While many of Britain’s nature reserves were closed through lockdown, conservation work continued on private land across Britain. Despite that, the men and women working hard to make our much-loved moorland thrive are often overlooked.
One of those was Geoff Eyre, whose work in the Peak District has restored 40 square miles of moorland which supports rare birds such as curlew and ring ouzels.
Geoff is one of nine previously untold stories celebrated in a new publication from leading conservation charity, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT).
When you speak with him, Geoff likens his moorland restoration work to gardening on a grand scale, but that does it a great disservice. Over the past 30 years he has pioneered methods of collecting the seeds of upland native plants and sowing them, single-handedly restoring an area the size of 14,500 football pitches.
It is a story of invention as much as conservation. By adapting existing agricultural machinery, Geoff developed a special harvester and, once cut, the heather is processed by a series of custom-built machines which separate the seeds. Geoff has even used science to increase germination from five to 80 per cent. After discovering that fire stimulates the process, Geoff set about extracting a liquid chemical from heather smoke using water-cooled radiators. This has made a real difference to his work, for which he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Liverpool University.
Wildlife is thriving as a result. On one 1500-acre piece of restored moorland, bird counts have gone from six to 1000 in just 11 years. It boasts the area’s highest density of red-listed lapwing, plus 69 pairs of curlew and several birds of prey.
In his foreword to the Moorland Conservationists collection, former environment minister Richard Benyon said: “The management of Britain’s uplands is remarkable … it is a story of generations of skill and knowledge, combined with modern technologies and science. The actions of moorland managers are the last bulwark in what is a crisis of species decline across Britain.”
Every conservationist in this collection tells their own success story. Roy Burrows has made an impressive conservation effort on the Summerstone Estate, Tom Orde-Powlett is helping waders to thrive in Wensleydale, Neville Gill has made his corner of Northumberland a haven for black grouse, James Mawle is improving both land and river on his North Yorkshire family farm and the work done by George Winn-Darley has attracted 16 birds of prey species to the North York Moors.
In Scotland, private land management is helping some of our most threatened wildlife. The efforts of gamekeeper Alex Jenkins have made Edinglassie home to 38 breeding pairs of curlew, while Andrew Farquharson and his gamekeeper Alex Shand are working to recover numbers of golden eagles and capercaillie. It isn’t just birdlife that is bucking the trend. In Perthshire, reduced grazing has seen native plants reappear for the first time in decades, along with the insects they support, all thanks to Sir John Kemp-Welch and his former headkeeper, Ronnie Kippen.
This series of case studies was written by Joe Dimbleby, who is keen to break the stereotypical view of our uplands. “The stories of these conservationists show that, with the right approach, it is possible to combine thriving local communities with a productive countryside and the preservation of our precious heather moorland and its biodiversity” he said.
To read about these conservation success stories, a limited number of copies are available online for £3.99 at https://www.gwctshop.org.uk/collections/whats-new/products/moorland-conservationists-the-untold-story
Moorland conservationists featured in the document:
Alex Jenkins – Mountain hares thriving in Upper Donside
Tom Orde-Powlett - determined not to see Wensleydale’s waders disappear
Geoff Eyre - helping restore the Peak District
Andrew Farquharson – delivering conservation on Deeside
James Mawle - reversing the fortunes of the river on his Yorkshire Dales farm
Neville Gill – helping rare black grouse in their Northumberland stronghold
Sir John Kemp-Welch and Ronnie Kippen - working wonders for waders in Perthshire
George Winn-Darley - making wildlife accessible on the North York Moors
Roy Burrows - leading a big-scale restoration project in Nidderdale