The landowners who’ve pledged to stop burning the uplands – and those who haven’t

Photo credit: Laurie Campbell. This post is by Guy Shrubsole.

For the first time, Who Owns England can reveal which of England’s grouse moor owners have promised to stop rotational burning on their moors – and which haven’t.

Today, October 1st, is the start of the burning season: the time of year when grouse moor owners deliberately set their heather moorlands on fire. This widespread slash-and-burn practice is intended to maximise populations of grouse for shooting, by encouraging fresh shoots of heather. However, deliberately burning moorland has also been shown to be ecologically disastrous: by drying out the deep peat that lies beneath our uplands, it threatens the integrity of a gigantic store of carbon, and degrades a protected habitat. Burning also makes the desiccated soils more prone to wildfires and less able to regulate flooding downstream.

As previously revealed by this blog, the half-million acres of England’s uplands covered by grouse moors are owned by a vanishingly small elite of aristocrats and wealthy businesspeople, as mapped here (data compiled by me, mapping by Anna Powell-Smith). My Freedom of Information requests to DEFRA have also revealed the cosy deal offered to these grouse moor owners by Environment Secretary Michael Gove. Despite the European Commission pursuing legal proceedings against the UK Government for letting landowners degrade protected moorland, Mr Gove has chosen not to regulate moorland burning for now, but instead is trusting landowners to abide by a voluntary pledge to cease rotational burning.

Now, following a further FOI request to Natural England, I can reveal which landowners have signed voluntary agreements to stop rotational burning on moorland – and which haven’t.

Here is the full list [PDF] of 157 landowners and tenants who have signed Natural England’s voluntary agreement. As you’ll see, this lists estates and locations rather than naming ultimate owners. It also includes multiple entries for some estates/ locations, indicating where the agreements have been signed by leaseholders, not just ultimate landowners. But by comparing it to Who Owns England’s map of grouse moor estates, it’s possible to build up a picture of who’s on board and who isn’t. We hope to update our map soon to show which estates have signed up and which haven’t, and also add in estates missing from our first attempt to map them all.

It’s already feasible, however, to highlight a number of known grouse moor estates which don’t appear to have signed voluntary agreements to cease burning. Now, it’s possible that these landowners have signed up since Natural England sent their document to me. It may also be that I have missed them simply because of the way the estates are listed in the document: sometimes upland estates have multiple local names, and the precise locations of moors can be fiendishly difficult to pin down. If so, I’m very happy to correct and update the list below, should the landowners or Natural England get in touch.

With those caveats, these grouse moor estates, amongst many others, appear not to have signed up to cease rotational burning: 

  • Buckton Moor – Envile & Stalybridge Estate. Extraordinarily, the grouse moor where this summer’s Saddleworth Moor fire started appears not to have signed up to Michael Gove’s deal to cease moorland burning. Of course, the moor is in no fit state to operate as a grouse shoot currently: as its most recent social media post reads, “Sadly we won’t be out on the moor for the next few seasons due to the fire”. But it seems very odd that the estate hasn’t committed to ending damaging rotational burning in future.
  • Walshaw Moor – Richard Bannister. Another estate conspicuous by its absence from Natural England’s list is the Walshaw Moor estate above Hebden Bridge – the very estate whose intensive slash-and-burn management practices prompted the RSPB to lodge a complaint with the European Court of Justice some years back, which led to the current EC infraction proceedings against the UK. It’s rather ironic that the source of the UK Government’s current woes over grouse moors doesn’t appear to have signed up to Mr Gove’s voluntary deal.
  • Mossdale Estate – Van Cutsem family. A 3,700-acre grouse moor in the Yorkshire Dales which got into some trouble in 2016 when a gamekeeper was caught setting illegal pole traps on the estate for catching birds of prey. The Van Cutsems are close friends of the Royal family. Why haven’t they signed up to stop moorland burning?
  • The Earl of Derby’s Crag Estate in the Peak District is absent from the list. Former Chancellor George Osborne is a close friend of the Earl of Derby: it was reported in 2013 that he had moved into a house on the Crag Estate.
  • Whilst the Duchy of Lancaster’s Goathland Estate in the North York Moors is signed up, there is no mention in the list of the Duchy’s smaller grouse moor on its Whitewell Estate in the Forest of Bowland. The Queen remains a keen fan of grouse shooting, and reportedly took young Prince George on a grouse shoot in Balmoral over the summer.
  • The Duke of Northumberland’s Simonside Hills grouse moors are on the list, but his other grouse moors at Burnside (in Kielder) and Linhope don’t appear to be.
  • The mysterious offshore firm Dale Ltd, which owns the East Arkengarthdale moor in the North Pennines, doesn’t appear to be a signatory. The firm is registered in Lichtenstein; the ultimate owners are unknown.
  • There’s a large grouse moor on the Lilburn Estate in Northumberland, owned by Duncan Davison, founder of housing developer Persimmon – but he doesn’t seem to have agreed to cease rotational burning.

Holding estates who’ve signed up to their word

Whilst it’s ostensibly a good thing that dozens of other estates have signed up to end rotational burning, can we really trust them to keep their pledge?

Voluntary agreements between landowners and regulators are not transparent affairs. After all – had it not been for this FOI request, we wouldn’t even have a public list of signatories to the voluntary agreement.

Nor is it clear what monitoring Natural England will be carrying out, if any, to ensure estates actually comply with their pledges. As Minister Therese Coffey admitted in DEFRA’s meeting with grouse moor owners this spring, the voluntary agreement is “not a legally binding document”.

And there also seems to be some weasel words in the voluntary agreement, which ends ‘rotational burning’ yet allows for ‘restoration burning’ to continue – whatever that is.

What we need is some citizen science monitoring of grouse moor estates to check whether they’re keeping to their word during the burning season. It’s a daunting task – how do you keep tabs on what happens over half a million acres of upland? – but I hope the revelation of this list, and our evolving map of grouse moor estates, can help.

And let’s be clear. Any instance of an estate going back on its word, and carrying out rotational burning despite its pledge not to, should be further reason for Michael Gove to ban moorland burning outright. 

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