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Wildfires and the death of irony

The Royal Society for the Profitisation of Birds (and any other photogenic furry stuff) has set out its reasons for its drive to licence, and if needs be ban, game shooting, in its magazine.

It is a remarkable two page article which is a rag bag of assertions, misinterpretations and dodgy science. But the full lunacy can be assessed by the beginning and the end.

It starts as follows. “We're facing an ecological and climate emergency. Global tragedies like the wildfires in Australia and California often focus attention elsewhere but large parts of the UK are facing similar, if less dramatic, habitat destruction with far reaching consequences”.

Are they really suggesting that releasing pheasants into a wooded landscape, created for the purpose of shooting pheasants, and augmented in due season with wild bird seed mixes and other game crops, is in any sense whatsoever akin to what happened in Australia? Well, yes, apparently they are.

Can they really think it is appropriate to reference the lethal Californian wildfires in an attack on the rotational cool burning of heather moorland? Well, yes, they do.

This might be dismissed as nutty hyperbole from some over excited ally of the League against Cruel Sports. But apparently, it is the considered opinion of the RSPB, an organisation which was historically seen as respectable and trustworthy and used to be interested in working in partnership with the rural community to achieve mutually beneficial goals.

The article ends by saying that the RSPB, (that's the RSPB that just compared game shooting's impact on conservation in the UK to the apocalyptic and lethal wildfires in Australia and California), “Is determined to work with the shooting community”. Well good luck with that! Obviously they have been reading Stalin's management guide, “10 tips for successful partnership working.” It's the section that deals with bombing the country flat and shooting the Government, as a helpful prelude to partnership working, if you want to look it up.

But let us pause for a moment to think what about which idiot had the brilliant idea of referencing wildfires in an attack on grouse shooting. Not to mention all the people who proof read it and approved it.

There can only be two explanations. Either they had no sense of irony whatsoever, or they were aware of what they were doing and didn't give a damn. How can we be sure of this? Consider the facts about the recent history of wildfires in the UK. There can be no other explanations.

The RSPB's policy on upland vegetation management by cool burning has changed completely in the last decade. Having previously been in favour of it, they are now comparing it to a global apocalypse. Many reading this may be surprised that the RSPB was for most of its existence entirely relaxed about heather burning, but that was indeed the case.

We have beside us a document advising on the conservation of Black Grouse in Wales, picked up from the Forestry Commission stand at the Royal Welsh Show a couple of years ago.

It ends with the clear statement that, “This document was produced by the RSPB with grant aid from the European Union”. Obviously they wouldn't pay for it themselves, but they wrote it. Inside it says that a mosaic of heather types must be created , “Using heather burning”. There is even a chart showing a nice photograph of a cool burn in progress and making it clear that the time for burning is autumn and winter.

Some may be surprised by this, in view of the vehemence of the RSPB's language about burning, but those who have known RSPB a long time will not be surprised. After all, they were active partners in the Langholm Project and happily watched the muirburn, even on occasions suggesting that not enough had been done.

So, the first point to make is that if rotational cool burning is the same as the California wildfires, only a bit less dramatic, they were happy to recommend it, and take part in it, until very recently.

But it is, of course far worse than that. Where the analogy has some justification is in relation, not to little cool burns of standard grouse moor practice, but real wildfires, and this is where RSPB decided to leave the road to reality and take an Irony By-Pass.

If they had any grasp of irony they might have considered that the overwhelming majority of catastrophic wildfires that have occurred on moorland in the last few years have been on land where their no-burning policy has been in place. Stalybridge, Saddleworth, Howden, Dovestones, Forsinard, Moray, Crowden are names that may ring bells. They ought to, they are either managed by RSPB or they are managed in line with their no-burning policy.

[Wildfire out of control on moorland not managed by controlled heather burning]

The 2018 Saddleworth fire burnt for 3 weeks. It released the equivalent of half a million tonnes of CO2. It is estimated that 4.5 million people were affected by the particulates it released and an estimated 9 people died as a result. It cost the economy over £21 million. For an encore some more (4sq km) burnt out in 2019.

