Uplands management needs urgent review, think-tank says

Think-tank IPPR North wants a major review of how the uplands are managed to protect and enhance precious peatlands.
Think-tank IPPR North wants a major review of how the uplands are managed to protect and enhance precious peatlands.
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The North’s uplands are in need of a management overhaul to unlock their full potential, according to a new think-tank report.

Almost half of the region’s peatlands are degraded to the extent that its capacity to store carbon and reduce the UK’s overall carbon emissions has been damaged.

Devastating blazes at Winter Hill and Saddleworth Moor were battled by firefighters and soldiers for days in June and July this year - and more frequent wildfires associated with climate change threaten to degrade peatland areas further. Picture by Danny Lawson/PA Wire.

Devastating blazes at Winter Hill and Saddleworth Moor were battled by firefighters and soldiers for days in June and July this year - and more frequent wildfires associated with climate change threaten to degrade peatland areas further. Picture by Danny Lawson/PA Wire.

The capacity for the uplands to act as a “natural sponge” and limit flooding, and its capacity to naturally filter rainwater and reduce the costs of treating drinking water, has also been affected.

The Yorkshire Peat Partnership has been restoring peatlands in the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors for almost ten years. It has taken more than 23,000 hectares of blanket bog into conservation management. Yet for this work to happen on a larger scale, new incentives for investment are needed, IPPR North said.

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In the first report in a programme of work looking at the North of England’s “Natural Assets”, IPPR North director Sarah Longlands and research fellow Jack Hunter call for a “strategic joined-up vision” for the future of the North’s uplands.

“The natural capital of the North is immense, but its full potential is not yet being realised,” they said.

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“Any new approach to managing the North’s uplands should include a fundamental and comprehensive rethinking of how upland resources are used, and the fiscal incentives of different actors, including those who own and manage land.

“The current design of funds, specifically the (EU’s) Common Agricultural Policy does not effectively incentivise good environmental management.”

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The likelihood of more extreme weather caused by climate change increases the value of uplands flood management, they warned, adding that public health would also benefit from a new approach.

“Not only do beautiful and accessible uplands provide a net benefit to public health, proper management will help to reduce the risk of uncontrolled fires in upland areas which, as recent events demonstrate (this summer’s fires at Saddleworth Moor and Winter Hill), can entail significant and serious risks to public health.”

Health and wellbeing benefits of effective uplands management are unaccounted for within health and social care systems, and wider debates about public health and the economy, and this needs to change, IPPR North said. Its report suggests there is a lack of focus on uplands management to tackle air pollution, even though climate change could trigger more wildfires and warns of “significant negative impacts” on the North’s appeal to tourists and investors if wildfires and floods, which could have been avoided, become more frequent.

In response to the report, Defra said it was taking “robust” action to make the country resilient to climate change.

A spokeswoman said: “Our 25 Year Environment Plan commits us to improving the resilience of our infrastructure, housing and natural environment against climate change, and our forthcoming Environment Bill will build on this vision.

“Climate change is also explicitly among the ‘public goods’ listed in our Agriculture Bill that we want to pay farmers for outside the EU.”

Defra is due to publish a peat strategy for England next year which will set out its vision to reverse peatland declines.

The department is also setting up a lowland agriculture peatland taskforce to assess how best to sustainably manage the country’s peatland.

Recommendations for how to develop a wider, more joined up approach to the North’s natural assets will be set out in a full report by IPPR North next year.