RSPB complaint sparks European legal action over grouse moor burning

This morning the European Commission has taken the first steps in legal infraction against the UK Government in relation to the burning of blanket bog in Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) in northern England.

The legal action follows separate complaints by the RSPB and Ban the Burn (from Hebden Bridge) in 2012.  These complaints related to decisions made by Natural England over the management and protection of part of the South Pennine Moors SAC and Special Protection Area owned and managed by the Walshaw Moor Estate Limited for grouse shooting.

Since then the RSPB has discovered that Natural England consent to burn protected blanket bog is confined to and almost routine on grouse moors in 5 SACs in Northern England.  This is part of the intensification of management of these special areas witnessed in recent years to produce increasing numbers of red grouse for driven grouse shooting. (See details of RSPB’s complaint here). These consents from Natural England are estimated to affect around 73,000 ha of deep peat soils that should be conserved as healthy blanket bog. The burning undermines the ability to restore these internationally important habitats, and protect their wildlife and associated ecosystem services.

This map shows the areas of concern: white areas show blanket bog in Special Areas of Conservation where Natural England has consented to burning; brown areas denote deep peat. The large circle denotes Walshaw Moor. Map source: RSPB (here).


While the details of the European Commission’s legal action is not yet known, it appears the Commission shares the concerns of the RSPB and Ban the Burn over bad application of the Habitats Directive and presumably the EC is not satisfied that the UK’s proposed actions would be sufficient to safeguard and restore the protected blanket bog habitats of European and global conservation importance.

The European Commission’s action is a significant step in reforming the way our hills are managed and securing the long-term conservation of these important areas. The RSPB and Ban the Burn both deserve credit and appreciation for pushing this forward and it’ll be fascinating to see how the grouse shooting industry and their friends in UK Government respond.

Martin Harper, RSPB’s Conservation Director has blogged about this news today (see here). But it’s a blog of two halves. The first half demonstrates that the RSPB has got plenty of backbone and isn’t afraid to act, undoubtedly against the wishes of DEFRA and Natural England, when it sees fit to do so. That’s brilliant.

But in contrast, the second half of the blog is utterly bewildering. Here Martin reiterates the RSPB’s softly softly approach to dealing with the illegal persecution of hen harriers on driven grouse moors. He maintains that DEFRA’s Hen Harrier Recovery Plan ‘offers a real chance of progress’. We fundamentally disagree, particularly on the subject of brood meddling, which essentially is just legalised persecution.

What we really struggle to understand is how anyone, especially a senior RSPB employee, who has seen that video of an armed man, on a grouse moor, with a decoy hen harrier, can still think that the grouse shooting industry is capable of compromise and reform. It so clearly isn’t.

E-petition to ban driven grouse shooting HERE

30 Responses to “RSPB complaint sparks European legal action over grouse moor burning”

  1. 1 Chris Roberts
    April 29, 2016 at 7:48 pm

    Unfortunately the RSPB hasn’t got enough back bone for most of us. They are far too cozy with the shooting fraternity that are decimating our wildlife and birds of prey, that the RSPB are there to protect.

    Is the EU doing nothing about the muirburn in Scotland?

  2. 2 against feudalism
    April 29, 2016 at 8:10 pm

    I read the report, which linked to the rspb report, which further linked to an earlier rspb report about ” The scale and extent of burning in our uplands”. I am interested in the 4th reply, which states,

    Virtually every activity is heavily subsidised – the figures for grouse show a Government/CAP subsidy pretty much equal to the total turnover of grouse estates.


    Does anyone know, or have links to, ? the actual amount of cash that the grouse shooting estates receive ? Is the information available, as a UK or individual country basis, or even estate basis ?

    I do think that if the public find out that their tax money is completely funding ‘canned hunting’ as the LACS call it, or ‘pac man’ with live birds, then they might stop seeing grouse shooting as a costume drama !

    With a million people officially in poverty, the government is still funding this ? and the grouse industry seems to be showing no gratitude at all, pocketing the money, and continuing the wholesale slaughter our wildlife, and the destruction of our uplands . I find this incomprehensible, as I am sure, most people will.

