During November, the speaker planned for the indoor meeting of the Surbiton and District Birdwatching Society (SDBWS) was ill and a replacement was sought. Luckily for me, that replacement was Mark Avery, the former director of conservation at the RSPB and campaigner against driven grouse moor shooting amongst other things. It was Mark who inspired me to start keeping a blog from November, 2011 as I was a regular reader (and sometimes contributor to his). He also wrote 'Blogging for Nature' which was a guide written in 2011 with tips as to how to keep your readers interested.
His talk to the SDBWS was based on his campaigns, one of which included our stupidity in losing the once super-numerous passenger pigeon and lessons for the future as our farmland birds disappear. It is his campaign on driven grouse moor shooting that is commented upon here as grouse moor 'management' has been picked up by George Monbiot, as part of the reason for the terrible floods in the north of the country, in this case Hebden Bridge.
The following extract highlights a failed prosecution by Natural England, when a politician radically changed the management of his land, which had consequences for those living further downstream of his estate. It eventuated with the prosecution being dropped and public money being purloined for the use of rectifying some of the more immediate issues, whilst carrying on a business as usual approach.
It is my view that we will never tackle flooding until we tackle the corruption and bad land management outlined by George Monbiot in the slightly abridged Guradian newspaper article below. The watery scenarios will be coming to us having substantially increased the flood risk to Kingston by the amount of development planned for Zone 3a and our crazy management around the Thames and its tributaries (see previous Deember posts on Development in Kingston: 10 reasons to be concerned and the earlier post on the sell off of land along Lower Marsh Lane):
'In 2002, Walshaw Moor, a 6,500 acre grouse shooting estate upstream of Hebden Bridge, was bought by the retail tycoon Richard Bannister. Satellite images before and after show a transformation of the land: a great intensification of burning and draining. These activities raise the number of grouse, which in turns raises the amount (running into thousands per person per day) that people will pay to shoot them.
In 2011, the government body Natural England launched a prosecution of the estate, citing “illegal works” on the moor. The estate was charged with 45 offences, 30 of which involved building allegedly unauthorised drainage channels. It denied all criminal activity. In 2012, as Mark Avery documents in his book Inglorious, something very odd happened. After £1m had been spent on the case, it was suddenly dropped. Instead, Natural England struck an agreement with the estate, under which the owner of Walshaw Moor would be given £2.5m of public money, in the form of a special package of enhanced farm subsidies, to carry on more or less as before, without reversing the allegedly illegal works.
Avery’s freedom of information requests, seeking to discover why this astonishing reversal took place, have been repeatedly blocked, so there is no definitive explanation. But we know that the minister responsible at the time, Richard Benyon, is himself a grouse moor owner, and was lobbied over this period by the Moorland Association, which represents other grouse moor owners. We have no way of knowing whether these facts are related, and I cannot make a direct connection between the management of Walshaw Moor and the present flooding of Hebden Bridge. But there’s little doubt that the management of grouse moors tends to increase the risk of flooding.
Though grouse moors stretch the definition of agricultural land to breaking point, they remain eligible for public money in the form of farm subsidies. In 2014, as essential public services were hacked back, the government quietly raised the money to which they are entitled by 84%. Maximising the number of grouse means treating the moors as if they were giant chicken runs, draining the land, eradicating predators and competitors and burning the heather to stimulate the young shoots on which grouse feed. If the proles downstream are flooded out their homes, really, who cares?
Similar irrationalities abound. Farm subsidies everywhere are conditional on the land being in “agricultural condition”. This does not mean that any actual farming has to take place there: only that it looks like farmland. Any land covered by “permanent ineligible features” is disqualified. What does this mean? Wildlife habitat. If farmers don’t keep the hills bare, they don’t get their money. Scrub, regenerating woodland, forested gullies, ponds and other features that harbour wildlife and hold back water must be cleared. European rules insist that we pay farmers to help flood our homes.
The British government wants to deregulate dredging and channel clearance, to allow farmers to shift water off their land more quickly. It was instrumental in destroying the proposed European Soil Framework Directive, which would have reduced flooding by preventing the erosion and compaction of the soil.
There are signs that this antediluvian thinking is beginning to shift. Rory Stewart, the minister in charge of floods, once mocked the organisations seeking to hold back water on farmland rather than letting it rush into homes. But on Saturday he told the Today programme that we need more trees in the hills and should let our rivers meander once more. It was so welcome and surprising that it felt like a parting of the waters.
Building higher walls will not, by itself, protect our towns. We need flood prevention as well as flood defence. This means woodland and functioning bogs on the hills. It means dead wood and gravel banks and other such obstructions in the upper reaches of the streams (beavers will do such work for nothing). It means pulling down embankments to reconnect rivers to their floodplains, flooding fields instead of towns. It means allowing rivers to meander and braid. It means creating buffer zones around their banks: places where trees, shrubs, reeds and long grass are allowed to grow, providing what engineers call hydraulic roughness. It means the opposite of the orgy of self-destruction that decades of government and European policy have encouraged: grazing, mowing, burning, draining, canalisation and dredging.'