Floods of Fancy

Don’t blame the weather – Mark Avery and Walshaw

I had never heard of Mark Avery until quite recently, when he appeared on an episode of Saving Species on radio 4 which was looking at the persecution of birds of prey and the link between vanishing hen harriers and grouse moors. Harriers always intrigue me because people are so interested in them – I am the definitive swine before which pearls are cast, seeing hen harriers very frequently and never feeling much more than the slightest twinge of excitement about it. After the programme, I searched for Avery online and not only found that he used to be the “big man” at the RSPB but that he also keeps a blog well stocked with all kinds of bits and pieces which are of interest to anyone who is bird/conservation minded – it’s easy to find if you’re looking for it.

One particular hobby horse of his has recently been the case concerning Walshaw estate in Yorkshire, where locals in Hebden Bridge have been told the convenient half truth that burning on blanket bog turns innocuous hillsides into vindictive funnels of watery destruction. After some flooding in Hebden Bridge, some locals set up a group to “ban the burn” and restrict the amount of intensive grouse management because they were told that it was having devastating effects downstream. It was generally alleged that burning was harming the sphagnum and drying peatbogs out so that rather than soak in and lie peacefully, rain dashed off the hill in a flash flood. In its broadest context this makes perfect sense, but the issue has since been distorted into a point scoring contest for people who want to see grouse shooting banned.

The press can never resist mentioning the costs involved in grouse shooting, and the whole rich/poor debate runs through everything from hen harriers to public access rights, so what started out as a possible concern that burning on blanket bog reduced its ability to soak up water has become the screaming injustice of a wealthy minority who are determined to dash the villages of Yorkshire to death in a tsunami of dirty water. For a bit of additional colour, you just have to imagine billions of gallons sent down the hill in a raging tumult by a handful of toffee nosed hawk-throttlers who hardly have time to thumb their noses at the hard working “everyman” before a platinum helicopter comes to take them off for dinner with the Duke of Edinburgh.

Infact, what seems to have been the case at Walshaw is that it was very, very wet. When water falls on hills, it doesn’t have much of a choice but to trickle off again. When lots of water falls, lots of water trickles off. It has been raining in Dumfries and Galloway for 48 hours and there are flood warnings across the county. Floods happen when it is wet. It could be that the water storage potential of the blanket bog at Walshaw has been damaged by intensive burning and that issue ought to be addressed as a matter of course, but even the deepest peat and most absorbant sphagnum reaches a saturation point. The summer of 2012 was extraordinarily wet, so to claim that the damage caused to Hebden Bridge was the direct result of intensive grouse management seems a little far fetched – particularly since there is a long and well established history of flooding in the area. Nobody has been so bold as to actually come out and make this claim in so many words, but it’s clearly the way that the argument is being taken by some commentators.

Which brings us back to Mark Avery, who has been following the case at Walshaw with a little more glee and enthusiasm than you might expect from a man whose self imposed remit is devoted to “fighting for birds”. He can sniff an opportunity to put the boot into grouse shooting by showing it as the pursuit of the arrogant few who believe themselves to be above the law, and as a means of attack, he thinks he’s found a situation in which Natural England was bought off by greedy estate owners who want more grouse and they don’t care what the cost is. Not to go into the details (they are all available online), the essential message is that even the recent wet summer has been made into ammunition in the fight against grouse shooting.

It’s always interesting to follow conservation issues from all sides of the argument. Perhaps they have damaged the bog at Walshaw – I’ve never been, but what I do know is that this is a situation best dealt with on the ground by the people who are doing the burning. If they are found to have operated outside the guidelines of the muirburn code then they should be held responsible for it, but it’s a different thing altogether to extrapolate this single problem and apply it to every moor in the nation in an attempt to win points against grouse shooting. As the people of Dumfries tonight stack sandbags against their doors and watch the dirty waters of the river Nith rise higher and higher without a single grouse moor upstream (or even anything worth burning except sitka spruces), it’s clearer than ever that blaming grouse shooting for floods is one of the most ridiculous pseudo-scientific attempts to derail the sport that its detractors have ever resorted to.

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