw Moor Estate (WME). In March this year, Natural England took WME to court because of 43 environmental infringements on its 4000 hectare grouse moor estate above Hebden Bridge. The case was dropped abruptly for reasons that have not been made public.
  • The subsequent £2.5 million “Higher Level Stewardship” agreement between NE and WME. This amounts to £1,000 of public money every working day for the next 10 years, while allowing the continued burning of blanket bog – a European priority habitat. Activities which were previously considered prosecutable are now being subsidised by the tax-payer and European funding.

The legal basis for the campaigners’ challenge is that European funding for nature protection should not be used to subsidise activities likely to degrade an extremely sensitive and valuable habitat.

The EU Birds Directive and EU Habitats Directive are both designed to protect environments such as that at Walshaw Moor. Hebden Bridge was very badly hit by flooding in the summer of 2012 and the agreement between NE and WME fails to recognise the downstream effects of current management practices. In order to minimise flood risk in the town, the upland catchment needs to be managed so that large areas of degraded blanket bog are restored to a healthy state, with a good cover of sphagnum moss to act as a buffer slowing the run-off during heavy rainfall.

Local campaigner Dongria Kondh explained that “On Walshaw Moor, we have seen erosion from unconsented tracks, very extensive drainage and aggressive burning on blanket bog. The increased scale of this activity over the past few years may well have been a contributory factor to the severity of flooding in our town. Instead of being banned, these activities are now being subsidised.”

Peter Robertson of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which has also made a complaint to the EC with a view to getting the Stewardship Agreement between NE and the Walshaw Moor Estate overturned, said: “Natural England has a statutory responsibility to protect our special places, both for us and for the benefit of future generations, so it must be held to account if it has failed in its duty on our behalf. Ban the Burn’s action is a good example of how a community that cares about its local countryside can step up for nature and fight hard for its conservation.”

Dr. Aidan Foley BA, Msc., Phd, FGS, an environmental scientist who has helped the group to compile data for the complaint, added “Sphagnum is particularly vulnerable to fire, so continued burning is widely recognised as detrimental. Such damage to the structure of the soil will prevent this degraded moorland being restored to a healthy state.”

Although Ban The Burn is a locally based campaign, it is not just a local issue. Degraded peatlands turn from being carbon sinks to becoming carbon sources; according to the Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands, damaged UK peatlands currently release almost 3.7 million tonnes of CO2 a year – more than all the households in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Leeds combined.

 For more information, contact bantheburn2012@gmail.com, or ring Dongria Kondh on 07847 815 92607847 815 926 (if there is no reply, leave a text message and you will  be called back).

Oct 2012 Update

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has submitted a formal complaint to the European Commission over the handling of Walshaw Moor, a grouse-shooting estate in the South Pennines, above the former mill town of  Hebden Bridge.

Renowned for being the ‘fourth funkiest town in the world‘ and the ‘lesbian capital of Britain‘, this summer Hebden Bridge was in the news again as it suffered from devastating floods.

Residents found a smoking gun… the Walshaw Moor Estate (WME) had been draining and burning the moors above the town, degrading the upland catchment and increasing the risk of flooding downstream.

Natural England (NE), the government’s environmental advisory body, had previously found 43 environmental breaches at WME and had initiated court proceedings. However, in 2011 the court case was abruptly dropped and instead of prosecuting, NE entered into an agreement which saw the Estate being awarded a large sum of money to continue managing the land.

Martin Harper of the RSPB said “Why they [NE] lost confidence is unclear, because they were mounting a robust defence only weeks before, supported by independent expert witnesses as well as the RSPB.”

The key issue is that the area being ‘managed’ by the Estate is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and is protected by the highest European environmental designations. Peat-rich blanket bog, a globally rare and threatened habitat of delicate mosses, acts as a carbon sink when in good condition, as well as being linked to water quality and flood risk. The site is also home to scarce wading birds.

Following six months of investigation, RSPB believes Natural England has contravened European environmental protection legislation in its dealings with the Walshaw Moor Estate.

Mike Clarke, RSPB chief executive, said: “The decision to lodge this complaint has not been taken lightly, but this is a vitally important issue which centres on the Government’s statutory duty to protect our natural environment.

“Natural England – the Government’s wildlife watchdog – has dropped its prosecution without giving an adequate explanation and without securing restoration of this habitat. It has also entered into a management arrangement which we consider has fundamental flaws.  This combination of actions is probably unlawful and will do little, if anything, to realise the Coalition Government’s stated ambition to restore biodiversity.

