IT is vitally important the differences between the moorland guardians of the country’s heather-rich landscapes and campaigning conservationists are resolved for the good of the rural economy, new Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Environment, Rory Stewart said.
While the Moorland Association maintains there is a better working relationship than ever before in the uplands, tensions remain with the RSPB, which is adament that red grouse shooting and associated moorland management practices are damaging the environment and seeing birds illegally persecuted.
Mr Stewart, newly installed at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs following the Tories’ triumph in the General Election in May, spoke of his enthusiasm for his new role and the part he has to play in resolving uplands issues on the first day of the CLA Game Fair this morning.
The MP for Penrith and the Borders, who was described by New Yorker magazine as “living one of the most extraordinary lives on record” after he walked solo across north-central Afghanistan in 2002 before serving the Government as a diplomat in Iraq, was “in conversation” with CLA president Henry Robinson in the Game Fair Theatre.
The theatre was packed for the talk.
Speaking about his appointment to Defra, Mr Stewart said: “Before this I was chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee... and six months ago was traveling to Iraq and Afghanistan and reading completely unreadable papers on what we should be doing about Vladimir Putin, or pontificating on whether we should be doing airstrikes on ISIS and Syria, and now I am responsible for the Environment Agency, the Forestry Commission, Natural England and the National Parks, and it’s a huge change.
“For me the most exciting part of this is that I represent the largest, most sparsely populated constituency in England. Penrith and the Borders has about 60,000 people and one and a half million sheep. I have got some of the most striking landscape and so for me it is a great pleasure. I literally could not have imagined a better job.”
The CLA’s Mr Robinson outlined how there was unprecedented pressure on the countryside for use for food, housing, infrastructure like HS2 and renewable energy, and that land had to be valued much more, and in a way that was more commercially beneficial.
Mr Stewart admitted that the government could not deliver all things for all people.
“We are quite a small island, we don’t have that much land and we are doing things which are very challenging. We have some of the greatest food production in the world, some of the greatest sporting estates in the world, we have some of the beautiful landscape in the world and wonderful species, and we are defined by the fact that we care deeply about our landscape.
“We need all the brains in this room to try to think about how that looks now and in the future because otherwise we are going to end up in the situations all of us have seen in other countries where you can see terrible examples around the world of what happens when you get land management wrong - when you get countries where they get water management wrong and they run out of water and you get countries where their planning systems have gone wrong and they have destroyed their beautiful landscapes by building bungalows all around the coastline, destroying the very tourism you are trying to support.
“These kind of things are the challenges for us not just now but which we need to be relentlessly focused on.
“Clearly the only way we are going to have a grown up, and to use this horrible jargony word, sustainable - by which I mean long-term policy, in our relationship with the environment is to bring farmers with us.
“It is completely mad to try and pursue an environmental policy that doesn’t win the trust of farmers and has them onside so that they understand what’s going on, and a policy that farmer themselves believe in.”
In certain cases productive farming is about achieving a monoculture and environmental management is about trying to achieve as much diversity as possible, he said, saying that this was bound throw up “dilemmas”.
He said he was keen to find a way of making grouse moor shooting in the uplands agreeable to both moorland owners and conservationists who are concerned about illegal persecution of protected birds and the environmental impact of associated moorland management.
“We have been negotiating week in, week out, sitting around the table with the RSPB and the Moorland Association trying to get this right.
“We need to try and bring with us if we can the one million members of the RSPB but we also need to understand, grouse shooting is something which contributes a very significant and serious about to the rural economy and rural areas.
“This is land which isn’t in a conventional sense productive and it’s important for our society and culture and getting that relationship right between the RSPB and moorland owners is going to be really important for the future, because these are the landowners who can provide so much in terms of habitat benefits.
“They have already proven across Britain that gamekeepers are really good at working with the environment. They have done fantastic things both in supporting species and driving out pests and if we can get that trust right, it’s going to be essential, but I promise you it is something I am doing a lot of and it’s not something I have easy answers.”