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George Monbiot and rewilding the uplands

From Anon

Friday, 4 July 2014

George Monbiot gave a characteristically thought-provoking talk at the Hope Baptist Church last night. He argued that our idea of conservation in this country is wrong-headed, where we protect wildlife-poor landscapes that are the result of cutting, burning and grazing (i.e. sheep pasture and grouse moors) which in other countries are seen as an ecological disaster. Moreover, we pay out public subsidies to upland farmers and grouse moor owners to keep cutting, burning and grazing and to prevent nature – principally forests – from returning. In other words, he said, while in other countries the job of conservation is to protect the forests from the ranchers, in this county we protect the ranchers from the forests.

It is a compelling argument which is doing much to invigorate debate amongst UK conservationists over what their goals should be. But there are a couple of points that I would like him to have addressed with regard to the sheep farming aspect of this issue.

One is that in making this argument it is important to distinguish the upland sheep farmers from the grouse moor owners. Most upland sheep farmers are far from 'ranchers', in the sense that most hill farms are small-scale and operate on the margins of financial viability.

In considering the likely impacts on different groups of reducing or ending public subsidies it is important that we do not lump hill farmers in with either lowland arable agri-barons or wealthy grouse moor owners; it is unlikely that many grouse moor owners – such as the Duke of Westminster, who received nearly £750,000 of agricultural subsidy in 2011 – would suffer if their subsidy payments were withdrawn, but without public subsidies the average hill farm would make a loss.

This is not to deny that the environmental consequences of sheep farming in the uplands are not severe, but it is important that the argument to make changes to the agricultural subsidy system for environmental benefits does not rely for its force on unjustifiably claiming that all recipients of agricultural subsidies are rich landowners; many are in fact tenant farmers on very low incomes, even after receiving the subsidy.

A second point that needs consideration is what the consequences of abandoning sheep farming in the uplands would be in terms of food production and consumption. If we produce less meat in the UK uplands but want to consume the same amount then that will mean importing more, which effectively means exporting the environmental harm caused by sheep farming that we will have decided we do not want.

George Monbiot claims that hill farming has a 'remarkably low output', but this does not serve as a good response to this issue, for however low it is, if we want to continue consuming the amount of meat that it produces for us its environmental consequences – which Monbiot convincingly argues are substantial – must be borne by wildlife and human communities somewhere else. This is unless, of course, we reduce our consumption of lamb and mutton.

If we want the myriad benefits of rewilding our uplands – reducing downstream flooding, improving the quality of water entering our reservoirs thus reducing the need for chemical treatment, locking up carbon in peat soils, increases in biodiversity – then we should earn these benefits by reducing our meat consumption, rather than assuming that others will suffer the environmental costs we do not want to bear.

When it comes to the grouse moors, the idea that vast areas of our uplands are managed not by small-scale farmers for the purpose of food production but by wealthy businessmen and aristocrats for the purpose of killing birds for fun, and that this management receives public subsidy, is leading to growing pressure from environmental campaigners for change.

To manage moorland for maximum red grouse numbers requires the mass killing of all predators, including – legally – foxes, stoats and crows, and – illegally – birds of prey, such as the endangered hen harrier (there should be at least three hundred pairs across the English uplands, but this year there are only three nests, all under 24 hour surveillance – see this website for details of a day of protest on 10th August against the illegal persecution of hen harriers).

It also requires an intensive burning and draining regime, sometimes on blanket bog, which results in carbon loss from eroding soils and an increased risk of downstream flooding.

In the past week the RSPB's Chief Executive wrote to the Director of the Moorland Association – who represent many grouse moor owners – asking if they will work with the RSPB to campaign for the introduction of a licensing system to govern grouse moor management to deliver environmental outcomes. The Moorland Association's response was, unsurprisingly, that regulation was not the answer.

The lack of progress towards better management of grouse moors for wildlife and other public goods that this kind of moderate approach has made in recent years has led Mark Avery, a former Director of Conservation for the RSPB but now an independent writer and campaigner, to start an e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting. His stance has clearly been influenced by the case of our local grouse moor, the Walshaw Moor estate, which he has written about extensively. George Monbiot confirmed last night that he was among the first of the already 6500 signatories of the petition.

From Brian Taylor

Saturday, 12 July 2014

I wasn't able to get to George Monbiot's talk, but would like to respond to reports I've read.

Whilst wholheartedly agreeing with George's oppostion to grouse shooting subsidies, I'm concerned that his 'white plague' rhetoric about sheep is only likely to be counter productive. There may even be some ecological benefits associated with upland (as opposed to hilltop) sheep farming. For example, some years ago we used to refer to the fields along Lumbutts Road as 'Lapwing city'. Now that they're mainly used for equestrian purposes there are hardly any Lapwings left. These birds can evidently shoo sheep away from their nests, but not horses.

I hope someone pointed out that a considerable swathe of our local moorland tops is designated as internationally important for moorland birds? If reforested - and these moors have mostly not been wooded since Roman times, if I remember rightly - there would, surely, be considerable loss of biodiversity? I hope I would not be alone in mourning the loss of short-eared owls, snipe, golden plover, skylarks, curlews, twite, ring ouzel, northern eggar moths, and so on - not to mention the wonderful carpets of heather. Many of these species are in precipitous decline elsewhere, so our distinctive uplands are a stronghold for them.

I suspect that any new woodland cover would be much the same as elsewhere, so would not represent much gain in biodiversity, and would not be isolated enough, or on a large enough scale to introduce larger predators?

Given our high population density, and long history of industrialisation, I think we do need to allocate and manage land for species that need habitats such as reedbeds, heath, and moorland - not just forest. This often means taking trees out, and in the case of moorland, avoiding planting them nearby. So, though I like the idea of rewilding, I'm not convinced that it would be appropriate for the Calder Valley's moorland, so would be interested to hear from anyone who was at the meeting, whether these concerns were explored.

See also

HebWeb News: George Monbiot attacks subsidies to sheep farmers and grouse moor owners (4 July 2014)

Upper Calder Valley Plain Speaker report of the meeting (4 July 2014)

HebWeb News: Ban The Burn campaigners mop up (Feb 2014)

HebWeb News: Ban the Burn - Aug, 2012

HebWeb News: Ban the Burn campaign press European Commission to act on moorland burning - Jan, 2013