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Andy Burnham 'made to look foolish' by the RSPB after being fed misinformation

[Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, was likely fed wrong information by the RSPB]

The recent press release, sent out by RSPB is something of a classic. Mind you, you'd hope it would be, given their media department is bigger than many entire charities.

Just the sort of line that a hard pressed journalist will cut and paste. What underpins it is, as usual, not quite what it says on the tin.

The communities are actually one woman from Hebden Bridge, and most of the politicians are unknown Labour councillors.

But they have got one big name: Andy Burnham, the widely respected Mayor of Manchester. At one time seen by the chattering classes as having potential to be the next leader of the Labour Party. There must have must have been a level of satisfaction when they got him to give a quote. This one big fish conceals the fact that the rest are minnows.

Obviously, if you can get someone of Andy Burnham's stature to support you, it's best that you make sure that what you are briefing him actually reflects the reality and you don't make him look uninformed and silly.

[Andy Burnham continues to play a key role in covid legislation in Manchester]

You therefore work hard to make sure that his quote is powerful and unassailable. Unfortunately that is not what has happened. At a time when Mayor Burnham is regularly on the radio commenting on Covid issues, the RSPB have hijacked his reputation for pragmatism and made him look foolish.

The first sign of a potential problem is a quote from the ever-busy Pat Thompson, the RSPB's ubiquitous Senior Conservation Officer. She says: “England's upland peatlands are also increasingly vulnerable to changes in climate, particularly prolonged periods of drought which dry the surface vegetation, making it vulnerable to accidental fire in spring and summer”. Why is this statement surprising? Because it's true! Literally true. Not something which is an invariable feature of this debate.

We can all agree that this is the case. Not the peat remember: “the surface vegetation”. The only difference between Pat's position and that of the community that has managed the situation successfully for generations is that the community thinks that if the fuel load is reduced and fragmented by cool burning, the risk of “accidental fire in spring and summer” is also reduced as much as humanly possible. By contrast Pat seems a wet and walk away sort of guy.

When we saw Pat's quote, we did start to wonder if the press release had been properly checked. It is rare that the RSPB's mighty media department let something as frank as that slip through the net.

Then we came to Andy Burnham's quote and it became clear. The quote checker must have been late and in the words of the old rhyme, “I'm not the quote checker. I'm the quote checker's mate, and I'm only checking quotes, 'cause the quote checkers late”.

This is what Andy Burnham apparently said in support of an immediate ban on the practice of cool rotational burning in the winter and early spring, carried out to enhance biodiversity and reduce both the risk and severity of wildfires.

“Andy Burnham, Mayor of Manchester, said: “Upland fires in 2018 and more recently in the dry spring this year have created significant issues in upland areas of Greater Manchester- both from and environmental and public safety perspective. We are acutely aware of the environmental impact of upland fires, whatever there cause, can have on the environment. Recent work by Natural England , which will inform Defra's forthcoming national peat strategy, highlighted that the 2019 Winter Hill fire alone released c90,000 tonnes of carbon equivalent (tCO2e).”

It is not clear who wrote this. It might be Andy, or one of his advisers. But it may even have been written by RSPB. Whoever wrote it, it is beyond doubt that the RSPB must have cleared it for publication.

As a direct consequence they ensured that Andy was making points that were completely ridiculous. The upland fires he refers to were indeed on moorland where, as Pat correctly stated, the prolonged droughts had made the moorland vegetation vulnerable to accidental fire.

They were especially vulnerable because the fuel load had been allowed to increase steadily, growing season after season. This happened because the very practice that Andy Burnham set out to condemn, and which he had apparently been led to believe was responsible for the spate of wildfires on the moors around Manchester, had absolutely nothing to do with it.

[Wildfires like the one at Winter Hill were a likely result of no controlled burning]

Except in the sense that if rotational burning had been taking place, the fires would likely never have happened and, even if they had, they would have been less severe and easier to put out.

The fires on Saddleworth, Marsden, Crowden, Dove Stones, Darwen, and more, including the one at Winter Hill, which Andy mentioned by name, were all on ground where rotational cool burning had been stopped, in large part because of the policy and action of RSPB.

So the most important politician on the press release was allowed to talk complete nonsense and made to look a fool. How can this have happened?

It appears that someone has misled Andy Burnham and as a consequence he has put his name to a statement which, when examined closely, goes a long way to undermining the central purpose of the press release, which is an attempt to stampede the government into making a decision which suits RSPB's strategy, at the risk turning huge swathes of our uplands into a tinder-box.

We can understand that huge powerful organisation's like the RSPB become accustomed to having their own way in all things and resent being questioned or contradicted by lesser mortals, but sometimes the world would be a better place if they at least had the decency to admit that the other point of view has a case.

The latest press release was well after they have seen wildfire after wildfire devastate heather moorlands where their theories have been put into practice to the letter, often enough by them.

Their answer to the growing chorus of voices questioning their right to force their theories onto all of what survives of our heather moorland, is as brazen as it is dangerous. Wildfire? What wildfire? I didn't see a wildfire. Did you see a wildfire, Pat? Andy, don't worry. You can trust us, we are the RSPB so no one will argue.


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