Heather grouse moors help make England’s best wildlife sites extra special claims Natural England.

[singlepic id=182 w=252 h=358 float=left]Read all about Natural England’s involvement with these upland “Sites of Special Scientific Interest”, areas described as the country’s best wildlife sites, and then ask yourself if the habitat is so good and being managed so well, why are harriers absent from 99.9% of these wonderful moorland regions. The answer is staring us all in the face, Natural England’s relationship with moorland estates together with the public funding they are given, is clearly more important than the security of the hen harrier in England.

Conservation work to boost the heather-clad splendour of England’s moorland has made the biggest contribution to a massive improvement in the environmental health of the network of the country’s best wildlife sites – Sites of Special Scientific Interest – say Natural England and The Moorland Association.

SSSI’s according to Natural England provide vital refuges for wildlife, do they really?

Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) are the country’s top wildlife and geological sites and provide vital refuges for wildlife and essential free natural resources for people. There are 4,119 SSSIs covering more than a million hectares of the land surface of England – more than eight per cent of the country.

Since 2003, when just 57 per cent of SSSIs were assessed as being in favourable or recovering condition, they have been set on the road to recovery with the result that 96.5 per cent of England’s 4,119 SSSIs are now either in favourable condition or are on course to reach it.

Work carried out to improve the conservation condition of England’s heather moorlands has made a major contribution to the success story. Today, 96 per cent of grouse moors are in favourable or recovering condition, compared to 25 per cent six years ago. The support of upland landowners and grouse moor managers has been crucial in achieving the goal and the contribution of members of The Moorland Association – who manage grouse moors covering 344,000 hectares of uplands from the Peak District to North Northumberland – has been vital. They look after nearly a fifth of all England’s SSSI land.

According to Dr. Philips heather moorland play an essential role in maintaining the wildlife richness of these much-loved heather clad landscapes.

Natural England’s Chief Executive, Dr Helen Phillips said: “Heather moorland, brought about by centuries of management for sheep and grouse, plays an essential role in maintaining the wildlife richness and much-loved heather clad landscapes of Northern England. Natural England appreciates the very significant benefits that current best practice management on these grouse moors delivers and we applaud the members of the Moorland Association for their continued careful guardianship of these special places.” [singlepic id=212 w=358 h=281 float=right]

The successful turnaround in the fortunes of England’s SSSIs owes much to the tireless efforts of an army of farmers, land managers, volunteers, charities and public bodies and follows seven years of collaborative working.

Natural England marked the SSSI success at an event on the Weardale Estate ( 16 March) on the Durham/Cumbria/Northumberland border to thank some of the many land managers, charities and public bodies who have all helped improve the condition of England’s network of SSSIs. It was also an opportunity for the Moorland Association to showcase the kind of conservation work that is carried out on grouse moors to help restore the peat land and heather habitat. This work uses specialist equipment to help restore wetland habitats, enhances water quality, helps reduce flooding and locks in carbon which could otherwise be released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases causing climate change.

Edward Bromet, Chairman of The Moorland Association, said: “The red grouse is an iconic upland species and a symbol of healthy moorland landscapes. Seventy five per cent of the world’s remaining heather moorland is found in the UK. Thanks to grouse moor management, England’s uplands are home to the highest breeding populations of wildlife such as curlews, golden plovers and black grouse, but they are much less well-known for their vital role in providing a wide range of free natural services. A well-managed moor provides clean water, an attractive landscape, flood protection, carbon storage, places for quiet recreation and also produces unique foods such as wild red grouse, heather fed lamb and heather honey.”

Perhaps the Government should now reconsider providing any grants to land mangers where iconic  moorland species like hen harrier are not tolerated as a part of a healthy eco-system.

One of the biggest single factors in improving SSSIs has been the availability of grants such as the Higher Level Stewardship scheme, which benefit almost half of all SSSIs. The schemes are a combination of EU and British government funding which rewards farmers and land managers for conserving England’s most important wildlife habitats.

[singlepic id=54 w=358 h=281 float=left] Helen Phillips continued “By providing essential habitat that may not be found elsewhere, SSSIs represent a life support system whose importance cannot be overstated. It’s important that we celebrate and secure the future of these last refuges and the species they sustain in the face of climate change.”

On the Weardale Estate work has been carried out to enhance the blanket bog and other moorland habitats, and improve the ecosystem services – the essentials of life provided by Nature – in this part of the North Pennines. More than 25km of moorland drainage ditches (grips) within the SSSI have now been blocked in partnership with the North Pennines AONB Peatscapes Project and this, combined with sensitive grazing management, means this moorland area is being fully restored. A new HLS agreement has recently helped fund the expansion of grip-blocking on blanket bog over some 1300ha of moorland, as well as funding around 8 ha of new woodland planting. Establishing small pockets of woodland in the hills could prove invaluable as climate change forces species to move into new upland habitats.

