Grouse management blamed for poor air quality on moors near Sheffield – but is the practice necessary?

Intensive grouse and heather management have been blamed for poor air quality on the moors near Sheffield, but some have argued it is often necessary to preserve wildlife habitats.

Monday, 27th January 2020, 5:00 pm
Updated Wednesday, 29th January 2020, 11:26 am

Resident in the Peak District all year round, the red grouse is a wild game bird closely associated with heather moorland where it nests.

It is frequently spotted being flushed from the heather as part of grouse moor management, a practice which includes vegetation burning and cutting to aid the controversial sport of grouse shooting.

Burning is a traditional tool for gamekeepers but fresh concerns have now been raised over this intense management and the negative impact it is having on the air quality across Sheffield and Derbyshire.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

An aerial view which shows where the heather and peat has been burnt away near to Stanage Edge (Google)

Replying to a Twitter post about air quality in Sheffield, climber Mark Sharratt said: “It's the gamekeepers burning our countryside. It was all the way up along Stanage, down Burbage Valley. The air was disgusting. How is this allowed?”

Grouse shooting is legally practised between August 12 and December 10, and is undertaken in the Peak District National Park but not on land owned or managed by the National Park Authority.

Some argue that the sport supports the rural economies in areas like the Peak District by creating full-time roles for gamekeepers who are employed all-year-round to carry out tasks to manage the moor in a way that produces a surplus of birds for the shooting season.

Richard Bailey, Regional Co-ordinator for the Peak District Moorland Group, said: “Land managers and gamekeepers in the Peak District currently use a combination of cutting (which doesn't produce smoke but can have negative effects on the sensitive peat due to the damage caused by the cutting machine) alongside the traditional burning techniques.

Stanage Edge.

“These quickly pass over the surface of the moors, burning the combustible ‘top’ vegetation, thereby reducing fuel loads but not affecting the moss/sphagnum layer on the peat. We only undertake burning when and where it is necessary for the protection and regeneration of the habitat.

“For individuals living in areas downwind of consented moorland burning we appreciate the smell of smoke can linger for a short period of time, but all management burns are phoned through to the Fire Rescue Services as a requirement to burning consents.”

The burning season lasts from October 1 until April 15, but it can only be undertaken when conditions are right sometimes only allowing a short time period in which moorland managers can get all their burns in, leading to complaints regarding smoke.

Richard added: “The removal of combustible fuel loads on the moors, in a mosaic pattern across the moor is essential in preventing wildfires – as recognised by Defra and recently by fire chiefs across the UK.

“Had better fire mitigation cuts and burns been in place on the Saddleworth moorland in 2018, maybe the huge damage caused by the wildfire wouldn't have been so costly. The wildfire itself led to many residents being evacuated from their homes and resulted in weeks of dangerous smoke pollution.

“In contrast to managed burning a summer wildfire burns hot and can ignite the peat, which in turn can emit other harmful substances which have been locked up within the peat.“

However, others say the practice of intensive moor management is leaving internationally important moorlands – such as those around Sheffield and Derbyshire – under threat.

Liz Ballard, Chief Executive of Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust, said: “On our moors, the current practice of many moorland owners is leading to an increasing monoculture of heather, peat loss and grouse populations that boom and bust, requiring excessive medication and intensive wildlife persecution for example stoats, weasels, badgers, hares in order to sustain them.

“A more sustainable approach, in balance with the internationally important habitats we depend upon, working with nature, must be the future. We look forward to the introduction of a new approach to farming subsidies as part of the forthcoming Agricultural Bill as we leave Europe, whereby landowners are paid for public services rather than for how much land they own.

“We believe that this presents a real opportunity for forward-thinking moorland owners to completely review their practice and rebalance their approach in favour of more natural ecosystems for people and wildlife.”

She says the uplands are “wonderful wild places” which could be much better for people and wildlife.

“The future of these incredibly special local places and the biodiversity they support is in jeopardy,” Liz added.

“We want to see our moors become a fantastic mosaic of habitats supporting thriving populations of all the variety of wildlife that should live in these inspiring places.”

The trust says their vision for change includes a move away from intensive moorland management and for land managers to be paid for beneficial services including natural flood risk management and wildlife conservation.