I had a day off the other week and went on something of a busman’s holiday over the Pennines and up into the Scottish Borders at Langholm. Unless you have been on another planet, or you are very young, you will be aware that Langholm was the site of the Joint Raptor Study (JRS), which looked at the interaction between hen harriers and red grouse. There were other things which came into the equation, but the aforementioned was the main thrust of the work.

Project abandoned

After years of work, scores of harriers reared, the grouse stock was more or less decimated, along with most of the wading birds, and Langholm was left to its own devices and “nature”. The harriers, which had now attained European protection because Langholm was now a Special Protection Area (SPA), no longer had the protection of a gamekeeping team. In an area with high fox numbers, it became the next in the line in the food chain for predators. It was not long before there were no successful nests and it was considered by some that the Scottish Government was failing in its legal obligations for the site. And so the current Langholm work began.

I will not bore you with the detail of what has happened to date. What I was interested in was the restoration work headkeeper Simon Lester has been doing on the areas badly damaged by heather beetle, as well as historical overgrazing by sheep. Simon has used a tried and tested technique perfected by Geoff Eyre, who has restored thousands of acres of grassland back to heather in Derbyshire, using what some may say are fairly severe practices. These include the use of glyphosate to kill the grasses, along with further chemical use if the need dictates it, as well as mulching the litter layer once it has been burnt off.

No-one can argue with his results. If keepers in the Pennines saw what Simon has achieved, they would be envious of all that good grouse habitat, as opposed to the rather inferior stuff they and their grouse have to deal with at home. Sadly, there is a lot of quite poor habitat in the North of England, much of which stems from the lead mining era when thousands of people eked out a living in the Dales.

There is a stark difference between the attitude of the country agencies — Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Countryside Council for Wales — regarding the management of the uplands, and yet we are all trying to manage the land on the same island. What Simon has achieved at Langholm using Geoff’s template, would never have been permitted in England, and yet he has restored hundreds and hundreds of acres of unpalatable grassland back to good heather cover.

Mixed in there is the whole suite of moorland plants that you might find on the better parts of Langholm moor. There is blaeberry — or bilberry as it is known in different parts of the country — cowberry, cranberry, bog asphodel and cross-leaved heath as well as a host of other species all coming back through the mulch of moss created when the work was done. Numerous sphagnum moss species are evident — and they are the real bone of contention when it comes to doing anything south of the border. They are there because Simon and the team have created a more superior habitat than was there before. It is home to many more species of birds simply because of the variation of habitat created. Some of those are the ones which are vanishing from other areas, such as wading birds.

Why, then, does Natural England take a completely different view regarding the management of these open spaces? I find it hard to comprehend the reason for refusing permission for such work in England when the technique has been tried and tested, and the outcome is there to see. The whole debate surrounding peatlands has more or less been hijacked by those who would leave everything alone — burning is anathema to them.

If my information is correct, the European Commission has decided that Natural England has a case to answer on one site for allowing blanket bog to be subject to traditional heather burning. If it finds against Natural England then the implications for grouse moor management, for it is more or less only grouse moors which burn in that manner, could be wide-reaching, as it could be for all the birds which breed upon it, including the ones which are already in decline.

Flocks of wild birds

I am fortunate still to be able to have a few bantams running around, but feeding them by chucking their food out brings quite an array of birds to feed with them. Stock pigeon, chaffinches and many other seed-eaters are commonplace, along with two large coveys of wild grey partridge and a score of wild pheasants. What is interesting is how tame everything becomes. If I open the door and some of them are there, they do not vanish into the nearest cover, but simply hop the wall and wait, necks stretched, until I leave and then they come back in to finish their feed. More than 20 greys make a lovely sight and I wonder what is going on at times when the two coveys bicker quite severely with one another, as they do frequently.