Planting more trees on farm land won't feed the nation or stop wildfires warns boss of Moorland Association

Fire-fighters around the world are laughing at plans to manage England’s vast moorlands by re-wilding rather than traditional management methods, claims the director of the Moorland Association.

Various campaigns are increasingly are calling for more of the UK’s moors and land to be left to re-wild in a bid to boost biodiversity, increase habitats and meet environmental targets, while new ways in which the government will pay farmers and landowners, such as the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) and Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMs), are invested in paying for tree-planting and re-wilding schemes on farm land.

In recent years, there have also been calls, both at local and national level, from organisations such as countryside charity CPRE, Friends of the Earth, the National Trust, RSPB, Wildlife and Countryside Link, The Wildlife Trusts and the Soil Association, to ban heather burning – one of the oldest land management techniques in the region.It makes for an interesting and challenging time for life and business in the north’s uplands – which is exactly what attracted Andrew Gilruth to the role of director of the Moorland Association.In an exclusive interview with the Yorkshire Post, Mr Gilruth argues the case for grouse moors which use controlled burning as a land management technique.

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He said: “With government targets to halt species decline by 2030 and improve by 2043, the whole world in uplands is getting more interesting. We want to stop decline but we need to start looking after them in places where we have them.”

Sunset over purple heather in bloom at Little Blakey Howe, on Blakey Ridge in the heart of the North York Moors National park.Sunset over purple heather in bloom at Little Blakey Howe, on Blakey Ridge in the heart of the North York Moors National park.
Sunset over purple heather in bloom at Little Blakey Howe, on Blakey Ridge in the heart of the North York Moors National park.

The Spaunton Estate at Lastingham, in the North York Moors, last year reported an increase of 201 per cent in bird of prey sightings over five years, whilst curlews, which are conservation red-listed, are dense in population in the Yorkshire Dales.

Mr Gilruth also argued that if land is left to its own devices and no-one is working it, we “won’t be able to do anything with it” – for the benefit of wildlife or the food chain.He says “Swathes of northern Spain and Italy are not being farmed and it has been abandoned. Nobody knows what to with it, they are losing biodiversity in those areas and effectively it has become a state problem. In Spain, the state is managing the scrub to reduce wildfire but previously that would have been done by shepherds and farmers as part of their natural husbandry.“If we lose the community and people working on the land - whatever we choose will be harder if we have got to sort it out.”He says the Moorland Association, set up in 1986 to tackle declines in landscapes dating back to the Second World War, will respond to the government agenda – but questions the integrity of it.“The single best mechanism to manage heather areas is driven grouse shooting - people might not like that, but it is a fact, and everything else are fads which come and go."There is going to have to be a discussion about how we do all of this and work together. It will be hard to see how Natural England and Defra hit their targets. Planting trees does not necessarily solve every issue. What will we eat if we cover the best agricultural land with trees? What employment does that create for a community?“National Parks have to take into consideration to not only look after its places but economic well-being. People have romantic ideas about what a national park should look like, but it is a planning designation.”As we move to warmer weather of spring and summer, the risk of wildfire increases. Last year saw several incidents in Yorkshire. At Marsden Moor, for example, there were eight fires in four months, killing birds, frogs and soil. On one night in June, North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue attended three separate wild-fires as temperatures reached 30 degrees.

Mr Gilruth added: “You have to make sure moorland managers have the tools available to manage land and reduce the wild fire fuel load risk. At the moment we have government policies which are simply building up fuel load on our moors.“That is totally unsustainable and at some point the pendulum will swing the other way. There used to be a time, not that long ago, in the Peak District of ten percent mandatory burning each year or face sanctions from English Nature. Now you should not burn they say, but there is work by the University of York saying you should not dismiss it.“Take me to any nation that has managed to control wild fire and climate change by that approach. This idea re-wetting will mitigate increased risk - there are fire-fighters all around the world laughing at us.”

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