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RSPB's statement to Farmers Guardian highlights further conservation failures at Lake Vyrnwy

The RSPB are upset by the suggestion that their stewardship of the vast estate at Lake Vyrnwy in mid-Wales may be less than perfect and that, far from being an exemplar of how to run a grouse moor to enhance its wildlife, and especially its upland birds, it has been, and continues to be, an expensive flop.

They made a statement to the Farmers Guardian in relation to their successful Heritage Lottery Fund bid for £3.3 million which resulted in the following quote:

“Lake Vyrnwy is a complex, landscape-scale estate, with an array of stake holders involved in its management. The charity said it was working to improve the condition of the area by restoring thousands of hectares of blanket bog and upland heath, removing non-native conifers, re-instating active heather management, creating wildflower meadows and restoring ffridd habitat.”

“Lake Vyrnwy is a complex, landscape-scale estate with an array of stake holders involved in it's management”. Good heavens! Who would have imagined such a thing? It must be the only example of this sort of amazing situation. Well, no. What is touted as a huge problem and an excuse for the parlous state of affairs at Vyrnwy, is in fact the norm for many large estates. Precisely these circumstances are repeated all over the uplands and do not prevent active grouse moors having healthy populations of upland birds.

The RSPB is, “Re-instating active heather management”. That's good to hear. We should all be grateful that they have just taken control and can save the moorland from the previous managers neglect. Well, no. The RSPB has been in charge for decades. It has to be asked who stopped the active heather management in the first place. We couldn't possibly guess. The only clue we can find is in a statement by the RSPB made in 1983 when they were definitely in charge, “Because of the regime of burning and despite grazing the moorland, there is still a healthy population of red grouse and large numbers of breeding curlew and whinchats. Less common are golden plover, hen harrier, merlin and stonechat”.

That was thirty seven years ago. Thirty seven years during which at some point someone stopped active heather management. It is also thirty seven years during which RSPB has been in charge. Obviously, it would be unreasonable to assume that they stopped the management, which has now resulted in the parlous state of affairs described in their application for £3.3 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). Obviously it could have been someone else. We couldn't possibly comment.

Just so we all remember the scale of the problem the bid for the £3.3 million (which they hope and expect will be match funded to the tune of over £6 million) made it clear that the reserves habitat, and the birds it supports, were on their last legs.

The direct quote from the bid is, “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”. We can assume this is a correct estimation. They received £12,000 from the Welsh government to write the application and they would hardly have got it wrong for that money. Why the Welsh Government thought that giving an organisation that made a £12,000,000 profit last year, tax payers money to fill in a form, is another question, which we may return to on a different occasion.

Contrast this tragic mess with what they said could be found there four decades ago. Healthy populations of red grouse. Large numbers of breeding curlew and whinchats. Less common but still breeding, and not in any way endangered, golden plover, hen harrier, merlin and stonechat. This is not a glich, its not a blip, its not something that happened overnight. Some unkind people might think that this is evidence of long term systemic failure and incompetence on the part of the people who have appointed themselves as guardians of the Lake Vyrnwy reserve. We could not possibly comment.

Then there is the confusion around the area that will be restored as a key part of the expenditure of £3.3 million. The statement in the Farmers Guardian refers to “thousands of hectares of blanket bog and upland heath”. That sounds like reasonable value for money. What appears in the HLF bid is a bit more limited.

The stated outcomes are:

- By raising the water table on 90ha of blanket bog conditions for tupilid larvae (Daddy Long-Legs) will be improved.

- 360 ha of ridge top bog systems will be covered in short natural bog vegetation rather than deep heather.

- 90ha of gully systems will be shallow flooded with at least 50% sphagnum cover.

- 35,000 meters of eroding and drying peat exposed in the form of peat hags will be completely covered in natural vegetation.

That's it. Whatever way you look at it it's does not appear to be 'thousands of hectares'. The total area adds up to 540ha. But there is the bizarre appearance of a liner measure, 35,000 meters, for what must be an area, as peat hags are not linear features. What can it be? Well, what it can't be is a mistake, where meters are substituted in error for hectares or acres, as if either were the case the whole reserve and much of its hinterland would be one giant peat hag, easily visible from space.

The likeliest explanation is that the author of the £12,000 application, simply missed off the square before meters. An easy mistake when you are being paid so little to fill out a form. Even so 35,000 square meters sounds a lot. Happily it isn't, if our guess is right the total area of the peat hags will be a much more manageable 3.5ha.

This will bring the total, that we can find in the bid to 543.5ha. This seems a little short of the thousands of hectares RSPB claimed in the Farmers Guardian, but we are sure that there will be a logical explanation. It's just that we can't think of one at the moment.


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