If grouse moors are to blame for downstream flooding, then what of the RSPB's Lake Vyrnwy?
Time and time again we hear the same refrain from the anti-shooting fraternity: that grouse moors and the way they are managed results in downstream flooding for local communities. This, they claim, is due to the heather burning that is carried out in rotation every year in order to both prevent moorland wildfires by burning off old, dead vegetation and creating fire breaks, and to encourage new shoots of heather.
But is there any traction in the claim that managed moorland is to blame for flooding? Flooding expert Prof Jeremy Purseglove is on as record saying there is “no direct evidence that grouse moor management causes flooding”; and grouse moor owners and managers are working hard to undo the damage caused by the grants given by the government to drain the moors in the post-war years by rewetting peat, reintroducing spaghnum mosses and reprofile gulleys. This is all through privately financed schemes; landowners who genuinely want the countryside to be healthy and thriving.
So then, let us take a look at the case of Lake Vyrnwy, in Wales. We have written about this RSPB reserve before; examining the reasons why, since the RSPB took over its management, there has been – in their own words – “a dramatic decline in wildlife” in the last 30 years. As a privately run moor, there was an abundance of black grouse, merlin and hen harriers.
But despite ploughing money into the reserve, the RSPB have well and truly messed up its management; in 2019 they launched an appeal for yet more money, stating that: “Without the serious interventions RSPB is proposing in this bid, in the next few years curlew, black grouse and merlin will cease to appear as breeding species in this area of Wales. It is also likely that the same fate will fall red grouse and hen harrier within a decade”.
But it isn’t just the wildlife who are suffering from this mismanagement. A strange thing has happened on the Rivery Vyrnwy, which is seeing record levels – despite there being no exceptional rainfall this year.
So what’s the reason behind it? If the reserve were still privately managed for driven grouse shooting, you can bet that anti-shooting campaigners would be baying for blood, blaming ‘mismanagement’ and a lack of vegetation and trees for the flooding downstream.
Just this week, for example, convicted criminal and ‘Wild Moors’ founder Luke Steele was busy on Twitter, blaming controlled burning on grouse moors for flooding downstream. But with the RSPB ‘managing’ the uplands in this case, moorland management systems can’t be blamed. It’s most likely that poor river management and other factors are to blame; in the case of the River Vyrnwy, there is housing on both sides of the river in certain places, meaning high water run-off from driveways and paved gardens.
But the same factors are in place in so many flooding cases. The easy target is upland managers; but while the harm done by the misadvised draining of the 1950s and 60s is both accepted and being rectified through private funds, blaming controlled burning and grouse moors for downstream floods is incorrect. It's also worth bearing in mind the benefit that controlled burns have to wildfire reduction. If one thing is going to increase water run off and affect flooding downstream it's a wildfire: tearing through everything in its wake, causing huge amounts of destruction, and parching the ground and the peat itself.