What are the uplands for?
1. August the Twelfth and at least one grouse moor will be gloriously silent this year. There will be few other grouse moors silent, being barred to the guns and subject to new and controversial "multi-objective management", at this time. In contrast to famous neighbouring shoots, 53 sq km (20.5 sq miles) of northern Cumbria will be silent except for birdsong on the Glorious Twelfth (Guardian, 9 Aug 2008). While the shooters' Moorland Association forecasts a mixed bag elsewhere, Geltsdale will be host to ramblers, birds of prey and undisturbed grouse.
2. "Shooting doesn't play a part here any more," says Dr Pat Thompson, uplands conservation officer of the RSPB, which now occupies the old hunting lodge at Stagsike, with the coat of arms of the aristocratic Lowther family carved above its door. An ally among Geltsdale's previous owners, plus "a war chest of legacies, allowed the RSPB to buy the moor before taking over management full-time seven years ago," Pat Thompson explains.
3. The inroad into territory long controlled by grouse shooters, including the ruling Maktoum family of Dubai, has upped the stakes in the arguments which swirl round grouse moors, their biodiversity, and the threat to birds of prey as the Twelfth approaches every year. Geltsdale's management was attacked this spring by the Countryside Alliance, after a Natural England survey found that the estate had lower bird populations on average than 16 shooting moors in Cumbria. The RSPB hit back that the survey was too small and overlooked factors such as overgrazing which reduced lapwings before the new management approach got under way.
4. "What we are doing here is new - and complex," says Pat Thompson. "We don't want a monoculture of heather or of grouse. Many people have a potential interest in the uplands: farmers, foresters, keepers, wildlife enthusiasts, tourists. We are working towards a sustainable way of managing Geltsdale to meet those different needs." The RSPB is aggressive to grouse-shooters on the issue of birds of prey, whose unexplained corpses still turn up on shooting moors, but otherwise wants to prove the worth of Geltsdale rather than attack conventional moors. Thompson says: "We recognise the biodiversity achievements of many shooting moors, and like it or not, their style of intensive grouse moor management is not going to go away," says Pat Thompson.
5. However, "the Moorland Association's own figure, of shooting contributing £12.5m a year to the rural economy, is hardly staggering, compared to the huge economic potential of tourism," he continues. Geltsdale attracts visitors from the neighbouring honeypots of Hadrian's Wall and the Lake District, and provides jobs - in tenant farming and conservation management - on a comparable scale to a similar-sized grouse moor. There is some dispute over the respective populations of wildlife. On the reserve, Natural England found low numbers of golden plover, lapwings and other moorland birds, compared with Cumbrian shooting estates. "Well, we've recorded 96 species breeding on Geltsdale this year," says Dave O'Hara, reserve warden for the last five years.
6. The RSPB states its aim as "greater diversity rather than ramping up greater numbers of individual species, as can happen with grouse on shooting moors." The approach is "in keeping with the diverse history of Geltsdale," says Dave O'Hara. The Geltsdale experiment is working alongside a second upland study, of a defunct grouse moor in Scotland, where ground-nesting birds have flourished alongside an increase in their predator - the hen harrier. Langholm Moor on the southern border of Dumfries and Galloway is now being managed "with an eye to restoring limited grouse-shooting, dependent on the safeguarding of the birds of prey." The project is backed by the RSPB as well as the estate of the Duke of Buccleugh, which owns the land, and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. Prof Des Thompson, policy and advice manager for Scottish Natural Heritage, says: "This is robust science and it is important that this sort of monitoring continues."
7. Pat Thompson, on Geltsdale, agrees: "The question was posed by David Miliband when he was environment secretary. Our moor is going to be part of the answer to the question: what are the uplands for?" This question was topical in 1976 when Green Planning was launched by VEGA's forebears and has been overshadowed by the controversy surrounding hunting with dogs and the contrasts been low-input and hi-input farming and attitudes prevailing on allocations of land for leisure for tourism and reserving territories and habitats for hunters of many species and what they consider "fair game" in the "natural" depredations for animal-derived food.
8. Last week the Moorland Association delivered another salvo in the battle over biodiversity on grouse moors: it unveiled a 40.5 ha (100 acre) purple sward of new heather in the Peak District. The hillside overlooking the Snake Pass between Manchester and Sheffield has earned its grouse-shooting owner Geoff Eyre an honorary doctorate in moorland restoration ecology from Liverpool University. The Guardian report states: "His purple patch is the Association's main weapon this year in the continuing debate over moors management, and the effects on other species of shooting's concentration on grouse. The previously neglected area of the Peak national park recorded a dismal four birds - individuals not species - before Eyre began heather-seeding. Now it has 18 species alongside the red grouse."
9. The moor is near Peak District estates where unexplained deaths of birds of prey have been condemned by the Moorland Association as well as by the RSPB. The Association's chairman Edward Bromet praised "the enormous long-term investment" that grouse moor owners such as Eyre were willing to make. He said that, overall, Association members had helped to restore 405 hectares of heather, ie about 6% of UK targets to regenerate "iconic" heather moorlands.
10. As the flocks of poults are being placed on farms to provide the traditional massacre of the Christmas turkey in a festival of peace and goodwill it is all-too-easy to overlook the issues in extensive and stockless farming and use of land in our crowded island. Over it all hangs the shadow of scourges such as avian flu, which will override many free ranging pretentions in poultry-keeping. Wild-fowling and keeping ducks in food production on ponds will seem especially risky procedures if avian flu inflicts its special viral threats to our environment. These matters are also urgent in considerations of hunting and killing animals of various types and for various purposes challenge animal welfarists and consumers in attempts at establishing good standards of behaviour and citizenship.