New Internationalist

Who’s messing with Hebden Bridge’s vital flood barrier?

‘Town that won’t stop flooding: Hebden Bridge cleans up for the third time in three weeks.’

That was a Daily Mail headline in July. It was a slight exaggeration. Most people who live in Hebden Bridge (West Yorkshire) are pretty sure they were only flooded twice, but it was enough. Cars were submerged, the library was evacuated, the main road closed, businesses were wrecked, homes swamped, livelihoods devastated.

But an interesting new story is emerging, which has some bearing on the flood-prone streets of Hebden. It involves a millionaire landowner, a government minister, environmental breaches at a site of special scientific interest (SSSI), a mysteriously dropped court case, the profitability of shooting grouse, and the spending of taxpayers’ cash. The setting: the wuthering heights above Hebden Bridge, famed moors of the Brontës. The unlikely heroes of the piece are blanket bog and sphagnum moss.

On 12 August, flood-hit residents of Hebden Bridge and campaigners from across the country set out from the town centre on a protest walk to the Walshaw Moor grouse-shooting estate. Following the walk, the Ban the Burn! national campaign launch, timed to coincide with ‘The Glorious Twelfth’ (the opening of the grouse-shooting season), took place at Hebden Bridge Trades Club. Ban the Burn! campaigners are calling for an end to the draining of peat-rich blanket bogs and the burning of moorland heather, activities carried out by landowners to maximize grouse-shooting potential.

The effects of draining and burning of blanket bogs, which are supposed to be protected under EU and UK conservation regulations, include: increased flood risk downstream; very significant carbon emissions; adverse impacts on water quality; and the destruction of rare and globally significant habitat. According to the Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands, damaged UK peatlands currently release almost 3.7 million tonnes of CO2 a year – more than all the households in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Leeds combined.

Walshaw Moor came to public attention when Natural England attempted to prosecute the landowner for 43 environmental breaches. The case was abruptly dropped and Natural England subsequently entered into an Environmental Stewardship agreement with the Estate, whereby £2.5 million ($3.9 million) of taxpayers’ money will be paid to it over the next 10 years while ‘controlled’ burning will still be allowed. Campaigners described this as a scandal in a YouTube video.

According to a local resident, ‘here in Hebden Bridge we know the real hardship of flooding – shops and businesses in our town are still shut, and many of us have suffered irreplaceable loss. We need to manage the upland catchment to promote healthy blanket bog, with sphagnum moss to act as a sponge during heavy rainfall. It seems grotesque that the taxpayer is paying for the exact opposite – £2.5 million is about five times as much as we have in the Calder Valley flood recovery fund!’

At the end of a ‘brilliant’, ‘eye-opening’ and ‘exhausting’ day, a walker explained via the live EnergyRoyd blog why he joined the Ban the Burn! campaign: ‘I think it’s a travesty that Walshaw Moor Estate has been given public money. They’ve got friends in Whitehall, and the Minister for Wildlife’s a grouse shooter – basically, a bunch of aristocrats are making life worse for hard-working folk in the valley by increasing the risk of flooding.’ Parts of this claim are unsubstantiated; however, suggestions regarding the influence of political and land-owning élites on environmental and countryside policies have been made by Dr Mark Avery (former Conservation Director of the RSPB), George Monbiot (in The Guardian) and Michael McCarthy (The Independent).

Dr Avery says in his blog Standing up for Nature: ‘The access of the Moorland Association to the [Wildlife] Minister is at a level that many statutory agencies who work for Defra might well envy, and is well beyond that of the average environmental NGO.’ Edward Bromet, Chair of the Moorland Association, which supports grouse shooting, sent Wildlife Minister Richard Benyon a private email in December 2011. The content of this email has since been made public under a Freedom of Information request. Bromet, referring to the court case brought by Natural England against Walshaw Moor Estate, wrote: ‘What Natural England are doing is complete madness…  Suggestions of readdressing the basis of existing agri-environment schemes… would make the management of moorland, most of which is privately funded, completely impossible.’ How much influence such communications had on Natural England’s decision to drop the case is unknown.