Similarly, Bowes Moor in Country Durham has been transformed through a partnership between landowners, commoners and conservationists, helping to sustain species such as merlin, golden plover and black grouse. In Derbyshire, Howden moor pioneering techniques have seen 1000 acres of heather return in the last decade and birdlife increase dramatically, and in Yorkshire, on Bingley and Hawksworth moors where bracken had taken over, it has been controlled to reveal and conserve archeological remains and foot paths have been improved for public access.

England’s first SSSIs date back to 1949, created to protect the best of England’s natural habitats, wildlife and geological heritage for the benefit of present and future generations. There are 4,119 SSSIs covering more than a million hectares (1,082,164 ha) of the land surface of England – more than eight per cent of the country. The smallest, Sylvan House Barn SSSI in Gloucestershire, is a space of just 4.5 square metres. The biggest is The Wash SSSI, Lincolnshire/Norfolk covering 6,2045.79 ha. Almost 30 per cent of the area of SSSIs is in the care of private landowners.

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18 comments to Heather grouse moors help make England’s best wildlife sites extra special claims Natural England.

  • TerryPickford, North West Raptor Protection Group

    Recently together with two members of the North West Raptor Protection Group I visited a large expanse of moorland at Alston Nr Penrith. As it was a particularly warm day we had decided do some bird watching on this heather moorland behind Cross Fell. Because the region was so remote and extensive we had hoped during our walk to encounter merlin, peregrine, short-eared owl and perhaps even a sighting of a hen harrier as the heather in parts was perfect nesting habitat. Not surprisingly it didn’t take too long to discover this moorland upland area was a well keepered.

    As we approached the public access gate a sign beside the track informed the public “SSSI no dogs welcome, rare breeding wildlife”. Apart from the enjoyment of our walk, normally I would have had no problem with accepting this information except after more than 6 hours trekking half way and back across the moor we were left disappointed to have heard the odd curlew and saw nothing else but literally dozens of coveys of red grouse all day.

    While vast regions of England’s uplands are classified as SSSi’s, considering the huge public funding these shooting estates receive, why isn’t more consideration being provided ensuring for the presence within these vital moorland habitats of a diverse spectrum of wildlife species,instead of being compromised by an unnatural and unhealthy population within a monoculture managed for one species – The Red Grouse?

  • John Miles

    With Natural England preventing nature acting as it should be on these mono-cultural managed waste lands, it seems the very words of SSSI are being brought into dispute. There is no history showing that these uplands were once covered by heather. In fact history actually shows the opposite. What is scientific about destroying all other habitats on these upland areas just to produce Red Grouse for shooting. One farmer I know had to loose upland grassland home to Black Grouse, Twite and waders so that the estate could create even more heather. This was supported by Natural England. Slag heaps can have more diversity than most of these managed moors!!

  • nirofo

    The majority of the Heather moors which are managed for Red Grouse, and designated so-called SSSI’s are far too dry to support very many waders and our Raptors are persecuted almost out of existance. Natural England know this but care to do very little about it, preferring instead to cow tow to their masters, the estate owners and facilitate the huge public funded grants that are awarded to them. If it weren’t for these artificially cultivated Grouse moors where birds of prey are taboo and waders barely exist there would be far more natural habitat available for all manner of species, including the severely persecuted Raptors. OK, there wouldn’t be as many Red Grouse for the rich and famous to murder each year, but who needs them in this day and age of so-called enlightenment, especially when they only exist in such large numbers at the expense of our extremely rare and getting rarer birds of prey !!!


  • harrier man

    In my experience over the last ten years of monitoring much of the North Pennines i totally agree that they are devoid of most of our iconic raptors of course HH are completely missing also i found that almost all of the SSSIs were not in good condition as NE states particularly severely burnt with little or no mature heather especially on many of the deep wide gullies and hill sides where harriers tend to breed. Monitoring an area in Northumberland owned by Forest Enterprise opened my eyes to what our upland moors should look like it was close to an active commercial forest with an excellent range of heather structures, scattered scrub, wet and dry heath, good expanses of grassland and natural crags. Guess what HH bred, Goshawk breed, Buzzard and an excellent diverse community of other species including Nightjar and Long Eared Owl. This site should be an example to what can be achieved not the barren grouse moors the misreable experiences Terry has just quoted.

    Natural England are toothless i have had first hand experience on many occasions of the folly and politics that many of the higher management in the organisation show and the preferential treatment given to the shooting fraternity.

  • sh23363

    The fact is some grouse moors are good for a range of wildlife. But some are just not and it is surely true that some are as dull as multistorey car parks. What is becoming clear is that moors managed exclusively for grouse can be rather poor. It is quite possible that those moors that have diverse wildlife are like that despite grouse management, not because of it. Unfortunately grouse management is in the ascendent at the moment and the grouse industry is particularly good at pressing the right buttons in government and its agencies. If you get chance to talk to local staff from Natural England ask them what they really think.

