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Unearthed and the RSPB were warned six months ago their fresh 'evidence of burning' was 5 yrs old

Last week Greenpeace/Unearthed and the RSPB led yet another smear campaign against grouse moor management by insinuating there had been widespread illegal burning taking place across the uplands, using phrases such as ‘could be illegal’.

Controlled burning is an essential tool for wildfire prevention, used around the world, as well as enabling fresh heather and grass shoots to grow.

It can be safely assumed that the reason the story was released, and the RSPB’s Pat Thompson was wheeled out onto the radio, was because their investigation actually failed to find any conclusive evidence of illegal activity. We have been told that both the RSPB and Unearthed were told this when they first submitted their ‘findings’ to the government.

Instead, having realised their ‘evidence’ was unlikely to prove any illegal activity had been carried out, they instead focused only on a few 'sensational claims' in order to generate cheap BBC headlines.

However, there is more to this story which proves they knew their investigation was flawed all along, and yet they chose to proceed anyway. It can be assumed they chose to ignore this when briefing the BBC.

Back in November Emma Howard, the Greenpeace Unearthed journalist, approached an estate in Yorkshire saying they had “received information regarding activities on the estate which raised concerns in the public interest and which we think we should publish. Before doing so we would like to give you the opportunity to comment and to address any inaccuracies in the information we have received.”

It is known now that the ‘information’ Emma Howard received came from Luke Steele, a hardened criminal with a history of intimidation, entrapment and evidence manipulation which saw him previously spend over 18-months in prison. We can only assume Emma Howard was aware of this.

The information she went on to claim she had received included:

  • Fires have been reported on peatlands.

  • Drone footage and eyewitness accounts show fresh burn scars over peat on the land.

  • The fires occurred this burning season - since the start of October and therefore since the government introduced a partial ban on English and Welsh peatlands in May.

The problem with her information, however, was that it was entirely false as not a single burn had taken place on that moor that season at the time of the enquiry.

The estate responded clearly saying:

“Dear Emma,

Thank you for your email request concerning alleged moorland burning. Please find our comments below.

  • No burning has been carried out, either on shallow peat (under 40 cm) or deep peat (over 40 cm) since 1st October 2021, so we believe the information reported is wholly incorrect. We have viewed the drone footage and cannot see any evidence of recent burning having taken place – all burning is obviously historic and certainly pre-dates October of this year. We also compared the drone footage with our peat depth maps and can confirm the area concerned is located on dry heath, where peat depth is less than 40 cm (see figure 1 below). As a general comment, drone and visual sighting do not allow peat depth to be verified, so it does not provide a reliable method of determining whether the land is affected by the Government ban on burning or not.

  • Heather burning on shallow peat (less than 40 cm) remains a legitimate management activity and can be carried out between October and April without damaging the peat below.

  • We can further advise that no burning has been carried out on deep peat (over 40 cm) since 2018.

  • Grouse shooting forms part of a complex integrated set of social and economic objectives on our upland areas, also including carbon sequestration, water quality, agriculture and bio diversity. Left undisturbed, heather plants will live for over 20 years, with the stems becoming tough, woody and unpalatable to grouse and sheep. Burning of old long rank heather allows the plant to produce new green shoots which are much more palatable to livestock and red grouse (Lagopus lagopus scoticus) which is endemic to the UK. Moorland managers have therefore burned and cut heather in small patches to provide a mix of both long and short heather. This practice provides cover from predators and weather, for grouse and other ground nesting birds (including merlin, ring ouzel, curlew, golden plover and others). The mosaic of recently burned (or cut) patches of ground provides heterogeneity of habitat which benefits a suite of upland birds. This practice also contributes to the control of fuel load which significantly reduces the risk of a damaging wildfire and is a wildfire prevention management tool widely used across the world. It is not without note that most recent large damaging wildfires have been on sites regarded as natural blanket bog wetted vegetation (Marsden Moor, Crowden, Darwen and Dovestones) where biomass has built up due to a reduction in grazing and controlled burning. Furthermore, the levels of CO2 released from wildfires in the UK dwarfs that of controlled heather burning.

  • The science around burning is far more complex than your enquiry would suggest and we encourage you to read the following:

  • The estate is committee to managing its moorland in a way that makes peatland more resilient to climate change and the impact of flooding whilst maintain water quality. An example of some of the work carried out on the estate in recent years include:

    • Blocking 19.88 km of grips with peat dams

    • Blocking 1.86 km of gullies with peat dams

    • Installing 1,546 stone sediment traps

    • Installing 1,047 timber sediment traps

    • Restoring 8.97 ha of micro-eroded peatland

    • Reprofiling 21.74 km of eroded grip and small gully sides

    • Reprofiling 10.93 km of eroded hag sides

    • Revegetating 3.48 ha or hag, grip and gully sides.

    • Inoculated 20 ha of existing vegetation with Sphagnum plugs.

The Estate is immensely proud of the way its moorland is managed together with the fragile upland habitats and communities it supports. We invite you to meet with us and we will happily show you the moors so that we can better discuss the complexities of moorland management.

Finally, For what it is worth, it did not escape our attention that you relying on material and footage provided by Luke Steele’s Wild Moors. If you are not already aware, Mr Steele has received multiple convictions previously for crimes including evidence manipulation and harassment. Other media outlets, including as recently as last month, have also had remove articles that he has helped with due to widespread inaccuracies. For the sake of Unearthed future credibility, we would urge you consider very carefully any future material that individual provides you with.”

Emma Howard, Pat Thomson, and the RSPB cannot therefore say they weren't warned in advance that their piece on controlled burning relied on outdated information.- in some cases up to five years old. Nevertheless, they tried to pass it off as current in an effort to suggest that illegal activity had taken place. Needless to say Emma Howard did not take up the estate's invitation to come and visit it and be shown controlled burning and the benefits it brings.

This example of evidence manipulation was something straight of Luke Steele’s Wild Moors’ playbook.

Unearthed boasts to its readers and advertisers that it provides ‘environmental news and investigations with an editorially independent journalism team’. Given Emma Howard was warned about the manipulated evidence she had been provided with six months ago, and yet proceeded with the story anyway, it demonstrates that their journalism is anything but independent.


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