Residents of a West Yorkshire market town believe a new University study ‘vindicates’ their belief that burning of wet, peaty blanket bog by grouse shooters is facilitating flooding of local properties.
Situated in the Upper Calder Valley, Hebden Bridge has been hit hard by flooding in recent years. Businesses have been destroyed and jobs lost.
Local businessman Richard Bannister though has been doing well. In 2012 he obtained £2.5 million of public money towards his upland Walshaw Moor Estate (WME) where to facilitate grouse shooting for pleasure there is regular burning of blanket bog. This is despite Natural England (NE) having earlier declared ‘blanket bog can reduce flood risk downstream.’
Funds were awarded after NE’s planned prosecution of WME on 43 grounds of unconsented damage were dropped, a decision that has caused a dissatisfied RSPB to submit a formal complaint to the European Commission. The Moorland Association (MA), mainly grouse shooting owners, had lobbied hard to block restrictions on moorland burning that generates young heather growth for shelter and food for grouse.
Campaigning to prevent further burning, Hebden Bridge residents formed Ban the Burn and have monitored activities on WME since. The group has also surveyed the water catchment area locally and found many field drains, pathways and tracks need improving if water flow is to be reduced. With only 5% of the area wooded a map showing how tree planting could quadruple the figure has been constructed. New woodlands would help mitigate flooding and by capturing carbon dioxide help counteract pollution.
The Effects of Moorland Burning on the Ecohydrology of River basins project, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, is the first authoritative study on the subject. Leeds University geography department examined ten Pennine moors and found that burning lowers the water table. This causes peat to dry out, thereby releasing carbon and stored pollutants such as heavy metals. Peatlands are the UK’s largest natural carbon land store.
Although the study qualified its conclusion by stating some ‘catchments may be naturally flashier’ it overall found ‘river flow in catchments where burning has taken place appears to be slightly more prone to higher flow peaks during heavy rain.’
A Ban the Burn spokesperson said about the report, “It vindicates our views. There is major carbon loss and burning destroys the blanket bog that slows down water during heavy rain when even holding back a small amount might make the difference between a property being flooded or not. Burning blanket bog should be banned not subsidised.”
Leeds University findings are similar to those by Making Space for Water researchers who last summer presented evidence gathered over five years of monitoring peat stabilisation works. This concluded ‘Revegetation and gully blocking resulted in significantly slower stream run, and for larger storms peak flow was reduced by approximately 30%.’