Sunday book review – Peak District by Penny Anderson – Mark Avery

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This is a standard New Naturalist – a series of books that doesn’t feel very new, or at all ground-breaking these days. Penny Anderson gives a workpersonlike account of the wildlife and ecology of this area, mostly a National Park, and the habitats it includes.

There is mention of raptor persecution. Hen Harrier appears in the book’s index twice and we are told that they ‘…have always been rare in the Peak District … and have bred succcessfully only six times in the last 23 years … despite suitable suitable habitat being available.’ and that ‘Illegal persecution is a major issue for this species, not just here but more widely.’. There is discussion of persecution of other birds of prey, mention of the failed and failing bird of prey initiative and some words in the last chapter, which looks to the future, about having targets to put things right. The account lacks the sense of injustice that so many of us feel that here, in a National Park, protected birds of prey are shoved aside through the breaking of laws that have been on the statute book for, now, getting on for 70 years! It is suggested that solving this local issue might depend on action on grouse shooting by national government, but not what action is needed or desired.

Only in recent days has the news emerged of two Hen Harrier nests failing ‘mysteriously’ in the Peak District, on National Trust land, this year. In both cases the males ‘disappeared’ whilst away from the nest – one of the most favoured ways of causing nest failure these days. The National Trust knows that there will not be natural levels of Hen Harrier in the Peak District until grouse shooting ceases – it should do its bit, on its land, as a major local landowner and nationally in the corridors of apathetic power (I mean, of course, DEFRA and Natural England) to push for the national action that would help. But ceasing grouse shooting on its own land would be a good start if it said that it could see no reason to appear to support a land use that carries with it so much ecological damage and lawlessness.

Grouse shooting itself, identified as the major land use alongside farming in the northern part of the Peak District, the Dark Peak, is discussed. Where grouse moor management is discussed in most detail (pages 203-04) we learn that alongside burning there is ‘… legal predator control of Foxes, Carrion Crows, Stoats and Weasels, but the methods used are regulated‘ – nothing to cause any concern at all here then. We are told that ‘Ideally, diverse blanket bog should not be burned‘ but are not told how close to this ideal the grouse moors of the Dark Peak manage to get and why good practice cannot be enforced through the designations that apply to this land. Red Grouse diseases are briefly mentioned and the remedies that managers use to reduce the impacts on the Red Grouse, but the fact that such diseases are an economic problem of the grouse manager’s own making on grouse moors where Red Grouse densities are unnaturally high in order to enable recreational shooting is not explained. The conflicts between traditional grouse moor management and efficient carbon storage in blanket bogs are largely skirted. It may well be that the call by the Climate Change Committee for a cessation of all burning on blanket bogs, made in early 2021, was too late to include in this volume but there were plenty of previous such calls and evidence that might well have been given greater prominence. The EMBER study and its scientific papers were lacking as best I could see from the references and the index and I didn’t come across them in the text.

Grouse shooting is a major land use in the Peak District but the naive reader would get little flavour of the controversy surrounding this matter from the pages of this book. The controversy felt to me as though it were largely sidestepped.

Hen Harrier Days more or less started in the Peak District with the first major rally occurring in the Derwent Valley in pouring rain in 2014 – the #sodden570. Subsequent rallies were held in the Goyt Valley in 2015, Edale in 2016 and Sheffield in 2017. These perhaps were not worthy of any mention here but that made me wonder how the Kinder Mass Trespass, a provocation that was influential in opening up the uplands, bit by bit and against landowner opposition, featured here. It almost doesn’t. Of course the lump of Kinder Scout is mentioned but one of the most influential events in securing access to land for the people as a whole gets an early but brief mention (page 5) and is termed ‘the notorious Kinder Scout Mass Trespass in 1932‘ and that’s more or less an end to it. That seems strange to me in a book whose cover tells you that it deals with the region’s ‘storied history‘ by ‘weaving in human history to bring to life the evolution of the area.’.

I did though, particularly enjoy the last chapter on the future. I thought that the preceding 430+ pages, whilst packed with information, might have set up the thoughts for the future a bit better but here we are told about rewilding possibilities (though the word rewilding, interestingly, does not occur in the index) and the need for improved land management to reduce flood risks and to ensure carbon capture. The author is too kind, in my view, to the Glover report and the text for this book must have been completed before the utterly limp government response to Glover. But there should be a serious and passionate public debate about the future of our National Parks and their purpose. This book provides some of the information necessary for such a debate about this particular National Park, Britain’s first after all, but I wish it had sketched out more of a view for how the Peak District could be at the forefront of positive change in the future.

The cover? Is lovely, (and following the retirement of the late Robert Gillmor) is by Robert Greenhalf – I’d give it 7/10.

Peak District by Penny Anderson is published by Collins.





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