    • 3 Sarah Eno
      April 29, 2016 at 8:36 pm

      No the information on how much money landowners receive through agri-environment schemes which may support grouse industry in Scotland is not publically available even though it is public money. I think there has been some tightening of the funding re uplan management in the recent round of applcations and there is much less money available anyway. On other hand Estate pay no tax on the land – it was abolished under conservative gov. in 1991 or thereabouts.

      • 4 against feudalism
        April 29, 2016 at 9:38 pm

        I think the new land reform bill has tackled that, and their business tax exemption has / is being repealed in Scotland ? please do let me know if I am wrong.

        It is not just CAP and ‘moorland subsidy’, there are also HUGE ‘rural development grants’ being given out ? I will chase my MP, SMP and MEP, and the snp party, to see if the info is available, if not, why not.

        I think that we need to make some noise about the lack of transparency, we are talking about large sums of tax payers money, being handed to some of the wealthiest people in the country, so that they can pretend that this is still the 19th century.

    • April 29, 2016 at 8:41 pm

      Its a shame that the complaint only seems to focus on the burning of blanket bog in England and Wales, it is a bigger problem in Scotland. There is a chance however that it will actually apply north of the border, the EU does not differentiate between the internal boundaries in the UK. If England has to move against burning its almost inconceivable that the same rule changes would not be required in Scotland. (And Ireland too).

      In Scotland I think you could probably ask the Scottish Government under FOI for a summary figure for all of the SRDP payments made involving muirburn. RSPB may have done this already?
      In all my meanderings over the hills and moors I have seen hundreds of examples of muirburn that has been done contrary to the infamous “code”. I wonder how many payments have been reclaimed when the burning has broken the rules?

      • 6 heclasu
        April 30, 2016 at 1:18 am

        Circusmaxim. I think that the original complaint to the EU was made by the people of Hebden Bridge who have been flooded out of their homes twice in the last year or so. I too hope that no differential will be shown between England and Scotland even though I have not seen much evidence of the same happening in Scotland. However, I stress that I stand to be corrected. What troubles me most is the huge sums of money – our money – these arseholes are receiving to ‘rape’ the uplands with not the slightest consideration for others. It HAS to stop!

  3. April 29, 2016 at 9:09 pm

    Between Crief and Aberfeldy there were still burning in 2 glens on 21st April on a Red Grouse moor! Has Scotland got extra dates as it finished on 1st April in England with license to extend to 15th April?

  4. 9 Marco McGinty
    April 30, 2016 at 1:34 am

    And this mixed-message approach taken by the RSPB, is the one that infuriates many of its members and supporters. It’s all very well taking action against the destruction of such habitats, but the root cause of the destruction is driven grouse shooting, which they appear to support.

    Instead of taking the fight and supporting a ban on driven grouse shooting, the RSPB would rather continue dialogue with those that are responsible for the habitat destruction, those that are responsible for the varied, widespread crimes, and those that repeatedly call for raptors to be culled. The shooting industry has had decades to change their ways, but they are simply not interested, as can be evidenced with the widespread criminal activity associated with them.

    I really feel for the Investigations department and its committed officers, out busting a gut on a daily basis, sometimes having to deal with harrowing incidents, whilst the wider organisation doesn’t give a shit.

    • 10 Jeff Knott
      May 6, 2016 at 5:23 pm

      As one of the people working in the wider organisation (policy to be precise), I’m a tad personally offended to be told I don’t “give a shit”.
      Investigations are hugely committed, passionate and expert at what they do, but so are colleagues across the RSPB.
      My personal view is a ban is not the best option right now and that the Defra Action Plan offers a real chance of progress in England. I might disagree with calls for a ban, but I fully respect the motivation behind those calls and indeed the people making them. All I ask is a bit of respect in the other direction too.
      We agree on what we want to see – more hen harriers (and golden eagles, peregrines, red kites, etc), and an end to illegal persecution and other environmentally damaging practices. We might disagree about the best tactics, but that by no means anyone doesn’t “give a shit”.
      Anyway, hope to see you all at Hen Harrier Day 2016!

