In a photo, the building at Swallow Moss in Staffordshire looks like a small stone shed, unremarkable, something you might see anywhere around the Peak District. But the story behind it is a sad one, for the environment and the local economy. For the 'shed' was actually a bird watching hide, used by visitors from across the Midlands and southern England, to see a displaying group of the rare black grouse.
But now the moorland edge is silent. The black grouse are gone, as are many of the birdwatchers, who could be spending their money in local B&Bs, pubs and shops, as well as occupying this hide.
Instead, those who pursue the nation’s second most popular outdoor pursuit very often go elsewhere. For the Peak District is missing not just black grouse, but the once native populations of many of its most charismatic species, such as the majestic, much-persecuted, hen harrier.
As Dr Alexander Lees of Manchester Met University pointed out at an event entitled Hope for Nature run by High Peak Green Party last month: “I can walk through central Manchester and see more birds than I do walking atop Kinder Scout [a moorland plateau in the Peak District].”
By contrast, on the island of Mull, in the Inner Hebrides in Scotland, the white-tailed eagles, reintroduced into the area in the mid-1980s, bring in £5 million a year, one tenth of the total tourism income, generating 110 jobs and a further £2.4 million in spin-off income.
And with links with Poland – where there is a significant native population of white-tailed eagles – growing since it has joined the EU, British ecotourists are streaming to see its charismatic wildlife, species that in some cases were driven to extinction by persecution or habitat loss centuries ago in the UK, but that could – in steps towards rewilding that would also have huge benefits in storing carbon and preventing flooding – return to parts of the UK like the Peak District, as well as many parts of Yorkshire.
The High Peak event was, however, unlike some similarly titled events, genuinely a day of hope, for there was both a wonderful vision, an idea of how to get to it, and a feeling that opinions and, in some cases actions, not just from nature organisations but also farmers, are starting to shift in the direction of wildlife away from centuries of destruction.
The hope is that environment and economic opportunities here line up, in a clear way that is hard to ignore.
Ecotourism is a huge and growing sector. The Peak District, including its National Park, is now a horrendously lifeless near-desert of lawn-like rye-grass pastures and upland heather, all too often burnt, manicured for the benefit of the red grouse and made lifeless by the wholesale slaughter of corvids and raptors, foxes and stoats and weasels, and mountain hares.
The persecution of its raptors horrifies foreigners who hear about it; many knowledgeable visitors are left aghast at what they find when they visit what they thought would be a refuge for nature.
Were the mountain hares allowed to thrive as they did before persecution for the benefit of driven grouse moors was ramped-up, we could see golden eagles soaring above the hills, and drawing in the visitors. Goshawks, almost driven out, could be a further attraction, with peregrines joining those now regularly nesting in Sheffield city centre, in new homes out on the moors.
Given more regeneration of woodland in the Peak District, we could see the wonderfully coated pine marten restored, to the potential benefit of red squirrels in their uneven contest with the greys.
Maybe even one day we could see lynx with radio-collars roaming the Peak District, mirroring the situation in Spain, with delighted visitors provided a means of getting a chance to glimpse these wonderful animals.
Around Sheffield, we could see beavers building their dams in stands of willow, creating small ponds and wetlands for the benefit of many other creatures, and the pleasure of locals and tourists alike.
Already, we are seeing in a wonderful example of cooperation of nature and human, ring ouzels nesting happily at Burbage, with climbers, except for a few wayward individuals, obeying signs put out by bird lovers warning them away from disturbing their nests.
Small steps are being made to promote ecotourism in Sheffield, and encouraging the conditions that will help it thrive. In the spring, there’s plans for a new series of wildlife walks focused on individual species, from the not particularly rare woodpeckers to the rare but now carefully supported and idiosyncratically voiced willow tit.
The plight of the willow tit, the second fastest declining bird species in Britain, could easily have been ignored in austere times, but perhaps we are seeing the start of a success story? Needing rotting stumps to nest in, seemingly disparate groups have been brought together to help them.
National Grid is adapting its maintenance under power lines to ensure that a sustainable oasis is formed, to the benefit of not only the birds, but also the harvest mouse and great crested newt – a treble win for struggling species, and a significant win for Sheffield; more than £100,000 in funding has been attracted in outside grants against the £6,000 put in by the City Council.
I’m very cautious about putting a monetary value on nature, about focusing on its economic benefits. All too often, that can be used in arguments for saying it can be disposed of, despite the fact that in this gravely nature-depleted nation, we can ill afford to lose any more biodiversity and bioabundance.
But when the economic benefits are clear and real, as they are with ecotourism, we should seek to take advantage of these benefits and hope they can be a driving force in encouraging steps that we have to take anyway. To use some of our land for carbon capture and storage, as the Committee on Climate Change has identified as essential to meeting our legally-binding carbon targets, and to see rewilding on a scale sufficient to start to restore the bioabundance of this land that is of limited value for producing human food, would provide benefits for both nature and people.
A question we need to ask right across the UK is: “What is land for?” In the Peak District, on a large scale, the answer should be nature – and the humans who want to see it.