Fiddling while Rome burns [updated for skolstrejk]

The Arctic has melted and we have entered a new climate era.  Nothing can be the same again and there can be no going back to how it was before.

The full gravity of that statement is really difficult to face.  All across Earth – even in the damp and mizzly North of England – our forests and grasslands are literally on fire: our home is burning down.

saddleworth blaze

A weather statistician tells us that the statistical probability of the record-breaking warm weather in the North of England in February was close to zero: effectively, it was impossible.  But it just happened.  What he means is that it used to be impossible under the old climate system, driven by a frozen Arctic Ocean, which has produced all our weather records to date.  Now we are in a new climate era with a melted Arctic, and a lot of things become possible that are a lot less pleasant than a few days of shirtsleeves weather in the North of England during winter.

Nothing can be the same again and there can be no going back to how it was before.  Yet MPs are not treating the matter seriously.  Here is a picture of the House of Commons during the debate on climate change on 28 February.  Around 600 out of 650 MPs simply did not show up.

commons climate change debate

Skolstrejk for Klimatet

On Friday 15 March, the “school strike for climate” movement started in August 2018 by Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg will stage its biggest demonstration yet, in countries all across the world, with many thousands of school students.  On 14 March, Greta, aged 16, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

With the world’s climate scientists giving us just 10-12 years to stave off catastrophic civilisation-ending climate change, this is one tremendous ray of hope.  Tremendous and shaming: we grown ups are reduced to hoping that the children will find the courage to act that we have not.

The North of England will play its part.  The UK Student Climate Network ( is reporting that school strikes will take place in 23 towns and cities across the North.  Adults are welcome to go along to support, but not to try to take over.  The locations are: Bradford, Burnley, Calderdale, Carlisle, Chester, Durham, Guisborough, Hexham, Huddersfield, Hull, Kendal, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Macclesfield, Manchester, Newcastle, Preston, Scarborough, Sheffield, Stockport, Teesside, Warrington and York.   Links to the details are here.

On 15 February, the day of the first large schoolchildren’s strike protest in Parliament Square London, Andrea Leadsom MP, the Tory Government’s ‘Leader of the House of Commons’ tweeted: “It’s called truancy, not a strike”.

What has any of this got to do with Brexit? 

Northern Umbrella is supposed to be focusing on the campaign to stop Brexit.  But after the February heatwave, it just felt like it could not be more insanely trivial for Northern Umbrella to be put up another post about Brexit, or, God help us, the formation of “The Independent Group” of MPs in Westminster.

But actually, with now just 14 days left on the Brexit countdown clock, we will continue to argue that stopping Brexit is the most urgent thing we can do right now.  To give us any kind of chance of waging a successful battle against climate chaos, famine, war and extinction, defeating the Brexiteers like Andrea Leadsom with their warped view of who we are as a nation, and their banal, doomed vision of where we should go next, is a crucial first step.

So normal service will soon be resumed on Northern Umbrella in posts to follow this one, with a few thoughts on what political demands we should start making in the aftermath of the debacle that has been Brexit 2016-2019.  In the meantime, a post on the small matter that our house is on fire, and that men in tweeds with shotguns have got a lot to answer for.

What has any of this got to do with grouse shooting?

On 23 Feb, when the warm snap started, reports started coming in that gamekeepers on “driven grouse shooting” estates across the North were taking the opportunity to burn the moorland heather whilst it was dry.  They do this in order to force the heather to throw up more green shoots come springtime, a preferred food for the grouse.  The immediate issue for nearby village communities in the dales and valleys was the pall of smoke pollution spoiling the opportunity to enjoy a warm sunny day.

The gamekeepers always try to make sure that the fires they start do not burn out of control.  They don’t always succeed.  Having said that, the out of control fire on Saddleworth Moor shown in the picture above may more likely have been started by a young arsonist, which is itself also an old Pennine tradition.

Whoever lit this particular fire, look at the picture and remember that this is February.  Last June, in 2018, giant fires raged for days on Saddleworth Moor, Winter Hill near Bolton, and elsewhere.  Unless we act now to change the way we manage our moorlands, fires like this are only going to get worse.  Because the droughts and heatwaves coming our way are going to be like nothing we have ever seen before.