      • 11 Marco McGinty
        May 6, 2016 at 11:06 pm

        Of course there will be individuals within Policy, ConSci, Ecology, etc. that do care, but I stand by my statement – the wider organisation doesn’t give a shit. The organisation has some 2,000 staff members, 13,000 volunteers, and more than 1 million members, yet the petition to ban driven grouse shooting (the very “sport” that is the main cause of raptor persecution and environmental destruction) has just passed the 35,000 mark. From those numbers, I can only deduce that there is very little dialogue between RSPB members, staff and volunteers on the subject, if it is mentioned at all. Indeed, I would imagine that there are many in the organisation that are completely unaware of the petition, or have been told of it and simply shrugged their shoulders.

        Just out of curiosity, are RSPB staff members allowed to sign the petition, or have staff members been told not to sign or promote the petition?

        Obviously, we have the same hopes and interests, but as long as there is driven grouse shooting, we will never see an increase in raptor populations on the killing fields. I admire your indefatigability regarding the DEFRA Action Plan, and your hopes that the shooting industry will somehow go through the whole Road to Damascus experience, but I can see us having the same conversation ten, fifteen, or twenty years from now. I sincerely hope I am wrong, but we have to face the hard facts of the matter, that the shooting industry and its core of criminal apologist organisations has had ample opportunity to change its ways throughout the decades, and there is no incentive for them to change now.

        Take a look to the shooting industry’s disingenuous take on the results at Langholm, and their premature terminal reaction to the project, and then apply something similar to the DEFRA plan a few years from now.

  5. April 30, 2016 at 8:41 am

    Thanks for the reply. Seems that is another issue worth changing. Stonechat had young in the nest just over the border on 25th April even with this April weather!

  6. April 30, 2016 at 10:45 am

    Hear hear !

    A step in the right direction. Now the invective from the opposition . . . ?

  7. 14 Mrs Pheasant
    May 1, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    Grouse moors burnt properly are burnt in patches then you have a mixture of habitat for all wildlife

  8. May 1, 2016 at 2:17 pm

    How about sharing your views on Martin Harper’s blog on which he has specifically asked for comments.
    Right now there are so few comments and upmarks that it looks like no one is interested.

  9. 19 Jack Snipe
    May 7, 2016 at 12:28 am

    I find it very difficult to make this comment, and it won’t win me many friends, but for a long time now I’ve felt that Raptor Study Groups need to modify their ethos to become more inclusive. Perhaps I’ve just been unfortunate, but I have seen a number of good people join then leave the organisation because of the elitist attitude among a few harrier workers in particular. I expect some denial of this accusation, but conflict with Local Ringing Groups is not uncommon, largely because the RSG members think they have an exclusive right to information about harriers and other Schedule 1 Species of raptors. They are widely regarded as a law unto themselves. There is a wider ornithological community out there, many of whom would like to give their support to raptor workers, but the clique that operates in the field does not permit it. In my opinion we can only make progress by knowing our enemies AND our friends. The local bird club in my area wishes to inform their own ranks and the public about the state of affairs regarding harrier persecution, but some harrier workers make this impossible by not informing the Local Recorder of their findings, not even in summary form. Personally I have carried out quite a lot of research into harrier ecological requirements and have amassed enough data to put together a paper which I believe will promote better understanding of the species, but the Raptor Study Group appears to be in such disarray that my dataset cannot be completed. We need to get our own house in order, and accept that the days of absolute secrecy are counter-productive.

    On the main topic of RSPB, I have made a point recently of asking members their opinions on the issues surrounding harrier persecution and grouse moor management, and to be honest it is mildly horrifying how uninformed most are on the subject. I’ve also tried discussing the issues with RSPB staff, but some of them appear to be blissfully unaware of the real problem, while most others decline to offer an opinion. At a recent RSPB members’ meeting where I talked on Hen Harriers, I asked who had signed either the petition to ban driven grouse shooting, or the petition to keep Ravens protected. The blank expressions on most faces sent a shiver down my spine. I can’t help but feel that despite their fine words and excessive diplomacy, the RSPB lets us all down quite badly at Senior Officer and Executive level.

