top of page
  • C4PMC

Former DEFRA Secretary laments 'Authoritarian Conservation' in new book about the Moorlands

The much anticipated copy of Ian Coghill's book, Moorland Matters - The Battle against Authoritarian Conservation, has finally arrived and it pulls no punches.

Covering issues in forensic detail, the books examines everything from controlled burning, carbon capture and the economics of moorland management to the RSPB, raptors and rewilding.

This is a must read by all who genuinely care about our wildlife.

We will be providing more comment of the details of the books in the coming days however, for now, we thought we would share with you the foreword, written by the former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Rt Hon Owen Paterson.

"The scientific evidence is overwhelming that it is the grouse shooting industry that has got this issue right, and their critics who have got it wrong."


Ian Coghill fell in love with moorland as a boy, on day trips to the Lammermuir Hills from his grandparents’ council house in Edinburgh. At the age of 63, after a long career in local government, he shot his first grouse. By then, as chairman of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, he had become a passionate conservationist, devoted to understanding and analysing the science behind the management of natural habitats. His command of the science behind conservation is unparalleled. Reason and passion join to great effect in this eloquent, funny and fascinating book.

Moorland Matters is full of common sense, spiced with not a little annoyance at the way that moorlands have been misrepresented and misunderstood while the public has been deliberately misled about them. This is a habitat virtually unique to the British Isles, with species that thrive at high densities nowhere else, including the curlew and the red grouse, and with a system of management in the service of nature that has evolved over the centuries into a sophisticated and effective whole. None of it happened because of command and control by government or because of campaigns by the big environmental pressure groups. Moorland is a fine example of private individuals risking their own money to do something for conservation and working out the hard way what works and what does not.

The result is rare birds breeding in abundance, rich mixtures of mosses and flowers and insects on deep peat that is steadily accumulating and acting as a sponge for rainfall. This brings jobs and income for young people in remote Pennine dales, in a landscape loved by and shared with walkers and picnickers. Where there are no grouse moors, the hills of northern England and southern Scotland have vanished beneath silent monocultures of alien Sitka spruce trees, grown at a taxpayer-subsidised loss, or turned to low-diversity acid grassland by overgrazing with subsidised sheep, or disfigured by vast steel towers to support huge wind turbines that kill rare birds with their fast-turning tips.

Yet far from thanking the grouse moor owners for this unique example of privately-funded environmental protection and enhancement, the big environmental pressure groups constantly assault them with criticism, most of it ill-founded as Ian Coghill demonstrates. The most vocal of these critics, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, has received many millions of pounds from taxpayers via the European Union and the British Government to save the curlew and to look after the uplands, yet has failed dismally. Its reserve at Lake Vyrnwy in North Wales, not far from where I live, has seen steep declines in its iconic moorland birds under the RSPB’s stewardship, including curlews, merlins, black grouse, red grouse and golden plover. All were abundant breeders when the RSPB acquired the land and are all now teetering on the brink of local extinction. Yet that failure has been richly rewarded, with a £3.3 million grant to the RSPB to help prevent the disappearance of the curlew from Lake Vyrnwy. Meanwhile, on grouse moors in the North Pennines, curlews are so numerous and so successful at breeding, that in the springtime, at dawn, you literally cannot find a moment when they cannot be heard singing.

When I was Secretary of State for the Environment, one of my chief priorities was to manage the environment and, most of all, not to protect it but to improve it. I wanted to shift the mindset of conservationists from preserving nature to working actively to enhance it. We could do far more good by creating or transforming badly degraded habitats than by putting yet more bureaucratic regulation and protection around the bits of the countryside that had survived and were rich in rare plants and animals. The lack of ambition sometimes astounded me. A fine example is given in this book. In 2020 the EU’s Life Fund gave the RSPB a large chunk of a £4 million grant specifically for protecting curlews in five locations. The ambition of the RSPB, with this money, was “that the number of pairs at these sites will be at least as high at the end of the project as at the start.”

While at DEFRA I was acutely aware that the issue of conservation was to a large extent “owned” by the wealthy environmental pressure groups, who thought they knew best; they worked hand in glove with – and often frankly instructed -- many of the officials who worked in the quangos that regulated the countryside. I tried to challenge this alliance between activists and civil servants, and to bring science, scepticism and not a little economic reality to their thinking. It was uphill work. Reading Ian Coghill’s magnificent book has left me realising that I never knew the half of it. The story of Britain’s moorlands is one of a spectacular conservation success story that the agencies and pressure groups are doing their utmost to destroy for no good reason than that it makes them jealous. The scientific evidence is overwhelming that it is the grouse shooting industry that has got this issue right, and their critics who have got it wrong.


To order a copy of this book please see:


bottom of page