All trees are equal, but some
are more equal than others

Gareth Dockerty

Gareth Dockerty

Gareth is head of uplands at BASC. Having joined the organisation in 2016, Gareth’s role focuses on ensuring decision makers, stakeholders and the public understand the benefits of shooting for upland habitats and rural communities.

The Guardian recently ran an article on sand dune conservation, welcoming a £10m fund to undertake a landscape scale rejuvenation project along the coast of England.

Now, there may not appear to be any direct links between sand dunes and upland moorland but it does highlight a confused world of tree politics and rewilding. Sadly, the argument seems to be increasingly more about land ownership than conservation.

Dynamic systems

I love sand dunes and was fortunate to spend the first part of my career working for Natural Resources Wales managing sand dune nature reserves. They are dynamic systems that can alter in a few years, a season or even a big winter storm.

The species that have evolved to live here have adapted to specific conditions. Plants like the fen orchid and dune gentian need wet open areas and the early transition from bare sand to vegetation.

Since the modern birth of conservation after the second world war, dunes have been managed to create a mosaic of habitats. The natural focus has been on the rare species that are vulnerable and even risk extinction without continued management.

Recognising the need for balance

I have worked with the MOD on large scale rejuvenation projects and welcome the news of a £10m investment to create more bare shifting sand within dune habitats.

On the ground we are talking about bringing in diggers and chainsaws, removing trees and scrub, then chipping and burning the brash.

Sand dune specialists recognise the need for balance between open areas and fixed vegetation/woodland, using mowers and grazing animals as well.

The blanket approach of the past of advising people to keep to the footpath, with little management, has resulted in an abundance of scrub and trees. This in turn has ultimately reduced the biodiversity of these special sites.

Sand dune conservationists have been sensible. They know the species at risk and have rightly decided an attitude of ‘let it rewild’ is not the best option here.

Instead, it needs to be a balance of habitats and remains site specific. This approach has been applauded as the Guardian article demonstrates.

Swapping sand dunes for moorland

You could just as well swap sand dunes for moorland; that is, a managed habitat that needs a mosaic of vegetation stages. The rarest species tend to favour the earlier stages of succession before they are shaded out by vegetation growth, and trees after this.

This is not an anti-tree article, like sand dunes it is about balance.

We must continue to enable areas of moorland to rewild, particularly along waterways and steep banks to aid flood risk.

However, we should be realistic about what is the real jewel in the crown here. The bogs and sphagnum moss, the heather and cotton grass; these are all vital homes to insects. So too for the iconic curlew, golden plover, merlin, and hen harrier (the very reason these sites were designated in the first place).

Blanket approaches to complex habitats do not work

Sadly we have not learnt from our past mistakes and often the very vocal cry is to allow this managed landscape to “rewild” on mass.

It all sounds lovely, but ultimately the very species humans have made rare will suffer even more. There must be a balance.

The first question following the case for rewilding should be; do the proposed changes deliver more for the species and habitats than managed landscapes?

For sand dunes and moorland, careful management creates the rich diversity, this is not an all or nothing scenario. The management plan for a moorland or sand dune should be as complex as the site it seeks to protect. The best solutions for both habitats will not be found by abandoning it, or by cutting and burning it all either.

Why are moorlands and sand dunes treated differently?

Now, imagine if a solution to sand dune management was found in a recreational activity that saved us the £10m.

The sand dune conservationists would be ecstatic that a third party was carrying out their needs for free. Not only this, but also generating revenue for the local economy and attracting 30 million visits each year in England alone into the bargain.

In the uplands this is delivered by grouse shooting.

I am not suggesting that grouse shooting is perfect or that moorland management should not evolve. BASC broadly welcomed the new deep peat burning licenses in England and moorland management needs to continue to help tackle our climate emergency without question.

However, calling for moorland management to stop at the expense of the species the site was designated for due to grouse moor politics is not the answer.

The answer is well thought out management plans that are site-specific that involve the shooting community, conservation bodies and local communities.

Sadly, this type of management does not create the same sort of headlines.

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