“This is just one of several protected areas in our uplands, and this case may set an important precedent for how these sites are managed in the future.”
Hebden Bridge’s ‘Ban the Burn‘ group was delighted to hear that their local campaign is now being echoed at a European level.

I’ll keep updating as this case progresses.

Sept 2012 Update

More information has come to light regarding Natural England (NE), Walshaw Moor grouse-shooting Estate in Yorkshire, and the court case brought and then dropped by NE for environmental breaches perpetrated by the Estate.

Carefully researched details of the environmental impact of bog burning can be found in the excellent Brownfields Briefing. The extent to which our drinking water is polluted and discoloured by burning – and how much that costs to clean up – is being investigated (new costly plant has been required for this purpose and guess who pays? Yes – the public, via water bills). More on the fractious communication between Natural England and grouse-shooting supporters the Moorlands Association (MA) has also been unearthed, during which Andrew Woods of NE received the following from Martin Gillibrand, Secretary of the MA:

“Your lawyers have clearly stated that NE believes that all burning on peat needs to be reviewed… [this is] a threat to the management of all such moors. You may not intend to apply it to any other moor at the moment, but there is nothing to stop that being done, and in the light of the views expressed by some of your colleagues and staff about burning, that is not a risk that I can ignore – that is why the Walshaw case is so important to all MA members – the behaviour of Natural England… represents a risk to us all… you must understand that when action is taken in respect of one moor… every other owner is affected, and a lot of patient relationship building is undone.”

In emails which are now public record due to a Freedom of Information request, Woods repeatedly ‘reassures’ Gillibrand that the issue NE is addressing applies only to the Walshaw Moor Estate (WME). Unfortunately that opens the door to WME claiming they’re being treated unfairly (despite the 43 environmental breaches identified on the Estate by NE). It seems that Woods was attempting to calm Gillibrand and the MA membership. Who knows how much Woods believed what he was saying… or what he meant by it. Surely not that NE were happy for blanket bog to continue being burnt elsewhere? As one Ban The Burn campaigner explains “That would mean breaking EU law – as the burning of blanket bog cannot be squared with the European Habitats Directive, Birds Directive and Water Framework directive.” And yet the MA takes even the suggestion of a review of peatland burning to be “a risk to us all”.

Which ‘all’ is Gillibrand referring to here? Not the residents of towns such as Hebden Bridge, who rely on healthy upland catchments to reduce the risk of flooding. Not the average Yorkshire dweller who is paying extra to have their water cleaned after the bog burning. And not the ‘all’ of us affected by climate change, which is being exacerbated by the release of carbon from moorland which could and should be used as a carbon sink. No, it must be the ‘all’ of us who have an interest in grouse-shooting and the estates that host grouse-shooting. A pretty elite ‘all’ which includes Britain’s Wildlife Minister, Richard Benyon.

Having scrutinised the new ‘Higher Level Stewardship’ agreement between Natural England and Walshaw Moor Estate, campaigners say it appears to allow ‘business as usual’. This is the agreement that NE described as an understanding great enough for legal action to be dropped. An agreement that meant NE awarded the Walshaw Moor Estate £2.5 million of public money to look after our moorland… but which includes woolly language that allows for only minor reductions in burning at Walshaw, ignoring the fact that burning increased threefold in the past ten years. In short, not only does the Estate – and its millionaire owner Bannister – get off scot free, they are also allowed to carry on doing many of the things that so alarmed Natural England at the outset. Plus, WME gets paid a heap of taxpayers’ money and then we pay again to have the water they pollute cleaned… and then the valley floods. Add in the longer term effect on climate change and the whole thing really does appear to be a scandal of epic proportions.

A distinct hesitancy on the part of experts to come forwards in this case shows only how important the issue is. Reasons for hesitancy range from fear that their own funding will be cut, to concern that their reputations could be smeared, to consideration of the legal situation and whether what they say could impact any future legal proceedings. Concerned residents in Hebden Bridge and other areas affected by moorland degradation are not hampered by such concerns and are determined to keep calling for ‘Ban The Burn!’. Further calls to action will be heard from the campaigners in the near future.

Aug 2012

Who’s Messing with Hebden Bridge’s Vital Flood Barrier?   Published in New Internationalist online

‘Town that won’t stop flooding: Hebden Bridge cleans up for the third time in three weeks.’

