Monday, 27 August 2012

Blanket bogs, flooding and climate change

Last week, I went up on to the moors above Hebden Bridge with activists from Treesponsibility, a local environmental group, to learn about blanket bogs and the important role they play in the ecosystem. 

The Calder Valley, where I grew up, has pretty towns and stunning countryside, and an unfortunate tendency to suffer flash floods. On 22 June this year a months worth of rain fell in a few hours and resulted in serious flooding in Todmorden, Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd (see my blog post: Flood relief in the Calder Valley). Further, albeit less serious floods also occurred in mid July (see media article: Flash flooding hits the Calder Valley again)

There are many factors at play in a flood including drain capacity, river floodgates, rainfall and as I learnt this week, blanket bogs. Healthy blanket bog has lots of Sphagnum moss, which absorbs huge amounts of water and releases it slowly. This is particularly useful in the event of heavy rainfall as it can lessen the impact of flooding. 

 This is what healthy Sphagnum moss looks like

Blanket bog is also a rare habitat protected by national and European legislation including the EU Habitats Directive and the EU Water Framework Directive. Due to the fact that the Sphagnum moss in blanket bogs is what stimulates peat production, blanket bogs are often also classed as sites of special scientific interest (SSIs). 

Treesponsibility have discovered that the blanket bog on Walshaw moor above Hebden Bridge is currently very degraded, which is of great concern for a flood prone town.  Walshaw Moor is privately owned by Walshaw Moor Estate limited whose main activity is the organisation of grouse shooting.  

Me being shown some rather unhealthy looking sphagnum moss
on the blanket bog at Walshaw moor

Sphagnum moss needs very wet conditions to thrive and the many drainage ditches currently found on Walshaw moor have dried out the ground and may have contributed to the degradation of the blanket bog. Digging ditches and pathways (we saw pathways that appear to go beyond their original boundaries as per ordinance survey maps of the area) also exposes peat, which releases carbon dioxide, the main gas responsible for global warming, in to the environment. 

In addition, heather burning has been taking place on Walshaw moor. As grouse breed and feed in young heather, the land owners are allowed under the Heather and Grass Burning code to undertake some heather burning to allow new heather to grow. 

However, the amount of heather burning that had taken place and how close it was to the blanket bog, was of great concern to the Treesponsibility activists, who feared that it might be a key factor in the degradation of the blanket bog. 

Walshaw Moor Estate is legally bound to meet the requirements of an Environmental Stewardship Agreement (ESA) laid down by Natural England.  Natural England had begun legal action against the Estate for breaches of a previous ESA. This legal action was halted with the conclusion of the new ESA. 

Treesponsibility organised a "ban the burn" march on Sunday 12 August to draw attention to the problem of heather burning and the degradation of the blanket bogs on Walshaw moor.

Activists and concerned local residents join the "Ban the burn" march on 12 August 2012

One of the Treesponsibility activists has asked Natural England for some clarifications in relation to a number of specific aspects of the new ESA to understand what Walshaw Moor Estate is now required to do, what they cannot do, and whether they are respecting the agreement. 
As a Calder Valley person and a member of the European Parliament's Environment Committee, I am following this issue closely and looking forward to seeing Natural England's response to the Treesponsibility information request. 

Adding my support to the ban the burn campaign

Media coverage:

My visit to Walshaw Moor

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

My thoughts on the Olympics

These last few days I have had the privilege to attend a couple of events at London 2012* and to be in the city at this exciting time. I wanted to give my reflections on the Olympics.

Firstly, I was like many people very happy that London won the bid to host the 2012 Olympics back in 2008. It shines a positive spotlight on the country and not just on London as events were taking place outside London too.  The mood in the country has shown how so many people have got behind the games starting with the torch going all over the country (along with many of my neighbours, I got up early in the morning to watch it go past the end of my street in Leeds), and culminating with the start of the sporting events. Major events like these show how we can come together as a nation.

The first event I attended was the women’s football on Tuesday 31 July where I was able to watch the British team beat Brazil (that never happens with the men's team....) at Wembley Stadium to go top of their group and qualify for the quarter-finals.  The atmosphere at Wembley was fantastic and with just over 70,000 people in attendance, it was a record crowd for women's football too.

On Thursday 2nd August, I went to see the first day of the Dressage Grand Prix at Greenwich Park. The setting was stunning and although I had cheap tickets, I got a good view of both the dressage performance area and the London vista from my seat. Not being an expert in dressage, it was not always easy to distinguish good from excellent performances, but it was still impressive watching the amazing partnerships between horses and riders. This being the UK, I also managed to get both sun-burnt (forgot my sunscreen...) and soaked to the skin by torrential rain while at the event!

While there has been some problems with the games, the issue of empty seats being much talked about, there is no doubt that it is so far looking to be a successful Olympics – not just in terms of number of medals won by the UK either!  The fears about travel disruption have been largely unfounded, various friends in London told me about contingency plans their employers had made including working early and late shifts and working from home, but most found them unnecessary. When I travelled to the dressage, I had to take
the underground at 8am, which (when I lived in London) usually involved waiting 3 or 4 trains before cramming myself on to the train to stand sardine-like for the whole journey, but to my great surprise (and delight) I waltzed on the first tube train that arrived and got a seat about 4 stops later! It seems that many Londoners took heed of official advice and either went on holiday or worked from home.

I also managed to speak to several of the many thousands of Olympics volunteers. They came from many different walks of life, but all said that while volunteering at the games was hard work, it had been an amazing experience and the atmosphere among fellow volunteers, paid staff and the armed forces doing security work was fantastic.

What is also good to see is that while it is the London Olympics, events have been staged across the UK, meaning the whole country can get behind the celebrations.  Well done to all involved – it is truly something to be proud of.

* I would like to make it clear that I bought all my Olympics tickets myself through the normal channels and did not get any special privileges (I even bought the dressage tickets long before became an MEP)