When it comes to environmental degradation by a politically untouchable élite of large landowners, the Hebden Bridge story may be just the tip of an iceberg. Walshaw Moor is certainly not an isolated case – the Peatlands Inquiry found that only 11 per cent of blanket bogs in English SSSIs are in favourable condition. Primary reasons cited for unfavourable (no change or declining) condition are overgrazing, inappropriate moor burning and drainage – the latter two being associated with grouse moors.

Emma Fordham writes for the Occupied Times.

Photo of Hebden Bridge by Steven Lilley under a CC Licence.

Comments on Who's messing with Hebden Bridge's vital flood barrier?

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  1. #1 Fay Garratt 26 Aug 12

    Interesting article, but whilst it's easy to blame the aristocrats (because obviously they are the only people who shoot/ enjoy the moorland at Walshaw) is there not another side to the story?

  2. #2 Emma 31 Aug 12

    Some more research backing up this story was published today:

    @Fay - I'm not sure what 'other sides to the story' would be. The brownfield briefing piece (linked here) certainly fleshes out the story, adds some more science and ecology, and comes to the same conclusion: the shooting industry is holding the smoking gun.

  3. #3 binky 07 Sep 12

    Update from September 7th

  4. #4 Emma 19 Oct 12

    Another update: Now the RSPB have taken up the fight, making a formal complaint to the EC about Natural England's role in allowing environmental breaches at this SSSI:

  5. #5 Kathleen Simpson 26 Dec 15

    I have noticed that each time I've flooded its been on a Friday night. How can this be? What are the odds?

    I live in Todmorden and have just been flooded for the third time in 3 years. Each time i'm getting straight it floods again. Uninsured as my insurer cancelled my policy after the last flood. No power, no insurance, waist deep in water - savings all gone. No official help so far in fact the fire service wanted £400 to pump out the house the first time it flooded which I didn't have so I was left to it.

    How can Todmorden be severely flooded 3 times each on a Friday night?

  6. #6 Anne Teoh 27 Dec 15

    While there is not enough evidence to support that burning the heather to support the shooting of grouse season for the privileged classes, there is a definite possibility that the baring of vast lands of land leads to the flooding in Hebden Bridge. The environmentalists and government should run tests to find out to what extent the heather ( lovely shrubs with their own divine rights to be left to further the development of more ecologically friendly development of other industries perhaps) growth can inhibit the rainfall and prevent the flooding of the delicate towns. Is it surprising there is not enough, dare we say, hardly, any reporting of this in the mainstream papers?

  7. #7 David Holmes 27 Dec 15

    Sounds about right. Obviously not enough middle class folks per k2 as there are in Taunton

  8. #8 Frances Hunt 27 Dec 15

    It's not just the preservation of the bogs that would help. There are a lot of old dams that were bust in the past which could store a massive amount of water preventing it rushing into the valley bottom. They were bust for health and safety reasons because they wouldn't pay someone to inspect them on a regular basis. Surely bringing these back into use to control the flow of water and paying an inspector would be cheaper than all this devastation

  9. #9 Cody 27 Dec 15

    We live the other side of the moors from Hebden Bridge, and yesterday was the first time Oxenhope has flooded in all the years we've lived here - and this because of two reasons:

    1. On the moorland around Oxenhope we have a network of conduits built during the Victorian era, which hold back much of the water, and slow it all down.

    2. Calder valley is MUCH steeper than the Worth Valley.

    Perhaps some conduits on the moors around Calderdale might help?

  10. #10 Rex tyler DTM 27 Dec 15

    Aristopratts grouse shooting fanatics peat burning clearly we suffer at the hands of the rich

  11. #11 Concernedwalker 28 Dec 15

    Recently the authorities have been restoring rivers in lake district to their meandering courses to slow river flow. When it rains heavily, slow upland river flows allow lower rived courses to cope. Bu dredging upland Pete and removing the absorbent capability of the land the same negative effects of strIghtening rivers will be seen. The Pete is essential to moderate water flow and avoid the deluges we are seeing more of.

