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How the sunlit uplands turned into a battlefield

The uplands of the British Isles are one of most important habitats in the UK. Beautiful, unspoilt landscapes, home to unique plant life, and many red and amber listed bird species, including raptors. Many of these upland areas have special protection statuses due to the unique biology that exists there.

The fact is that much of the UK’s wildlife is suffering – with the UK at risk of losing at risk of losing a quarter of its mammal species, and 41 per cent of UK wildlife species having decreased in number since the 1970s. You might think, therefore, that the moorlands of the UK would be celebrated, and the unique management methods which make them the moors you see today, protected and thought of as something worth looking after.

But the exact opposite has happened. Rather than being celebrated and lauded for the unique habitats that they are and the wildlife and visitors that they attract, the UK’s moorland have instead become something close to a civil war. Anti-grouse shooting fanatics are waging battle against the people who know and understand the moors; those who live there, work there, and in many cases, have done for generations.

The issue at the centre of this battleground is grouse shooting and, more specifically, a campaign against what is perceived to be a pastime of the elite. The likes of the ‘Moorland Monitors’, run by the convicted criminal Luke Steele, and others who campaign against the current moorland management systems argue that the moors – the unique habitats of the uplands – are being abused just so the wealthy elite can spend a few days a year shooting at red grouse. They would rather the moors were left to their own devices – rewilded, if you like. The heather untouched, no predators controlled – and very few people.

[Anti-grouse shooting campaigner and convicted criminal Luke Steele]

There are two main problems here. The first is that this nirvana which the anti-shooting campaigners dream of, where the moors are left to their own devices, has already been tried and tested – and shown to be lacking. There isn’t space here to retell the stories of the RSPB’s Lake Vyrnwy, where there has been a dramatic decline in the amount of wildlife there since the RSPB took over 30 years ago, when it was being run as a grouse moor.

Or the wildfire on the RSPB managed Crowden Moor, where the long, dry, unmanaged heather creates ‘the perfect conditions for fire to spread.’ The science – studies such as the Defra study on management regimes on heather dominated blanket bogs being carried out by Andreas Heinemeyer of the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York – show that the best management method is a ‘balance between mowing, burning and unmanaged areas’. But for those who are against grouse shooting, the science is of no importance. Facts don’t matter; they are interested in ideologies, not evidence.

The second problem is that the people who will lose out most when the uplands are ‘rewilded’ won’t be the grouse shooters, but the locals, who will be out of work and out of business, while the moors that they have known their whole lives are left to rot. As the plant life is left unmanaged, the bird and insect life will suffer, while predators go unmanaged – a state of play which will, ultimately, harm their numbers and health, too.

[Record number of species recorded in 2018 on the grouse moors of the Peak District]

In fact, it’s already happening. In the Scottish highlands, billionaire landowners with visions of ‘wild nature’ who use terms such as ‘conservation’ and ‘natural balance’ are choosing to use their estates to offer luxurious-yet-frugal holidays in purpose-built bothies that feature showers and gas fires. Forget about bothies being used by crofters and keepers who manage the land and the livestock. Instead, the estate owners hope that rich visitors will pay hundreds of pounds a night to stay in these remote off-grid huts, escaping city life for the wilderness, for a chance to play at ‘wild living’. And what of the locals; the people who used to earn a living working for these country estates? The good news is that the landowners won’t need their help. Part of the ‘wild living’ fun is to do your own rubbish run, and to take your laundry with you. Staff requirements are minimal. There are no people in these idealistic upland landscapes; that would ruin the wilderness experience.

It isn’t just in Scotland that this is happening. In Exmoor, the National Park Authorities recently released their plans for the future – which involve rewilding 10% of the park to encourage beavers and pine martens, and replacing livestock grazing areas with woodland. But what of the famers; the people who live on the land, and – it’s worth remembering as we struggle with a global pandemic while negotiating Brexit trade deals – produce the food that we eat.

Rural incomes are few and far between, and the fact is that these private estates provide work for thousands of full-time employees as well as ad-hoc workers, as well as supporting local companies from builders and mechanics to butchers, tailors and agricultural workers, all of which improves the livelihoods of these often remote, rural communities. Improved livelihoods and increased wildlife populations – particularly rare species – are what everyone wants, surely?

But the problem is that so many of these people are so set in their anti-shooting mentality that they aren’t interested in being guided by the latest scientific evidence. They don’t want to know that managed cool burns don’t damage the ground below, to hear that hen harriers are doing better on grouse moors than anywhere else in the UK, or that red-listed ground-nesting birds actually prefer the mosaics of heather created by moorland management. They would rather use emotion to bend people’s views; to use their social media expertise and political clout to push their stories to the top – and to hell with the people whose lives and livelihoods they destroy along the way.


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