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RSPB seeks European investigation…

…after failure to protect UK wildlife site

The RSPB has today submitted a formal complaint to the European Commission over the handling of an estate in the South Pennines where a protected area of blanket bog habitat is under threat.

Following six months of investigation, the charity believes Natural England has contravened European environmental protection legislation in its dealings with the Walshaw Moor Estate, near Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire.

The site is home to an important area of blanket bog - a globally rare and threatened habitat of delicate mosses which supports scarce breeding wading birds such as dunlin and golden plover. Walshaw Moor is so vital for these species and habitats that it is protected by the highest European environmental designations.

The management of the estate – including burning and draining of the bog – has caused Natural England to raise serious concerns in recent years. However, in March this year, without a clear explanation, Natural England suddenly dropped legal proceedings against the estate, including a prosecution on 43 grounds of alleged damage.

Mike Clarke, RSPB chief executive, said: “The decision to lodge this complaint has not been taken lightly, but this is a vitally important issue which centres on the Government’s statutory duty to protect our natural environment.

Natural England – the Government’s wildlife watchdog – has dropped its prosecution without giving an adequate explanation and without securing restoration of this habitat. It has also entered into a management arrangement, which we consider has fundamental flaws. This combination of actions is probably unlawful and will do little, if anything, to realise the Coalition Government’s stated ambition to restore biodiversity.

Natural England has an excellent record but at Walshaw it has not fulfilled its duty to protect wildlife. This has happened in the year that the Government seeks to review its environmental agencies. We think this case is a timely reminder that we need a strong independent champion of the natural environment.

This is just one of several protected areas in our uplands, and this case may set an important precedent for how these sites are managed in the future.”
NB The special wildlife importance of the South Pennine Moors is recognised by their protection under national and European wildlife legislation. South Pennine Moors is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The South Pennine Moors Special Area of Conservation (SAC) is designated under the Habitats Directive for an array of upland habitats including blanket bogs, transition mires, wet heaths, dry heaths and sessile oak woodlands. South Pennine Moors Phase 2 Special Protection Area (SPA) is classified under the Birds Directive for its breeding upland birds, including merlin and golden plover, and a diverse assemblage of migratory species including dunlin.

This case is particularly concerned with the management of blanket bog habitats: these typically have a high water table and are covered by a carpet of bog mosses and sedges. Blanket bogs are a globally scarce peatland habitat and the UK has a special responsibility for their conservation: the UK holds an estimated 10-15% of the global resource. In the UK, they’ve been forming for around 5-6,000 years. In 2007, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee identified various pressures on the UK’s blanket bogs, including grazing, burning, drainage and erosion.

Natural England had been concerned with the way the Walshaw Moor Estate (approximately 6,000ha) was managing its land for a few years and had been taking various actions to address those concerns. This included:

* Prosecuting the Estate on 43 grounds of alleged unconsented damage to the SSSI in order to secure their restoration; and

* Modifying an historic consent in order to secure more appropriate management to protect and restore the blanket bog habitats and the wildlife that depends on them. Following the Estate’s objection, this was the subject of a public inquiry at the beginning of 2012. Following an agreement between Natural England and the Estate, the prosecutions were dropped and the Public Inquiry terminated.

Defra are currently undertaking a ‘triennial review’ of Natural England and other agencies. The Review started this autumn and is expected to conclude early next year. It is possible that the Review will result in structural and functional changes to Natural England. The RSPB regards it as vital that any changes result in an independent, science-led organisation with a core purpose of conserving and enhancing the natural environment in England.

4th July 2014