Grouse moor licensing could help turbocharge nature’s recovery

A new space race for the future of the uplands is underway. Grouse moor licensing could help speed it up.

When property consultants Knight Frank published its rural report last week, its forecast on the future of Britain’s upland estates was clear. More and more eco-entrepreneurs are looking to buy them up to restore the vast tracts of land for climate innovations and solutions. “As a result, the traditional ways of valuing [upland estates] are becoming less relevant. Previously, land was often priced based on its sporting potential, such as how many brace of grouse a moor yielded…Now it is the acreage available for sustainability initiatives that is most important.”

The first step to boosting nature in the uplands is to save Britain’s peatlands which store as much carbon as all the forests in the UK, France and Germany combined. That’s a colossal 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon locked in the ground. But whilst the benefits of the natural carbon bank are clear a decades-long programme of burning and draining has left only 4% of England’s upland peatlands in favourable condition, causing many to convert from carbon stores into carbon emitters.

Boris Johnson has had these habitats—or at least habitats like them—in his sights for a while. On the final day of the G7, the Prime Minister signalled that his government would like to kick-start landscape-scale regeneration as part of a green industrial revolution. “There is a direct relationship between reducing emissions, restoring nature, creating jobs and ensuring long-term economic growth,” Johnson said to world leaders.

Over time, we can expect increasing revenue flows from investment in biodiversity, wildlife and natural assets such as peatlands and woodlands. Environmental and climate concerns are now at the forefront of economic thinking.

Intensive grouse moor management stands in the way of nature’s recovery and economic growth

Jonathan Kennedy is a high-level land agent whose partnership CKD has acted as agents for nearly all grouse moors that have been transacted in the last 25 years. He gestures that, whilst there is growing recognition of the market for landowners to diversify, ultimately some moorland owners may not be swayed to join Boris Johnson’s green industrial revolution. “People are talking about peat being a carbon sink in the future, and that will be a valuable asset. There will be other areas of value within the moor. But people buy grouse moors to shoot grouse,” he says in Shooting Times.

To date, a number of grouse moors have gone on record to state that they will continue burning on peatlands, despite research showing that burning hinders carbon storage and the regrowth of mosses that play a key part in keeping moors waterlogged. One of them is the Bolton Abbey Estate, one of England’s largest grouse moors, which spans some 15,000 acres of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Earlier this year it told the Guardian that implementing changes to its burning regime is out of the question. “It’s been quite a good burning season. Our best day was 100 [fires]. Our worst day was 20,” a representative of the estate said. It plans to keep burning at around the same rate next season.

Grouse moor burning is the largest driver of poor habitat condition in England’s Sites of Special Scientific Interest, according to monitoring by Natural England.

Grouse moor licensing could help unlock the potential of the uplands

At the heart of the debate surrounding the future of the uplands is a growing understanding that a framework is needed to migrate Britain’s moorlands from being an ecologically-degraded landscape to become a healthy and functioning environment.

As the appetite for landscape-scale restoration drives a step change on one hand, the continuation of intensive management regimes on moorland estates which fail to move with the market could leave large pockets of the uplands degraded. This uneven approach would present a major problem for efforts to tackle climate change. Under a fresh assessment by the Climate Change Committee, each and every upland peat bog must be re-wetted to avert climate chaos, but Defra has accepted that policy initiatives, to scale back—to reduce and eventually eliminate—intensive management, such as burning, have not proven successful as had been hoped.

Eco-entrepreneurs are driving a step change in the property market towards restoration of the upland environment, but grouse moors which fail to take-up the opportunity could leave large pockets of land degraded.

There are hints that the government is considering changing its approach to the uplands more widely. “Taking carbon out of the atmosphere to be stored in ecosystems, including woods, peatlands and saltmarshes, is a vital part of the journey to net zero,” Tony Juniper, Chair of Natural England, the government’s nature protection agency, says. “By combining different policies and strategies then major climate-related benefits can be achieved.” Although the government has not expressly referenced it, one component of the strategy could be to require shoots to obtain an operational licence in order to run a grouse moor. This would, at minimum, provide legally-binding conditions which would allow the regulator to instruct an end to heather burning or mandate specific conservation interventions, such as re-wetting blanket bog or re-planting sphagnum moss, to help peatland recovery.

The process of licensing grouse moors would complement the latest research which strongly suggests that the most effective way to protect nature is by preserving its resilience, which lies in the ecosystems that persist within a restored landscape. Within this context it’s also important to remember that the problems for ecosystems aren’t human use per se, but the kind of intensive land use we see in industrialised societies. Critically, the focus needs to be on the right kind of land management.

Tonight, MPs are set to debate the future of the uplands — which is likely to see consensus starting to take shape among political parties about the need to license grouse moors as part of a transition to healthy and functioning landscapes. The path ahead isn’t straightforward. But we cannot keep doing the same thing otherwise we’ll continue getting the same results. We must flip wildlife and habitat loss on its head and bring real change to benefit our upland environments.

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