  • John Miles

    It is interesting to note when an SSSI and SPA were recently damaged by building roads over them to get guns to the buts no prosecution took place as the regional head of that area for Natural England was in fact a grouse shooter!!

  • John Miles

    Natural England will not change until the people at the top of their tree are removed. The majority of them are taking £80,000 a year for allowing these estates to get away with murder and that does not include back hands from the estates. Helen Phillips their chief Executive should stand down. Her response to this murder is nil. The habitat is not being looked after by the estates so why should we pay them via our taxes to do so. The biggest miss was that Mark Avery did not take over the RSPB and now we are left with a puppet!!

  • Circus maximus

    How can they say that the moors are favourable and recovering?

    Well they set that standards dont they!

    The standards and the methodologies used to assess them are are driven by the need to tick boxes and stay within available budgets. Surveys are cut to sampling and thresholds are moved to up the pass rates. The implementation of a management plan moves a site into recovering (whether it actually is or not).

    In short we are right to be sceptical!

  • chrissie harper

    Of course NE are going to say that and make things look good for themselves, the truth is they are failing miserably, I agree with everything John says, Helen Phillips should resign as we need people within NE who live in the real world, not cloud cuckoo land, until this happens there is no hope for any raptor on grouse moors or anywhere else. The wealthy landowners are lining the pockets of NE and NE are looking the other way. Shameful.

  • Wrybill

    Some interesting comments here about wildlife (or the lack of it) on upland SSSIs. Any suggestion that wealthy landowners are lining the pockets of NE is nonsense though – it is the other way around!

    Any proof that NE staff are taking backhanders or is that just a personal opinion John? Unfortunately it seems that owing to the nature of the crime, estates can get away with it without the need to bribe government officials.

  • harrier man

    No bribary or backhanders just the interests of some of the NE management in shooting especially the ones who run or used to run offices in upland regions. The HH recovery project never recovered it failed it failed because of the lack of commitment from the elected chair and higher management to put nature first what they were payed for and what we are charged for a disgrace.

  • paul williams

    Would someone from NE please show me Raptors on private grouse moors in Lancashire.

  • Hi Terry, your excellent post ended with a question.

    The answer= MONEY.

    • TerryPickford, North West Raptor Protection Group

      Hi Douglas, you and I both know that. However certain individuals involved in raptor conservation today simply ignore what is taking place because they do not have the courage of their convictions being too frightened to speak out in case they have their licenses taken away.

      It will be very interesting to wait and see what the over-all production figures are throughout Bowland this year for both hen harrier and peregrine. No one should be too surprised to learn there are no hen harriers once again on the private estates this year, and a high proportion of peregrine territories have been abandoned altogether.

      Perhaps this is coincidence of course, nothing to do with the removal of licenses from the North West Raptor Protection Group leaving a majority of the region’s peregrine nests unprotected this summer giving local keepers a free hand thanks to Natural England’s mishandling of a very serious situation?

      • nirofo

        Terry, I think Natural Englands handling of the situation was entirely what they intended to happen. As someone stated previously, there are people within NE who have the shooting fraternity’s best interests at heart, it’s obvious, no public funded organisation could make so many fatal mistakes and get away with it unless by intention, knowing full well they have the backing of the people in high places behind them.

        The excuses used for removing the NWRPG licences was just a smokescreen to get them out of the way while the estates went about their business doing what they do best, Raptor Persecution.


  • Anthony Chambers

    I find the claims made by Helen Phillips regarding England’s upland SSSi’s wholly inaccurate and misleading to say the least. May I respectfully ask her has she ever taken the trouble to visit these moorland regions for herself since becoming Chief Executive at Natural England? The description of the Alston moor provided by Mr Pickford can in my personal view be applied to the majority of moorlands in Northern England where the Red Grouse is the most important and dominant species where raptors are not tolerated. Has she ever stopped to ask herself why raptor species, including hen harrier, peregrine, goshawk and short-eared owl no longer breed upon these moorland regions I wonder? Isn’t it about time officials running Natural England accepted the realties of what is taking place throughout England’s uplands? Here at Barnard Castle the biodiversity of wildlife upon the local SSSi’s as described by Helen Phillips simply does not exist any longer. A more appropriate description of a grouse moor would be an upland heather waste land.

  • wrybill

    I think there are two separate issues here – the lack of wildlife on upland sites and a separate conspiracy theory about raptor persecution and licences issued to a single raptor study group.

    The lack of harriers across grouse moors in northern England is indisputable. Peregrine breeding success, over-burning, etc. etc. I haven’t, however, seen any solid evidence (plenty of speculation and personal opinion) to suggest that there is conspiracy involving the BTO, Natural England and the RSPB to restrict licences in order to cover up wildlife crime.

  • paul williams

    There will be no solid evidence to see, persecution will not be reported, no license no report.