    • 20 Jeff Knott
      May 7, 2016 at 10:46 am

      Well I suppose “letting everyone down quite badly” isn’t quite as bad as “not giving a shit”?!
      Trying to respond to a couple of the specific points raised, if you think there is no dialogue about these issues, I can only say you’re dead wrong. Thanks to the efforts of many (RPS, Mark Avery, BAWC and the RSPB itself – Skydancer, Hen harrier Life project, plus loads of core work), genetics harriers and grouse moors must be one of the most talked about topics in uk conservation. Is there more to do raise awareness? Absolutely, but there js a lot going on. If anyone has the time/inclination, I wonder where “hen harriers” and “grouse shooting” rank in most mentioned key terms on Martin’s blog.
      I do plenty of members’ group talks (next one Monday in Norwich for any Norfolkians reading!) and awareness is mixed, but generally better on this than almost anything else. Awareness was certainly very high after I spoke (and mentioned the e-petition) at the most recent AGM and Members’ Weekend.
      And on the specific question from Marco, staff have not been told not to sign or promote the e -petition. I haven’t signed it, but that’s my decision, (and I’ve flagged it a few times anyway, as mentioned above).

      • 21 Jack Snipe
        May 7, 2016 at 4:16 pm

        Jeff, I feel that’s a wee bit of a knee jerk reaction to my relatively mild criticism of your organisation, and somewhat missing the main point of my comment. I can understand someone in your position being defensive, but because of that fact, you must be aware of the frequently harsh criticism of RSPB for not taking a firm enough stance on this particular issue. I note you didn’t include the Raptor Study Groups in your list of the many who contribute to the dialogue about harrier conservation and grouse moors, so I assume it was mainly my comments about RSPB that you found disturbing. My experience in Scotland is that with a few admirable exceptions (whom I won’t name to avoid any embarrassment), RSPB staff in general do little to promote nature conservation to the general public in any serious sense. Quite frankly, a lot of them are too scared of affecting their career prospects by stepping out of line, and anything remotely political appears to be off limit. I don’t doubt that no edicts have been placed upon them not to promote the e-petition, but I can assure you that staff members who confide in me think it’s more than their job is worth to get involved. It’s possible that someone in a senior position within RSPB is not party to such opinions among the rank and file, as happens in many organisations – SNH is awash with discontent among its staff these days. Awareness may have been high at your recent AGM and Member’s Weekend, but I would suggest that the enthusiasts who attend such events are not representative of ordinary RSPB members. Believe it or not, I was trying to be helpful in suggesting that RSPB should get its act together, and Policy is one area where I believe it needs a kick up the backside. Sorry if that offends you, it’s not intended to be personal, but I’m only expressing what a lot of us are thinking.

  10. 22 Jack Snipe
    May 7, 2016 at 6:49 pm

    Jeff, I couldn’t help but notice that BAWC was among your list of organisations contributing to education about Hen Harriers. Surely you must be joking? Talk about fraternising with the enemy! I subscribe to their e-newsletter and it’s an utter joke, hell bent on promoting the “sport” of killing wildlife for pleasure, even establishing training courses for children on how to use guns. Scientifically they are way off the mark, and their publications are riddled with errors and unpleasant ethics regarding shooting wildlife. I suppose that sums up my main concern about RSPB, cosying up to an organisation which most right-minded people would regard as an enemy of wildlife. You appear to have succumbed to the con which they are promoting, including the rather obvious trick of including the word “Conservation” in their title. This liberal approach will not work in the long run.

    • May 7, 2016 at 7:05 pm

      It appears you are confusing BAWC with another organisation. BAWC is the acronym for Birders Against Wildlife Crime. They do not promote the sport of killing wildlife for pleasure (far from it!).

      Here is their website:


      • 24 Jack Snipe
        May 7, 2016 at 7:11 pm

        Sorry about that, I was confusing with GWCT (Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust). A senior moment! How embarrassing.

        • 25 Jeff Knott
          May 7, 2016 at 7:42 pm

          Glad we clarified on BAWC, I was worried for a second! And yes, you’re right Jack Snipe, of course I should have include RSGs too – an oversight!
          I can only really respond to your comments from personal experience and say in 8 years at RSPB working on raptors, I’ve never once been told not to say or do anything, or heard anyone say that. And I’m rubbish at keeping my mouth shut if I disagree and its not done my career too much harm as far as I know! (although I wouldn’t describe myself as beng in a senior position, so who knows!). On the contrary, my experience has always been that expressing your views internally is actively encouraged as healthy debate.
          And on the original point, I’m quite happy for anyone to disagree on a policy. That’s absolutely fine, dare I say it healthy. What gets my goat (and maybe you’re right, makes me defensive) is when that honest disagreement is portrayed as RSPB, or some subset of it, not caring, being in the pockets of anyone, being timid, etc.
          Hope that’s cleared that up and hope to see you ag a BAWC (!) hen harrier event in August.