One of the things that is going to have to go is the driven grouse shooting industry.

The grouse moor racket – a microcosm of all that is wrong with the North

Moorland management for grouse shooting is a scandal and an environmental disaster.  The overstocking of grouse means that gamekeepers poison, trap and shoot the grouse’s natural predators and herbivore competitors for the tasty young heather shoots, such as hares, often treating wildlife protection laws with disdain.  The stink pits which are found by people like Hunt Investigation Team (don’t look at this one on Bingley Moor if you have a weak stomach) are a disgrace.

The burning destroys the natural habitat and ecosystem, creating soil and peat erosion, and what is in effect a degraded upland wildlife desert.  It is the ultimate bad neighbour activity in that it, alongside all our other failed moorland management practices, is also responsible for exacerbating the flash flooding experienced in the Pennine valleys during exceptional heavy rainfall (which will become more and more commonplace as global climate system breakdown continues).

Driven grouse shooting is an unusual ‘sport’.  Shooting at birds to supplement the pot is an old country tradition across Europe and the world.  But dressing up in tweeds to stand still and blast away at short range at hundreds of grouse rounded up and driven by beaters into the line of fire is a peculiarly British activity.  It’s strongly associated with the old aristocracy and the old British Empire: the costumes and the rituals are all the kind of thing so many love to watch on Downton Abbey on our tellies for a cosy Sunday evening.

But who knew that it’s almost as big today as it has ever been?  Who the hell goes grouse shooting for fun – do you know anybody who does it?  It’s an expensive hobby.  The answer is exactly the same as it was in the 1880s or 1930s, other periods of deep austerity for the majority of the North’s people: it’s the new rich, who want to celebrate and reinforce their arrival in the elite by aping the habits of the old aristocrats.  Today, these aren’t the mill owners or the industrialists of yesteryear, it is mostly people who are making crazy money from the ‘financialisation’ of the British economy – in short, to use the Cockney rhyming slang, a bunch of City bankers.  A country treat for a bunch of hyper-competitive men who need a break in the fresh air from cutting deals, doing coke and spending time in pole-dancing clubs.

For all these gifts they give to society, the grouse estates are entitled to and take public subsidy.  Because the grouse estates were there when the National Parks were set up in the 1940s and 1950s, the National Park authorities think it is their duty to preserve these ‘traditional’ uses creating these ‘traditional landscapes’ exactly as they were on the day they were set up.  And because of their symbiotic relationship with the finance sector and the City of London, many of the estates are up to their neck in all sorts of fiddling: tax offsetting and tax avoidance schemes.

In the industrial Pennines, it’s not even as if the old aristocrats are the big landowners.  The biggest landowners are actually the privatised water companies.  Many of the moors were bought by local authorities like Sheffield Corporation or Bradford Corporation as catchment areas for their reservoirs and city water supply.  The municipal water boards were nationalised by the 1973 Water Act and brought under the control of regional water authorities: in the North, Yorkshire Water, North West Water and Northumbrian Water.  In 1989 they were privatised in one of Margaret Thatcher’s great share giveaway gold rushes.  Most of the small shareholders sold out within months or short years, and now the English water companies rank as testaments to the extraordinary decades-long scam of privatisation, being world-class cash extraction businesses with a sideline in water engineering.  But that is another story.  In the battle to fix the North’s moorlands, the water companies’ landholdings will be vital.

The grouse moor campaigns – a microcosm of all that is great about the North, and can be greater

Yet the story of the North’s moorlands is not a one way street of exploitation and degradation.  Out of the ashes of today’s moorlands, a better way of doing things can rise like the phoenix.

There is of course a whole Northern tradition of using the moors as a place of recreation and spiritual recharge.  The story of the battle for access to the moorlands for harmless walking, rambling and birdwatching is well known: for example, the celebrated Kinder Scout mass trespass of 1932, and its lesser known predecessor, the Winter Hill mass trespass of 1896.  The whole Northern social infrastructure of Clarion Clubs and ramblers’ associations is a great and still relevant living tradition.

