Image: Cotherstone Moor.
Viscount Matt Ridley – the climate sceptic Tory peer who has two opencast coal mines on his ancestral estate in Northumberland – also now owns a 6,000-acre grouse moor in County Durham, I’ve discovered.
Ridley is well-known for his frequent op-eds in the Times, Spectator and Telegraph attacking environmentalists, promoting fracking and pouring doubt on the severity of the climate crisis. He has also written numerous times in defence of grouse moors, gamekeepers and shooting. Now it transpires he has a particular vested interest in the subject.
I was alerted to Ridley’s grouse moor ownership when I noticed he’d been elected President of the Moorland Association, which represents grouse moor estates in England and Wales, in April 2020. His biography on the MA website stated, intriguingly, that “He lives in Northumberland and owns moorland in County Durham.”
So where was this moorland? I decided to track it down.
Clues in Ridley’s writing
My first port of call was Viscount Ridley’s own writing. In a piece for the Times dated 11th August 2014, he eulogises gamekeepers for their supposed conservation work, and talks a lot about the “grouse-rich Pennines” – the upland ‘spine of England’.
Then in a piece Ridley wrote for the Spectator dated 12th August 2016, he describes “sitting in a little tent on a Durham moor watching what I think is Britain’s most spectacular wildlife sight: the lek, or communal display, of male black grouse…”. Alas, this doesn’t pin things down much, because black grouse can be found throughout the North Pennines, according to the BTO’s Bird Atlas.
But then, in a piece from about coronavirus for the Spectator (dated 21st March 2020), Ridley betrays a vital clue. He writes:
“On Sunday, lonely as a cloud, I wandered across a windswept moor in County Durham and passed a solitary sandstone rock with a small, round hollow in the top, an old penny glued to the base of the hollow. It is called the Butter Stone and it’s where, during the plague in 1665, coins were left in a pool of vinegar by the inhabitants of nearby towns and villages, to be exchanged with farmers for food…” [my emphasis]
The Butter Stone that Ridley mentions is located here, on Cotherstone Moor, in the North Pennines, County Durham. So was Ridley referring to his own grouse moor? Or just having a stroll on someone else’s? My map of grouse moor estates points to Cotherstone Moor being owned by the Cotherstone Estate Partnership, belonging to one Henry Merton Henderson of the West Woodhay Estate in West Berkshire. But I figured that my records could’ve been out of date, and dug further.
From Companies House to Zoopla
On Companies House, Matthew White Ridley is listed as a director of various companies, most of them related to his Northumberland estate – but one that caught my eye is East Carnigill Ltd, a company set up in late 2018 for which he is the Person of Significant Control, and whose principal activity description is “other sports activities”. The company is registered to Ridley’s Blagdon Estate office.
But searching for ‘East Carnigill’ on Zoopla turns up an address in County Durham, close to the edge of the Cotherstone Estate and not far from the Butter Stone that Ridley mentions in his Spectator piece. It’s on the northern edge of Balderhead Reservoir – and amusingly, close to Barnard Castle, of Dominic Cummings fame.
Following the road using Google Street View brings up a farmhouse called East Carnigill…
… which Land Registry data confirms is owned by Matt Ridley.
Land Registry data
I then looked up the land parcel maps published by Land Registry and Ordnance Survey (called INSPIRE Index Polygons) to check the ownership of nearby areas of moorland. Lo and behold, East Carnigill Moor and Cotherstones Moor now both belong to East Carnigill Ltd – of which Matt Ridley is the ultimate owner – the previous owners having sold to him in December 2018.
That means Viscount Ridley is the owner of this 6,284-acre grouse moor:
The entirety of Ridley’s grouse moor estate is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and the vast majority of it is covered in blanket bog, according to Natural England’s MAGIC maps (blanket bog = dun yellow, SSSI = green hatching):
But it is also very clearly being actively managed as a grouse moor. The head gamekeeper for Cotherstone Moor is quoted in this newspaper article from July 2020 discussing how grouse shooting could operate under social distancing rules. Google Earth imagery shows the classic chequerboard pattern of moorland heather that’s been repeatedly cut and burned to create conditions to maximise grouse. Also visible are signs of moorland drainage channels, known as ‘grips’ – the straight diagonal lines in the image below – a practice encouraged in the 1960s and 70s by government subsidies. Both rotational burning and moorland drainage have been shown to degrade peat, one of our largest carbon stores.
Ridley’s various articles singing the praises of grouse moors appear silent on the carbon stored in the peat beneath them; unsurprisingly, perhaps, given his ‘lukewarm’ stance on global warming. To be fair to him, there does seem to have been some work carried out on Cotherstone Moor in March 2019 to block up some of the grips, which will be beneficial to the blanket bog ecosystem and to the long-term stability of its peat carbon. Even so, it’s notable that whilst the previous owners of the moorland entered it into Environmental Stewardship schemes, Ridley appears not to have done so (none show up currently on MAGIC Map). Perhaps, as a free marketeer, he dislikes subsidies – though his Blagdon Estate received £300k of them in 2019.
And Ridley seems unperturbed by the evidence that moorland burning dries out and degrades peat. In his Times piece from 2014 claiming that “gamekeepers are one of nature’s best friends”, he includes the fact that they “periodically burn long heather” in a list of activities he approves of. His 2016 Spectator article on grouse moors describes “techniques of moorland management, including heather-burning” as “an achievement”.
That leads me to wonder a number of things:
Firstly, has burning taken place on Ridley’s grouse moor since he acquired it in December 2018 – despite it being an SSSI and covered almost entirely in blanket bog? If Ridley has allowed rotational burning, it will have been in defiance of a voluntary burning cessation on designated blanket bog brokered by former Environment Secretary Michael Gove back in 2018. The previous owners of the Cotherstone Estate were signatories to this voluntary agreement; has Ridley rescinded on this? If you have evidence of any burning on Cotherstone or East Carnigill Moor in the past two years, please get in touch.
Secondly, what does Viscount Ridley think of the Government’s pledges since October 2019 to introduce legislation to ban moorland burning? The Moorland Association, of which he is now President, has been vehemently opposed to a ban. Indeed, their last chair threatened to sue the Government over it. Does Ridley share these views?
Thirdly, has Ridley carried out any lobbying on grouse shooting since acquiring his own grouse moor? Hansard suggests he has been careful not to mention the subject in parliamentary debates since Dec 2018, though he has done previously. Ridley has certainly tweeted about grouse moors and shooting numerous times since he became a moor owner (e.g. one, two, three, four, five), though has never mentioned on Twitter that he owns one.
Fourthly, why does he not mention his grouse moor in his register of interests? Ridley declares that he has shareholdings in East Carnigill Ltd (described as a ‘property company’ – whereas on Companies House its SIC code classifies its business as ‘other sports activities’) and that he is its Person of Significant Control. However, he does not list it under his declarations of Land and Property.
The House of Lords Code of Conduct states that Lords should declare “Any land or property (a) which has a capital value of more than £250,000 (but excluding any personal residences), or (b) from which an income of more than £5,000 a year is derived”. The land titles for East Carnigill and Cotherstone Moors do not state the price paid; but East Carnigill Ltd was incorporated with £1m in shares and its latest accounts from Dec 2019 show it owns assets worth £4m, of which freehold property is stated to be worth £3.8m. So why has Ridley not declared this?