It was only a matter of weeks ago that a number of Lancashire-based local newspapers were embarrassingly forced to pull an article from their pages. The article they printed had zero balance at all, and was a direct reprint of a press release issued by Luke Steele, the convicted animal rights extremist who has previously spent 18 months in prison and has now tried to reincarnate himself as ‘Wild Moors’.
We did urge journalists then to check their sources’ credentials; but sadly, in the case of the Northern Echo, they appear not to have learnt this lesson.
Today an article ran online titled “Guisborough estate criticised for burning grouse moors”, with quotes from – you guessed it – Luke Steele.
Interestingly, the original article as printed in the Northern Echo had zero balance whatsoever. The paper only added in a statement from the Moorland Association later, after it was pointed out to them that their report was entirely one-sided – far from the balanced reporting that one might expect from a local newspaper operating under the Independent Press Standards Organisation's Editors' Code of Practice.
But as well as being entirely one-sided, the article insinuated that the estate had done something wrong by practising controlled burning of heather. This is entirely incorrect: heather burning is both legal and a vitally important part of moorland management.
The estate in question has no deep peat on it – and by listening to Luke Steele and irresponsibly printing this article, the Northern Echo have not only misled their readership, but also wasted the time of Natural England’s employees, who have been forced to check the estate’s management systems off the back of this article.
Another article – also published this morning, but in the Buxton Advertiser – demonstrated exactly why so many moors practise controlled burning: because the benefits outweigh the negatives. The article explains how a 425 acre plot on Abney Moor which in 2013 was a “virtual desert” of bracken has been revitalised, and is now home to “a wide variety of birds and animals such as brown hares, ring ouzels, kestrels, barn owls, snipes, lapwings, curlews, golden plover, red grouse and heron, alongside songbirds, bees, frogs and newts”.
How has this been achieved? With the help of managed winter burning. “I have been delighted by the results of the managed burn this year”, says landowner Geoff Eyre. “The heather has flowered exceptionally well, attracting bees, and the growing plants lock up carbon from the atmosphere. The meadow pipits and skylarks are now too numerous to count.”
Talking about his decision to burn excess heather rather than using other techniques, he explains that: “Where cutting is used as a moorland management tool, the vegetation is often left to rot, which can release methane, the worst of the greenhouse gases.”
“By contrast, a quick, managed burn allows the plants to regenerate quickly, locking up more carbon in the process and the charcoal layer also means that carbon can’t breakdown and escape.”
The problem is that the likes of Luke Steele simply refuse to see the wood for trees. In their heads, moorland management and controlled burning are linked with driven grouse shooting, and as such must be a bad thing. No matter that it increases biodiversity, prevents wildfires and creates fire breaks; that without its use the carbon dioxide released by out-of-control wildfires and rotting vegetation would be hundreds of times the amount produced by controlled fires, or that moor owners have for decades been restoring and rewetting carbon capturing peatland areas.
In Luke Steele’s eyes, upland landowners can do no good, and as long as journalists continue to swallow his spiel, their readership will be presented an entirely incorrect picture of what really happens on privately owned moors.