Ban the Burn!

August 15, 2012

“Town that won’t stop flooding: Hebden Bridge cleans up for the third time in three weeks.” That was a Daily Mail headline on July 11th 2012. It was a slight exaggeration. Most people who live in Hebden are pretty sure they were only flooded twice, but it was enough. Cars were submerged, the library was evacuated, people were stranded, the main road was closed, businesses were wrecked, homes swamped, livelihoods devastated.

Could this be climate change in action? Maybe. Or it could be a direct result of more localised environmental damage.

A story is emerging involving a millionaire landowner, a government minister, environmental breaches at a site of special scientific interest (SSSI), a mysteriously dropped court case, the profitability of shooting grouse, and the spending of taxpayers’ cash. The setting: the wuthering heights above Hebden Bridge, famed moors of the Brontës. The unlikely heroes of the piece are blanket bog and sphagnum moss.

On Sunday August 12th, flood-hit residents of Hebden Bridge and campaigners from across the country set out from the town centre on a protest walk to the Walshaw Moor grouse-shooting estate. Following the walk, the Ban the Burn! national campaign launch took place at Hebden Bridge Trades Club.

Timed to coincide with ‘The Glorious Twelfth’ (the opening of the grouse-shooting season), the day of action highlighted the damaging effects of burning and draining on the moors: increased flood risk downstream; very significant carbon emissions; adverse impacts on water quality and the destruction of ecologically significant habitat.

The campaigners are demanding a ban on burning and drainage of blanket bogs, which are protected under the European Union Habitats Directive and the UK Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010.

According to Natural England, a public body tasked with improving and protecting England’s natural environment, “Blanket bog is one of the rarest wildlife habitats in the world. In addition to its importance as a wildlife habitat, the role of blanket bog in the provision of a number of ecosystem services is significant. This includes its ability to capture and store large amounts of carbon, its role in securing high water quality and its ability to reduce flood risk.”

Walshaw Moor Estate Ltd., which owns a significant part of the moorland catchment above Hebden Water, came to public attention when Natural England initiated a prosecution for 43 environmental breaches. Natural England abruptly dropped the case in March this year, before the scientific evidence could be presented. Subsequently it entered into an Environmental Stewardship agreement with the estate, whereby £2.5 million of taxpayers’ money will be paid to the estate over the next ten years. It will permit “controlled” burning activities, under an exemption from a rule which normally forbids burning on sensitive areas such as peat bog and wet heathland. Ban the Burn! is campaigning to close such loopholes.

According to DK, one of the walkers, “Here in Hebden Bridge we know the real hardship of flooding – shops and businesses in our town are still shut, and many of our friends and neighbours have suffered irreplaceable loss. In order to reduce our town’s vulnerability to flooding, we need the upland catchment to be managed to promote healthy blanket bog, with sphagnum moss to act as a sponge during heavy rainfall. It seems grotesque that the taxpayer is paying for the exact opposite – £2.5 million is about five times as much as we have in the Calder Valley flood recovery fund!”

Landowners such as Walshaw Estate Ltd drain and burn blanket bog in order to create a habitat where grouse can breed and feed. Draining blanket bog dries the peat, so that heather can grow. Once heather is established, burning is carried out to limit its height, because grouse need short heather to nest in. In the process of draining and burning, sphagnum moss is destroyed and a carbon sink is turned into a carbon source. According to the Commission of Enquiry into UK Peatlands, damaged UK peatlands currently release almost 3.7 million tonnes of CO2 a year – more than all the households in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Leeds combined. This has serious implications for worsening climate change.

Local climate action group Treesponsibility is dedicated to bringing about ecological restoration in the Calder catchment. The group wants to make the Calder Valley more resilient to extreme weather events and works towards this with tree-planting, climate awareness education and fundraising for catchment management projects. Land mismanagement on ‘the tops’, however, threatens to reverse fourteen years of hard graft.

At the end of a “brilliant”, “eye-opening” and “exhausting” day, a Hebden Bridge resident explained via the live EnergyRoyd blog why he joined the Ban the Burn! campaign: I think it’s a travesty that Walshaw Moor Estate has been given public money… they’ve got some friends in Whitehall, and the Minister for Wildlife’s a grouse shooter – basically, a bunch of aristos up here who want to shoot grouse are making life worse for hard-working folk in the valley by increasing the risk of flooding.”

When it comes to environmental degradation by a politically untouchable elite of large landowners, the Hebden Bridge story may be just the tip of an iceberg


By Emma Fordham


A short video on the topic.