Cumbrians William and Dorothy Wordsworth arguably created a whole new way of looking at wilder landscapes which is now common currency across the world.  The National Trust, which for all its flaws remains an internally democratic organisation, was co-founded in the Lake District.  In the North, the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts, the Woodland Trust, the Conservation Volunteers and many others are strong and vibrant.

Spanning both these traditions now are the activist groups taking on the driven grouse shooting industry and its crimes and abuses, and working positively for upland management across the North that is better for wildlife and better for people.  There is no space or time to list them all here, but a flavour is given by Yorkshire’s Stop the Shoot , and the Peak District’s Moorland Monitors.  Meanwhile, Calderdale’s Slow the Flow, Ban the Burn and Treesponsibility all give cause for hope.

There is a huge win-win just waiting to be had in the North’s moorlands: better for wildlife and better for people.  Every gamekeeper made redundant by the banning of driven grouse shooting and of burning the moors could be immediately re-employed as a moorland wildlife guardian and guide.  ‘Rewilding‘ the grouse estates and sheep ranches of the North’s moors, and restoring the natural ecosystems could see them teeming with wildlife.  The millions of Northern residents and potential tourists who are now actively kept out of the grouse estates, would instead be welcomed in for walking safaris, generating jobs and trade for the local businesses of the area far greater than what grouse shooting does.

The North of England is well behind Scotland in thinking about and acting on issues like land reform, but it can learn much from Scotland.  The water companies, returned to some form of public ownership, have the potential to become an immense force for good in the North.

All this might be hopeless in the face of rapid global warming, but it feels like something worth fighting for.  And fought for it will have to be – peacefully and by persuasion.  Go into a real country pub in the North’s grouse shooting areas, and the whole rotten, ridiculous, traditional system will be defended to the hilt.  The police’s first instinct is to  defend the grouse estates against ‘trespass’, even against blatantly harmless volunteers not even on their land, rather than to enforce wildlife protection laws.  But campaigning can change that.

Change is going to have to come, and it can come whilst bringing people along with us.  Or we can carry on having a brew whilst Rome burns.

this is fine dog

UPDATES at 17/3/2019

15 March: School strike in the North.  This was a success: 1,000 gathered at Leeds Town Hall, as well as in Sheffield and elsewhere.  Well done school students!

16 March: Floods in Calderdale.  Heavy rain leading to flooding in Todmorden and elsewhere down the Calder Valley.  Disastrous moorland management is responsible for the flood peak being earlier and higher than it would otherwise be, as water pours off the denuded tops.  Part of the blame lies with burning of moorland for driven grouse shooting.  Here is the flooded Calder Valley railway line near Todmorden, causing serious and costly disruption to rail travel between Manchester and Bradford.

16-17 March.  Farage ‘march to leave’ fiasco in Sunderland, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough.  Dressed for a grouse shoot.  City boys in tweeds as part of the problem, not part of the solution.  The whole farce skewered by Led by Donkeys.

Friends of the Earth are on the case investigating this winter’s round of heather burning, in apparent clear contravention of voluntary agreements to stop the practice, signed in 2018.  This FoE piece gives you all the information you need.  This video featuring Guy Shrubsole and Alasdair Cameron is fantastic: showing you the beauty of the moors and how careful research and investigation can help expose what an untrustworthy bunch the grouse estate owners are.  Here they are: just look at the state of them.  Seven pillocks in tweeds and one woman in PR.

23 March and 10-13 May: Take Back the Land! 

Are the residents of Calderdale and valley bottoms across the North just going to sit there as the landowners on the moors above them trash the land, break agreements, and literally dump on them with repeated damaging floods?  No!  The Land Justice Network is on the case and planning a ‘land justice camp and occupation’ in Calderdale in May 2019.  The National Gathering to plan the event is in Manchester on Saturday 23 March.  Could this be an epic ‘rising of the lions after slumber’ to rival the great Kinder Scout mass trespass of 1932?  Watch this space.


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1 Response to Fiddling while Rome burns [updated for skolstrejk]

  1. nathanbronx says:

    Thanks for this account of the grouse moor racket – the situation you describe is appalling. I’m taking my family to York this Easter so I’ll follow up the story. Your blog is great by the way, I’m going to follow it.


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