  12. #12 chris conder 28 Dec 15

    When the moors were managed by the farmers and landowners (the shooters are just a small part of the old eco system) the moors did their job. Then in the 70s Maff interfered and funded farmers to cut grips in the peat to aid drainage so the fells could be more productive. Therefore they were, and more sheep were put on them as per the min of ag encouragement. The owners did as they were told instead of standing up to the half baked commands from on high. Now is the perfect opportunity for everyone to stand up and blame the aristocrats, whereas it was in fact the fault of the tickboxers in Maff and Defra. Look at the bright side, thanks to them stopping dredging we have lots of voles. (they are protected, unlike our villages and towns). We also have lots of rogue foxes killing lambs and chickens. We also have loads of suffering badgers with tb, and no hedgehogs because the badgers have eaten them. Well done min of ag.

  13. #13 George Bunnas Smith 28 Dec 15

    For years on end now, the good people of Yorkshire and inded, the whole of Northern England have been voting Tory/Labour, Tory/Labour ad infinatum! For God's sake get a grip and form another political party, one that will represent the electorate and the common people's interests. Tory and Labour are the same thing politically and they don't give a toss for what's going on outside of London / Westminster. Form a people's party with a left wing leaning and do not accept any refugees from the gravy-train established parties. The rich landowners and their ilk can do just what they want at any time and often ride rough-shod over the general public's will. Time to waken up and put an end to it all. People power first and last, time to oust the Tories who are spending all of our money abroad to please Saudi Arabia, by aiding Islamic countries at OUR expense.

  14. #14 D Kearns 28 Dec 15

    So who owns Walshaw moor? I don't wish to point blame, l just want to know!

  15. #15 Gypsy Jim 28 Dec 15

    Sorry kids, bashing the incredibly effective moorland management we have in Yorkshire/Cumbria/Northumberland for an unabashed anti-field-sports agenda is crass to say the least.

    Take shooting and sheep out of the upland world will leave you with nothing but brambles and weeds.

    The simple fact is the the weather cycle is extremely unpredictable. There were floods in the 40s, they wrecked villages in our area. Trying to put field sports into the frame is disingenuous to say the least.

    El Nino has moved,the Atlantic has gained half a degree of warmth, there's been a volcano under the ice-sheet in Antarctica......the speed of ice-growth has never been so quick, in spite of what we're ’told’.

    I'm all for informed discussion, but please let's have some sources.

  16. #16 BPH 29 Dec 15

    The link to research ’backing’ the story seems to relate to removal of peat. This is nothing to do with management of grouse moors.

    Heather burning is done for the benefit of both grouse (albeit with an agenda) and other species. The heather is burnt back not destroyed and the peat itself is not burned.

    All the moorland peat fires I have seen locally in the last few years were caused by criminally irresponsible individuals and had nothing whatsoever to do with moorland management.

    I have never seen a grouse moor that is intentionally drained, most are sodden to capacity and I fail to see how one could make them hold back any more water without destroying the very Eco structure that the ’evidence’ says is a benefit.

    As with everything nowadays in our ’blame culture’ everything has to be someone's fault and Avery, Monbiot and there ilk seem to have no qualms capitalising on peoples misery and despair after a natural disaster to promote their personal causes.

  17. #17 Bill Dunnakey 29 Dec 15

    There has to be a real campaign to stop this damage to our moorlands. We need embarrassing questions asked in Parliament

  18. #18 Poppy Tyson 29 Dec 15

    The North York Moors where I live is the same but because of the excellent natural drainage along becks into the Esk there is little flooding. Whitby around the River Esk got hit last year though. A wonderful quote I always remember when looking at the virtually lifeless heather moors, browny black all year.The quote was in answer to a statement ’we should ban grouse shooting’. It went as follows, ’if we stopped game shooting, we would not manage the moors, so so shrub would get a hold then small trees then eventually woodlands and forest’. He was deadly serious. All I can imagine without man's interference, the wonderful regretting of the moors.

  19. #19 Jon Davey 29 Dec 15

    This is a really interesting ’eye opener’ and applies also to areas of moorland used for grouse shooting around our home, Buxton.

  20. #20 NPaul 02 Jan 16

    Gypsy Jim has this spot on. Crass recycled article using people hardship for a political agenda.

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