The Moray fire burnt for 2 weeks. It tied up 80 firefighters, 19 fire engines and two helicopters and burnt 25 sq miles of heather, grass and peat.

The Forsinard UNESCO World Heritage Site burnt for 6 days. Twenty two square miles of vegetation and peat burnt out, releasing 700,000 tonnes of CO2.

We could go on, there is a lot more of the same, but we think you get the picture. Sadly the RSPB doesn't. It is not in denial. Actually, it is worse than that. It blames the victims. In July 2019 they called a meeting in Parliament to promote their alternative strategy for grouse shooting. The invitation said, “In the past 12 months several wildfires have broken out on land managed for grouse shooting”. That seems clear, but it is not.

The fires everyone was talking about were the ones referred to above. There had been two fires on National Trust land where walked up grouse shooting took place but rotational burning was banned and one fire on a privately owned moor where Natural England limited rotational burning to an insignificant area and had refused to allow burning firebreaks until it was too late.

They did not shoot driven grouse and only occasionally had a little walked-up day. The RSPB knew this, perfectly well. There is obviously a huge difference between “land managed for grouse shooting”, and land where a bit of grouse shooting takes place occasionally, and where the practice complained of has been banned for years, but not when the RSPB can twist a word or two.

Imagine for a moment being the people who had been imploring the powers that be to let them, at their own expense, control the wildfire risk and being constantly refused. Imagine how those people felt when the place they loved went up in smoke, exactly as they had predicted. But, most of all, imagine what it was like when they found out that the people whose policies had created the disaster, were shamelessly blaming them, not in the local pub, but in Parliament.

There is of course more. The massive year on year increase in fuel load which is the direct outcome of the RSPB policy makes the risk greater and also increases the severity. A small keeper's burn in February, just flashes through the heather twigs because that is the only bit that is dry enough to burn.

It can't get away because it is started and stopped by trained professionals, with the proper equipment, who never leave the fire. It does not significantly warm the underlying peat or even the moss layer. Wildfires, which are a hot weather, spring and summer phenomenon, burn hot as hell down to the peat and more often than not the ancient carbon, stored for thousands of years in the peat, catches fire and what would have been a problem becomes a catastrophe.

[Gamekeepers carrying out controlled heather burning]

Of course any moor can burn but the managed fuel load, the firebreaks and the vegetation mosaic of a properly managed grouse moor makes the consequences far less serious and the constant presence of properly equipped keepers means that if a problem occurs they are on to it before it can take hold.

None of that stopped the RSPB telling Parliament that grouse moors were to blame for wildfires, nor have the facts, as set out above, done anything to check the abuse. In fact they simply double down. In the face of all the evidence that wildfires are more frequent and worse on land managed the RSPB no-burn way, the story becomes that wildfires are keepers fires that got out of control. In Scotland, such is the power of the conservation industry that this corruption of reality was being accepted as the truth.

[Olivia Blake MP reading out the RSPB briefing in Parliament last year]

Someone asked the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service who analysed 153 wildfires. A grand total of 4 had occurred on grouse moors and not a single one in the burning season. All four were logged as accident or arson. So far from keepers burns causing most wildfires, they caused none. Has that stopped them blaming the victims? What do you think?

How can all this happen? Why is it happening? It is difficult to know. The RSPB is a secretive organisation. It has grown bigger and bigger and like a balloon as it expanded its skin has got thinner and thinner. It will now brook no criticism or even discussion. It certainly has no intention of putting up with the appalling truth that its ability to manage moorland would embarrass a 19 year-old trainee gamekeeper. It has also spotted that great lumps of public money are up for grabs for any conservation industry organisation that says they can capture carbon and it intends to get it's share.

The best thing to do with the grouse moor managers, who have kept these places safe and their carbon stores intact for generations, is to get rid of them before they can point out that the Emperor is as naked as the day that he was born. The last thing a snake oil salesman wants is someone who can recognise a snake oil salesman.


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