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.
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.