The Long Read: Tynedale needs forests, not grouse moors

Tynedale Green Party’s 2019 parliamentary candiate Nick Morphet writes on driven grouse shooting, climate breakdown and the biodiversity crisis.


We are faced with an existential climate and biodiversity crisis. Forest restoration on a massive scale will be a hugely powerful and critically important component of crisis mitigation, in parallel with the rigorous protection of existing forest and the rapid and dramatic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. It is widely believed that the global restoration of approximately one trillion trees will be required if we are to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. The IPPC Special Report of October 2018 suggested that a global increase of one billion hectares of forest will be necessary to achieve this goal. A paper published in Science in July 2019 showed that 0.9 billion hectares of land (an area the size of the United States) is currently available for reforestation worldwide, without impinging on existing urban or agricultural land. Furthermore, the authors showed that reforesting this land would lead to the removal of 205 gigatonnes of carbon from the atmosphere – representing over two-thirds of all historical human carbon emissions. Time is running out however; by 2050 the effects of climate breakdown will likely have reduced the area of land suitable for reforestation to 0.7 billion hectares or less. On top of this, we are currently losing ten billion trees per year to deforestation. In order to avoid runaway climate breakdown and consequent societal collapse, we need to reforest all land suitable for reforestation – and we need to do it as quickly as possible.

Analysis by the UK government’s independent Climate Change Committee supports the IPCC’s findings. In order for the UK to reach “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050 we will need to plant 1.5 billion trees, equating to almost 50 million per year. Every region of the UK will be required to play its part.

Rapid reforestation needn’t be impulsive or thoughtless – it could be achieved mindfully and in a manner that is complementary to biodiversity. Natural limits to tree growth (such as altitude or soil type) would be observed and respected, and rare habitats such as healthy, species-rich heather moorland, wildflower meadow and blanket bog would be preserved (by human intervention, if necessary) in sufficient area to ensure the population health of all species associated with them. Returning land to nature is not just about planting trees, and for this reason the term rewilding is often used. In this opinion piece I have chosen to use the phrase reforestation, because my focus is upon the importance of returning trees to our treeless uplands. I don’t mean to imply that this should be our only consideration.

In our mission to reforest one billion acres, we cannot afford to spare the over-grazed uplands and intensively managed grouse moors of the UK. Such areas in fact represent a golden opportunity to turn carbon sources into carbon sinks. Intensively managed grouse moors, mostly farmed for driven grouse shooting, are burned in order to generate new heather shoots; this prevents the growth of trees (preventing “ecological succession”), damages the peat, releases carbon and exacerbates climate breakdown. Furthermore, a proportion of wildfires – which also exacerbate climate breakdown – arise as a result of the ‘controlled’ burning of heather. To make matters even worse, the risk of wildfires will increase as climate breakdown progresses.

Intensive grouse moor management also involves ‘improvements’ to drainage, which (in combination with the lack of trees) leads to faster rainwater run-off and increases the risk of flooding downstream. The flooding of the Tyne Valley associated with December 2015’s Storm Desmond was in part the result of the intensive management of grouse moors in the North Pennines. In a warmer climate where rainstorms will be heavier, we cannot afford to expose ourselves to risks such as this.

Driven grouse moors, intensively managed to maximise grouse numbers, are ‘sterile’ heather monocultures, which are very poor in terms of overall biodiversity. Biodiversity is further reduced by the persecution of predators, both legally (foxes, stoats, weasels, crows etc.) and illegally (birds of prey, including hen harriers). Non-predatory species, such as the increasingly rare mountain hare, are also persecuted. This native species is widely persecuted on grouse moors because it is believed that doing so protects the grouse against the tick-borne louping ill virus. There is a lack of scientific evidence that this serves to increase grouse numbers, and the result is that the mountain hare’s conservation status has recently been downgraded to ‘unfavourable’. The RSPB says that the mountain hare culls are illegal under EU law, as well as unwarranted. It’s a sad fact that 60% of England’s upland SSSIs are managed for grouse shooting – they are managed for one plant (heather) and one bird (the red grouse).

A healthy and biodiverse ecosystem is more resilient to climate change, whilst also helping to mitigate against it by locking up more carbon (in the form of plant, animal, fungal and microbial biomass, as well as in the form of healthy, carbon-rich peat and soil). The climate and biodiversity crises are therefore inseparable.

To add insult to injury, we are subsidising this ecocide with our own taxes, via the Common Agricultural Policy. The ten largest English grouse moors receive over £3 million in farm subsidy every year, and the owner of the closest grouse moor to Hexham (East Allenheads) received £394,048 in subsidy in 2018. Our tax money therefore funds climate breakdown, biodiversity loss and the persecution of wildlife (both legal and illegal). It also promotes flooding and pushes up our household insurance premiums. Is this how we want our tax money to be spent? Would we not rather that subsidy was paid only to landowners who manage their land for nature, for people and for future generations?

Such change could come about in many ways. There are land reform campaigns which seek to create, amongst many other things, a healthier upland environment. Land reform in Scotland is progressing steadily, and Community Right to Buy is giving ordinary people the opportunity to have a say in how their local environment is managed. England is lagging well behind Scotland in terms of land reform, but not for want of exciting ideas. Many have called for grouse moors to be licensed – giving government the power to revoke licences if, for example, illegal raptor persecution is identified. There are also those calling for an outright ban of driven grouse shooting, and a petition calling for exactly this has recently exceeded 100,000 signatures – meaning that a debate in Parliament will now be considered.

Would an end to driven grouse shooting result in a loss of rural jobs, income and cultural identity? There is no reason why it would need to, if an equitable transition to a wildlife tourism-based economy was made. The world has seen a great number of successful wildlife tourism initiatives (e.g. in Germany’s Harz mountains), and it should be borne in mind that whereas wildlife tourism could be a year-round phenomenon, the grouse shooting season is only four months long. Unfortunately, statistics comparing the economics of grouse shooting to the wildlife tourism which could replace it are hard to come by. Most media reports and widely quoted figures come from a narrow base of shooting industry and estate-sponsored studies that have self-reporting biases and fail to consider alternative land uses. A recent Scottish government report shows that driven grouse shooting estates typically employ only one staff member per 10km2, whereas RSPB nature reserves typically employ between four and six. Those previously employed on shooting estates would most likely find themselves with many of the right skills to find meaningful employment on the nature reserves that replace them. The government report’s main conclusion is, however, that further research is needed.

Due to its vast expanses of ecologically poor upland habitat, Northumberland has enormous potential for reforestation. Given the correct economic and societal changes, our county could lead the UK in the fight against climate breakdown and biodiversity loss. In doing so, our county would become more beautiful and our lives richer. But there is a huge amount of work to be done. If Northumberland were to act on the CCC’s advice and were to plant its fair share of trees by area, it would be required to plant almost one million trees every year until 2050. Northumberland County Council has plans to plant 633 urban trees over the next two years, and the Great Northumberland Forest will involve the planting of up to one million trees in total by 2024. If we are to ensure a vibrant future for our children, we must raise our ambition enormously. We must ask ourselves what we would like that future to look like, and we must urgently start making the necessary changes to secure it.

The Green Party would bring an end to driven grouse shooting and launch a reforestation programme commensurate with the scale of the crisis that we face. As your Green Party MP for Hexham I would bring people together and encourage discussion, I would be your voice in Parliament and I would hold government to account on the behalf of the community. Together we would push for the changes that we want to see.