That was a Daily Mail headline in July. It was a slight exaggeration. Most people who live in Hebden Bridge (West Yorkshire) are pretty sure they were only flooded twice, but it was enough. Cars were submerged, the library was evacuated, the main road closed, businesses were wrecked, homes swamped, livelihoods devastated.

But an interesting new story is emerging, which has some bearing on the flood-prone streets of Hebden. It involves a millionaire landowner, a government minister, environmental breaches at a site of special scientific interest (SSSI), a mysteriously dropped court case, the profitability of shooting grouse, and the spending of taxpayers’ cash. The setting: the wuthering heights above Hebden Bridge, famed moors of the Brontës. The unlikely heroes of the piece are blanket bog and sphagnum moss.

On 12 August, flood-hit residents of Hebden Bridge and campaigners from across the country set out from the town centre on a protest walk to the Walshaw Moor grouse-shooting estate. Following the walk, the Ban the Burn! national campaign launch, timed to coincide with ‘The Glorious Twelfth’ (the opening of the grouse-shooting season), took place at Hebden Bridge Trades Club. Ban the Burn! campaigners are calling for an end to the draining of peat-rich blanket bogs and the burning of moorland heather, activities carried out by landowners to maximize grouse-shooting potential.

The effects of draining and burning of blanket bogs, which are supposed to be protected under EU and UK conservation regulations, include: increased flood risk downstream; very significant carbon emissions; adverse impacts on water quality; and the destruction of rare and globally significant habitat. According to the Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands, damaged UK peatlands currently release almost 3.7 million tonnes of CO2 a year – more than all the households in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Leeds combined.

Walshaw Moor came to public attention when Natural England attempted to prosecute the landowner for 43 environmental breaches. The case was abruptly dropped and Natural England subsequently entered into an Environmental Stewardship agreement with the Estate, whereby £2.5 million ($3.9 million) of taxpayers’ money will be paid to it over the next 10 years while ‘controlled’ burning will still be allowed. Campaigners described this as a scandal in a YouTube video.

According to a local resident, ‘here in Hebden Bridge we know the real hardship of flooding – shops and businesses in our town are still shut, and many of us have suffered irreplaceable loss. We need to manage the upland catchment to promote healthy blanket bog, with sphagnum moss to act as a sponge during heavy rainfall. It seems grotesque that the taxpayer is paying for the exact opposite – £2.5 million is about five times as much as we have in the Calder Valley flood recovery fund!’

At the end of a ‘brilliant’, ‘eye-opening’ and ‘exhausting’ day, a walker explained via the live EnergyRoyd blog why he joined the Ban the Burn! campaign: ‘I think it’s a travesty that Walshaw Moor Estate has been given public money. They’ve got friends in Whitehall, and the Minister for Wildlife’s a grouse shooter – basically, a bunch of aristocrats are making life worse for hard-working folk in the valley by increasing the risk of flooding.’ Parts of this claim are unsubstantiated; however, suggestions regarding the influence of political and land-owning élites on environmental and countryside policies have been made by Dr Mark Avery (former Conservation Director of the RSPB), George Monbiot (in The Guardian) and Michael McCarthy (The Independent).

Dr Avery says in his blog Standing up for Nature: ‘The access of the Moorland Association to the [Wildlife] Minister is at a level that many statutory agencies who work for Defra might well envy, and is well beyond that of the average environmental NGO.’ Edward Bromet, Chair of the Moorland Association, which supports grouse shooting, sent Wildlife Minister Richard Benyon a private email in December 2011. The content of this email has since been made public under a Freedom of Information request. Bromet, referring to the court case brought by Natural England against Walshaw Moor Estate, wrote: ‘What Natural England are doing is complete madness…  Suggestions of readdressing the basis of existing agri-environment schemes… would make the management of moorland, most of which is privately funded, completely impossible.’ How much influence such communications had on Natural England’s decision to drop the case is unknown.

When it comes to environmental degradation by a politically untouchable élite of large landowners, the Hebden Bridge story may be just the tip of an iceberg. Walshaw Moor is certainly not an isolated case – the Peatlands Inquiry found that only 11 per cent of blanket bogs in English SSSIs are in favourable condition. Primary reasons cited for unfavourable (no change or declining) condition are overgrazing, inappropriate moor burning and drainage – the latter two being associated with grouse moors.

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