Moor is the victim of its own success

Eighty years ago walkers fought – sometimes literally –for the right to walk over Kinder Scout. Terry Fletcher discovers why many are now happy to see it fenced off.

For generations of walkers it has been hallowed ground, a mountain whose name became a watchword for public access to the hills.

But now it is to be fenced off for up to 15 years to help to repair more than two centuries of man-made damage. After being bombarded with pollution from the surrounding industrial cities, being over-grazed by sheep, dried out by ill-advised drainage schemes, scorched by wildfires and trampled by millions of boots the blanket of heather, shrubs and grasses that bind together the fragile peat surface of Kinder Scout, is dying off.

Already huge areas of Kinder, the highest point in the Derbyshire Peak District have been left bare and deep ravines have been gouged into the bog that covers more than 1,300 hectares of the summit plateau.

The National Trust, which has owned the mountain, near Sheffield, since 1982, is planning to spend 2.5m over the next five years in an attempt to reverse the decline and says that unless it succeeds it will spell trouble far beyond the Peak District.

Peat moors such as Kinder have huge amounts of carbon locked into their soil but this is released into the atmosphere if the peat dries out and scientists have warned this could speed up climate change.

More locally, the decision to gouge drainage channels into the mountain's flanks to improve grazing, means that rainwater which once oozed slowly from the ground is now running off more quickly, increasing flood risks along the rivers it feeds. The faster run-off also increases the amount of peat carried downstream, reducing the quality of drinking water gathered from its slopes and demanding more expensive treatment.

United Utilities, which owns Kinder Reservoir, is just one of the organisations helping to foot the bill for the regeneration project that also has the backing of Natural England.

The task is on such a vast scale that the trust will have to use helicopters to help to spray seed and fertiliser over the damaged areas but it may have already overcome its biggest challenge by getting the support of outdoors groups such as the Ramblers and the British Mountaineering Council for the project, including the controversial 200,000 fence around the plateau, despite the mountain's history and its special place in walkers' hearts.

Kinder is widely credited as the birthplace of the movement which created national parks and the access campaigns that culminated in the Right to Roam legislation of 2000. After the First World War the moors were the scene of regular bitter confrontations between walkers escaping the pollution of surrounding cities who were demanding access and gamekeepers determined to safeguard their grouse shooting.

In 1932, after a violent confrontation on neighbouring Bleaklow, some 400 ramblers set off from Bowden Bridge at the foot Kinder to defy the Duke of Devonshire's keepers and walk onto the windswept peat. There were scuffles in William Clough along the way and later five of the organisers were jailed for up to six months. The harsh sentences triggered a national outcry and a few weeks later 10,000 ramblers held an access rally in the nearby Winnats Pass. From then onwards the access movement gathered a momentum that not even the Second World War could deflect and in 1951 the Peak District became Britain's first national park.

Mike Innerdale, the National Trust's general manager in the Peak, knows that means the maze of peats hags and gullies that make up Kinder's bewildering top are sacred ground and must be treated sensitively.

To try to win over outdoors groups, the Trust spent five years trying to find a way to tackle the erosion and then embarked on major public consultations using the internet and public meetings. So far it seems to be working.

Mike said: "Kinder Scout is one of the most iconic landscapes in the Peak District because of its vast open moorland and because it was the setting for the Mass Trespass. However, it is also one of the most damaged areas of moorland in the UK and its future is in jeopardy. I understand how people feel about the fence because I feel the same way myself and would rather not be doing this. I've been surprised that we have not had more adverse comment. But the trust manages the land in perpetuity and this is short term pain for long term gain.

"We've been very clear that the fence is to keep out the sheep, not people, and there will be multiple access points where people will be able to cross it and part of the consultation is to find out where people think these should be," he said.

Another key part of the consultation, which is still going on, is to decide the line the fence should take. Most people want to keep it off the plateau and below the rim where it will merge into the background and be less visible to the 100,000 people who visit Kinder each year as well as to walkers on the Pennine Way which crosses Kinder.

The plan already has broad support from the Friends of the Peak District. Senior campaigner Andy Tickle said: "We are not entirely happy with the notion of fencing off such an iconic area where we are in favour of having completely open access but Kinder has suffered enormous damage over the decades. Many people would say that Kinder is the best wilderness we have in the area but I think most recognise something must be done and this seems to be the least worst solution.

"We will keep monitoring the work and talking to the trust. They are a very responsible organisation which works to high standards and I hope the fences can come down as soon as possible but we are still talking about years."

The Ramblers has also welcomed the project. Ade Morris, its head of walking environment, said the work would benefit generations to come and while they recognised the need to control livestock they would work with the Trust to ensure access was maintained.

Work has already begun to block some drainage gullies but the major effort will begin in the spring. An early part of the job will be aerial spraying of a lime based fertiliser developed in partnership with the Soil Association. This is needed because, although moorland plants need acid soil to thrive, industrial pollution has made it too acidic even for them to take hold.

The fertiliser will be mixed with grass and heather seed. Mike hopes that changes should be visible in as little as 18 months.

However, it will take much longer than that for plants, protected beneath cut heather ferried in from other moors to become full established and return Kinder to its previous glory.

"No one is really happy about the fence but we hope that in a few years, everyone will think that it was worth it," he said.

Profound impact of people power

A commemorative plaque was unveiled on the 50th anniversary by Benny Rothman, principal leader of the trespass, at Bowden Bridge quarry near Hayfield - the start of the trespass. The trespassers walked via William Clough to the plateau of Kinder Scout, where there were scuffles with gamekeepers. Several ramblers were later arrested and some received jail sentences of several months, on the changes of incitement and riotous assembly. Eventually, their efforts led to legislation in 1949 to establish the National Parks and to further walkers' rights in recent years.

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