          • 26 Marco McGinty
            May 8, 2016 at 8:18 pm

            “And on the specific question from Marco, staff have not been told not to sign or promote the e -petition.”

            I will have to take your word on that, Jeff, but I can’t find a single incident where a RSPB staff member has actively promoted the petition. I find it unusual, that an organisation with so many individuals opposed to the disastrous management (often illegal) practices of driven grouse shooting, none have managed to put their name to promote the petition.

            As for your take that “expressing your views internally is actively encouraged”, it just happens that you simply cannot express your views externally. In 2006, as a result of a post to the Forth Birding Yahoo Group, I emailed other Yahoo Groups to warn people of the errors on the Scottish distribution maps on the RSPB website. The post read as follows;

            “n a recent post to the Forth Birding e-group, a contributor had visited Skinflats and noted some Black-tailed Godwits and a Green Sandpiper. This birder (I suspect a beginner) presumably turned to the RSPB website for further information on these species, only to discover the non-existence of these species north of the border according to their respective distribution maps. After reading the post, I myself went to the website as I was sure he was mistaken. I was wrong. Further exploration revealed an astonishing catalogue of inaccuracies which one would not believe be permitted by the RSPB. Surely as Europe’s leading conservation organisation this should have been inspected thoroughly before being allowed online?”

            A constructive critique of the maps, which received support from a range of ornithologists (and no disagreements to my knowledge). Despite being a relatively tame article, it was escalated by certain RSPB staff members, to the point that I was told by a senior staff member in Scotland that he would “make it very difficult for you to get a job within the RSPB again”. Funnily enough, I’ve never been considered for interview since that time, with a catalogue of nonsensical feedback reasons, such as, I lacked motivation (despite clearly stating that I was in the process of taking the Scottish Government to court), or I did not demonstrate that I could use the internet (despite mentioning the frequent use of various internet fora), or I didn’t mention that I could work bank holidays.

            The fact is, the RSPB do not respond well to criticism, no matter how well intended the criticism is, so we’ll just have to disagree on the subject.

            One final question, Jeff. When the DEFRA plan fails, and it will be a costly failure, will the RSPB continue the dialogue charade with those that are responsible for raptor persecution and environmental/ecological destruction, or will they finally distance themselves from the criminal apologists and start to take this issue with the seriousness that it deserves?

            • 27 Jeff Knott
              May 8, 2016 at 8:38 pm

              Hi Marco.
              If the plan fails (and I hope and believe it wont) we’ll have no option but to seriously review our approach, as will everyone. But we’re already taking the issue very seriously :-)

              • 28 Marco McGinty
                May 8, 2016 at 9:20 pm

                Cheers, Jeff.

                • 29 Jack Snipe
                  May 8, 2016 at 10:16 pm

                  Jeff, I don’t know if you’re able to divulge something secret we don’t know about, but I’d be intrigued to learn how you can believe that such a dreadful plan is at all likely to succeed. And how RSPB could possibly reconcile the continuing (and presumably legitimised?) persecution as the slightest bit acceptable. The other side is set in its opinion that a key element of the plan involves brood meddling, so presumably “if the plan goes ahead” will be on the basis that RSPB accepts with qualifications that the “brood management” proceeds on an experimental basis? They are proposing holding the numbers down to a density of only one pair per 10km square of suitable habitat, which in reality should be supporting anything between 3 to 7 pairs depending upon the phase of the field vole population. This would be an utter disaster for the species, and will in fact ensure that the population is held at a ridiculously low level (little different from at present) “for ever more.” It’s just not practical or workable. I don’t know a single harrier expert who shares your belief – can you enlighten us as to who your advisers are who consider the plan worth proceeding with? I can’t see how the RSPB can claim to be considering things very seriously, yet be prepared to even contemplate such a one-sided plan. It appears to me the shooting lobby has you wrapped around their little finger. The really sad thing is I don’t believe the upper echelons in RSPB truly get this fact.

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