The burning heather

Gamekeepers burn the heather on the moorlands around and above Allendale during the late winter months, to elicit green shoots for the young grouse to feed on [From an original photograph posted on ‘Allendale area notices’ by Phil Coates]

Without taking any sides (environmental, conservational, pro- or anti-shooting) on the traditional practice of burning swathes of heather on the grouse moors around the valleys, the diary entry today notes the annual fires and smoke, and considers a few viewpoints.

The topic of heather burning has been in the public domain especially this past week, as the BBC’s Countryfile had a segment on the matter with special reference to burning on ‘blanket bogs’, and The Guardian ran a piece on grouse estates being reported by Friends of the Earth over burning practises that infringed their own voluntary commitment to reduce the scale of the fires. A few folks have questioned the practise in recent postings to ‘Allendale area notices‘, and before the ripostes got too heated, the discussion was shut down.

But it seems fair to try to list the various opinions or concepts and rationales, about this practise, and associated gamekeeping activities, with an intention to maintain neutrality, to stick to reasonably assured facts, and to just try to lay out the different perspectives, as a useful addition to this diary’s depiction of ‘life in these valleys.’ These notes have been gleaned from decades of observation and living up on the high fellsides, and I’m indebted to Margaret Stonehouse for providing a better perspective on moorland management than what I started with (any remaining errors are mine alone!) but I would wish to have a chat with a gamekeeper or two — just at the moment however I’m not very mobile, so will hope to edit in clarifications if I’ve got something wrong from the estates’ perspective, for example, or from environmentalists’ point of view.

  • Grouse moors are managed, not ‘natural’ spaces, developed for grouse to nest, hatch, survive and grow into flying targets (grouse can’t be farmed, as such, since hatchlings eat insects and invertebrates and exhibit profound behavioural characteristics that can only be developed in wild moorland conditions). On the moorlands above the East and West River Allen, shooting parties will pay the estates large amounts for the privilege of shooting them in season, but of course the grouse numbers are critically dependent on the weather — last year’s Beast from the East put paid to the grouse season as most of the hatchlings died in the ice and snow. Maturing grouse need food to eat and shelter to survive, and burning the heather in strips before the growing season helps to create both green edible shoots on the burnt areas, and taller heather for shelter on the untouched strips, as well as enhancing wildlife diversity. The fees for shooting parties ‘trickle down’ to the teams of beaters (often local young people) who encourage the grouse to fly into the waiting guns, and to local hostelries after the shoot is finished for the day, in addition to providing a general boost to the economy of the area because of the large amounts of money coming in (eg local coaches carrying shooting parties in from Newcastle International Airport).
  • Gamekeepers also keep predators down (no foxes are found in the upper fellsides around Allenheads, for example, and often birds of prey are said to be scarce in these parts), so that a variety of red-listed birds (eg lapwings and curlews) thrive on the moorlands as well as grouse.
  • The gamekeepers, along with the sheep farmers who purchase ‘stints’ for unfenced grazing of hardy Swaledale sheep at frequencies of less than 1 ewe per acre, are both said to maintain the countryside in the manner to which we’ve become accustomed, for centuries, reducing the scale of large fires in tinder-dry summers, for example, because of the pre-fired strips which emerge green and less prone to fire risk. Nor does the practise of burning to cultivate grouse represent a natural maintenance strategy, but rather it’s a specific grouse-related culture managed so that the birds can safely reproduce in abundance far beyond their ‘natural’ population density, to make shooting parties viable. ‘Re-wilded’ or ‘natural’ moorland quickly becomes scrubland, with emerging bushes and small trees (in what’s called ‘ecological succession’), mostly inimical to the large-scale growth and survival of the grouse.
  • Field sports, which have in the past included such pastimes as hare coursing, bear and badger baiting, dog and cock fighting, fox hunting with hounds, but which are now legally limited to shooting certain birds and deer and catching certain fish under strictly regulated license, are recognised throughout the country as a significant ‘industry’. As such, field sports employ thousands of people throughout the country in the supply and delivery of the ‘product’, which means families’ livelihoods depend on this countryside pursuit. And many of those families live in the Allen Valleys.

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  • Burning of the heather releases a significant amount of carbon and smoke particulates into the atmosphere, both regionally and locally, posing environmental challenges. So does the burning of timber in our wood-burning stoves, ovens and furnaces. So too does the natural rotting of trees in forests, contribute to the carbon cycle over a much longer time frame.
  • There may be other ways besides controlled burning to stimulate growth of young heather shoots, like allowing grazing cattle on the moorland to trample down the heather (and suffer loss of cattle in bogs, or suffer loss of wading birds’ nesting habitat due to the beasts’ grazing) — new ideas on this topic are often hemmed in by Defra’s, Natural England’s, and the RSPB’s own regulations and policies.
  • It can be debatable whether the ‘trickle-down’ effect of money realised from giant grouse-shooting moors is actually more real than its eventual disposition in the pockets of the estate owners who may be more likely to spend their money in places like London. However, even if grouse-hunting is only for the ‘privileged’ few, and even if the trickle-down effect is small, is it not also a life-line to places like Allendale and its hinterland?
  • Many people consider ‘blood sports’ (ie, the killing of animals for pleasure, or sport) to be morally reprehensible, though they might not mind killing rats, mice, rabbits or moles and other ‘vermin’ because of the spoilage they cause.
  • Attempts to re-introduce birds of prey in areas where grouse moors are maintained by gamekeepers have been seen to founder as these predators are often found poisoned. Birds of prey have an effect on other species than grouse, of course, like the protected lapwing and curlew which thrive on the Allen moorlands. But whatever else the moorlands around us are, there are certainly ‘un-natural’ maintenance protocols in process.
  • Flooding down-stream of high moorlands has been blamed on the practise of clearing/burning tall bushes with extensive root systems that could help the land act as a giant sponge to soak up rainfall. With this sponge concept in mind, extensive tree planting in the headlands above Sinderhope on the River East Allen was initiated a few years ago.

It can be tricky to negotiate one’s own personal path through these varied concepts, especially as one or another of these interpretations can seem to outweigh all of the others, to any given individual. It’s hard enough to write about these viewpoints without seeing ‘the other side’ on each given point, and apologies are due here: on both ‘sides’, I’ve often not managed it. So comments that advance a simple informative brief, to make a fair point that I’ve missed for example, are very welcome, and I will obviously moderate any discussion.

Perhaps for a diary like this is, in the middle of the remote countryside like we are, an attempt to see all sides of the issue over heather burning, and associated gamekeeping practises, is at least a start at understanding some of the challenges of maintaining, or of trying to change, the status quo. Mostly, for incomers like me making a permanent home here, the best option has always seemed to be to live and learn.

1 Comment

  1. Brilliant, balanced piece, Larry. You’ve obviously put a lot of research and thought into this, and I have learned quite a lot from it. There are invariably 2 sides to every issue, as you so ably pointed out. Hope things move on quickly to improve your mobility!

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