A COUNTY Durham grouse moor is the first to sign up to a pioneering initiative with Natural England.

The Wemmergill estate is one of Britain’s most historic grouse moors with records going back to 1872. It employs seven keepers and is the first to sign up to the new 25-year agreement, which is designed to transform the health of the nation’s peatland.

Restoring and enhancing the UK’s deep peat is seen as fundamental to the future of the UK’s environment as it plays a major role in carbon storage, flood alleviation and the provision of clean drinking water.

A total of 24,000 hectares of blanket bog have already undergone restoration, including re-vegetation on grouse moors in England – an area larger than the combined cities of Manchester and Liverpool.

To help that restoration, grouse shooting estates are now developing new long-term management agreements in collaboration with Natural England to ensure the moorland vegetation is managed sympathetically.

This new approach is considered to be a real step in the right direction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) UK Peatland Programme, who have welcomed a move away from rotational burning.

The 25-year plans address key issues, including: clean drinking water supply; carbon storage; flood alleviation; stabilising and increasing upland bird species; enhancing vegetation and habitat; creating a viable red grouse population for driven grouse shooting; and sustainable farming.

Dr Therese Coffey MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary at Defra, visited the Wemmergill estate and said: “The UK’s unique upland ecology must be safeguarded for future generations to enjoy.

“This approach is helping to achieve this by highlighting the various benefits that can be reaped from a variety of grouse moor management practices. I thank the Estate, the Moorland Association and Natural England for their achievement and commend this approach to others.”

Amanda Anderson, director of the Moorland Association, said: “These partnership agreements are exciting and encouraging because they highlight the significant common ground between the objectives of conservationists and grouse moor managers.

“The plans map out extensive and innovative work to provide tangible environmental and conservation benefits alongside viable grouse shooting operations.

“Where blanket bog improvement is the aim, simple trials to compare techniques including restoration burning, cutting, bog plant inoculation and grazing along with simple monitoring are in place to ensure successful management decisions.”

Rob Stoneman, co-chair of IUCN UK Peatland Programme, paid tribute to the Wemmergill team for their commitment to restoring the habitats on the estate.

He said: “The partnership between the Wemmergill staff, Natural England and the North Pennines AONB is a beacon of good practice for all upland Britain, and is inspiring to see.”

Richard Johnson, director of Wemmergill Moor Ltd, said: “This ground-breaking management plan has allowed us to build a fantastic working relationship of mutual respect, trust and understanding with Natural England for a multiple of socio-economic and environmental objectives.

“Mr and Mrs Michael Cannon as Wemmergill’s owners are very keen to be at the forefront of forward thinking land management that protects all that is special in our corner of rural County Durham, as well as handing it to the next generation in better shape to face future challenges.”

At the heart of measures being taken on the estate is extensive work to ensure a fully functioning blanket bog system.

To date, the estate, with help from the North Pennines AONB Partnership, has successfully blocked 592km of grips on blanket bog resulting in the re-wetting of thousands of hectares of peat and the restoration of active blanket bog.

In the new management agreement, a further 191km of grips will be allowed to fill naturally.

In addition, 32 hectares of bare peat restoration will be undertaken to stop erosion and protect the carbon stored beneath.

The approach at Wemmergill is an example of the collaborative strategy that Moorland Association members across the North of England are committed to implementing.