Burning, Hunting and Weeping in the North York Moors

Burning, Hunting and Weeping in the North York Moors

Cycling through North York Moors National Park revealed a vast rugged landscape devoid of trees. It felt like rididng through the exposed heart of Nature, open, raw and wild with many scars of human impact crying out on the wind.

From historic deforestation to modern burning, are we nature stewards or destroyers?

The treeless landscape is not natural, slowly losing its forests from 4-5,000 years ago under the hands of early farmers. The signs of their activity are still evident with stone piles marking the collection of rocks removed for farming.

The forests they began felling initially took root after the last Ice Age ended, around 10,000 years ago. Scots pine, hazel, birch, alder and oak trees covered the park's area, as well as much of Britain. A rich array of wildlife flourished in these woodlands, such as wild boar and wolves, who are now extinct in the UK due to human activity.

Earliest Stone Age humans were hunter and gatherer's who arrived to Britain about 8,000 years ago, but the majority of treeloss began with the Iron Age and continued through the Middle Ages, by which point most of the forest was gone.

While a fifth of the park is forested today, a third is moorland covered partially in heather, a hardy evergreen shrub famous for its vibrant blooms in the late summer. It's easy to romanticize the landscape for its wild beauty, but adversity is churning at the surface.

This heather grows in blanket bogs supported by peat, and vast areas of the moorland are covered in them, improving water quality, reducing floods and capturing and storing carbon. When they are in a healthy state.

To our eyes, a feeling of disharmony permeates.

The burning question:

Sometimes things really are as they seem, and in the North York Moors, something is indeed amiss. Today there is an ongoing struggle between landowners, hunters, farmers, nature conservationists and climate activists.

Landowners covet their claim to promote red grouse hunting and for this purpose swathes of moorland are routinely burned to maintain a flourishing bird population for hunters. The red grouse is a curious bird who delighted us during our travels through the moorlands, often popping their sweet heads out of the heather and startling us with their sudden flight. These comical birds love heather, relying on it for 90% of their diet.

So why burn the moorland?

As heather grows it loses its appeal to the red grouse, who prefer young and fresh shoots. Burning the heather makes way for new growth while maintaining an artificial ecosystem better suited for hunting and animal grazing. Sheep also dot the landscape and contribute to the burn practice.

Burning the land damages underlying soils and peat while fueling the climate crisis. If left untouched, the moorlands would see a natural habitat take hold and diversify the ecosystem.

Nature knows best, so why does man continue to interfere?

Enter in, the economy, but more importantly, psychological gratification disguised as tradition.

Hunters claim shooting grouse boosts the local economy and creates jobs for people living in the quaint villages.

But let's be honest here.

Hunters aren't killing grouse out of the goodness of their hearts to support locals. They simply like the feelings of success obtained from hunting. There's a psychological motive behind what they call a "sport" and this narrative plays out all over the world. It's time we look at the deeper implications of hunting, the reasons why animals are murdered for sport, and why people are finding gratification through guns in a day when hunting isn't necessary for survival.

When killing innocent lives is used for pleasure and human socialization, what does that say about the psychological state of our society?

If people need to go out and kill defenseless animals to feel good about themselves, isn't there something inherently flawed in the human psyche? Would they feel the same way by letting loose a pack of puppies and shooting them?

In a time when people feel increasingly powerless, hunting provides an escape to gain a sense of control by exerting power over a helpless being. Mixed with feelings of achievement from hitting a target and ending a life, this deadly concoction fluffs the feathers of egos and provides an avenue for releasing stored up anger and stress. Rather than turn to hunting for self-glorification, why don't we turn to the state of civilization and ask why men, in particular, feel they need this killng sport for their sense of wellness?

There is no place for love and empathy on the hunting fields and this absence of compassion permeates into all layers of society, from personal relationships to global wars. We cannot advocate for peace with one hand and kill with the other.

People thrive in the pursuit of overcoming challenges, the masculine and feminine alike. The driving force to hunt speaks to a deeper need for exerting this achievement energy. There are many ways for people to demonstrate their prowess without harming others, but rather use it to help others in a way far more meaningful than fleeting, unethical economic gain.

The Yorkshire moors become killing grounds for four months of the year, slaughtering about 5,000 grouse each day.

Some pay £14,000 for the chance to join a shooting party and blast birds from the sky as if they weren't sentient beings of immense significance and vitality. People assigned as "beaters" intentionally stalk the birds and scare them into lines of fire.

If the intention is to boost the local economy, then we must look to ways that aren't sadistic and damaging the very landscape sustaining us. Burning lands to make more food to kill more birds is a twisted practice of cruelty and environmental degradation.

Partial bans of the burns have been implemented by the government, but burning continues.

In 2021 Unearthed led an investigation into burning incidents and their findings revealed:

  • "The investigation identified 251 peatland burning incidents – instances of at least one fire – between 1 October 2021 and 15 April 2022, the first burning season since the new legislation was introduced. Burns took place on moors owned by rich landowners ranging from the Queen and the emir of Dubai to software millionaires and retail tycoons.
  • One in five of these burns (51 out of 251) was on land protected by multiple conservation designations, and which Natural England’s latest available map identifies as deep peat. Unearthed understands that no licenses were issued for burning on deep peat during the past season, so all of these instances warrant investigation as potential breaches of the ban."

Read the full report by Unearthed here. Unearthed is an award-winning journalism project initiated by Greenpeace UK.

The reality is banning burns and hunting is only the beginning of our journey ahead. We must look to the underlying causes of these practices and begin to heal our bond with the natural world. We must look to the very structure of our system and ask, why are we burning lands to provide livelihoods?

"When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten, and the last stream poisoned, you will realize that you cannot eat money."

Words attributed to Alanis Obomsawin.

Weeping up the Hills

Cycling across the moorlands, we were touched by the birds who flew around us, some emitting quite strange sounds and others watching us from a safe distance. We could feel this tentative curiosity from them and also the tension of human impact as cars sped through the landscape.

At the time we were challenged by winds and steep hills, rising and falling seemingly endlessly through open lands.

During one hill rise I stopped and broke into tears, utterly exhausted and overwhelmed by frustration. I felt stressed about the cars passing us, prohibiting me from zigzagging up the hill, as irrational as that may sound. It's senseless to battle against what is, but as they often do, hills bring up unaddressed emotions.

Is this what hunters do out there with their guns? Are they shooting birds or actually targeting their stress when they aim into the heavens?

The day ended with a magnificent sunset and the promose of a full moon. Red grouse peeked up from the heather and frequently called out, either to attract others or let us know they were there. We had the honor of meeting one quite close-up on our last day in the park and we felt gifted with the chance to lay our eyes on one of Mother Nature's countless masterpieces.

We hold space for these precious beings, asking us all to slow down and reflect deeply about our purpose on Earth.

What eye has wept for the red grouse and fallen tree?

To support the protection of the moorlands and birds, visit Wild Justice.

Sources for this post:

Written by Karla Sanders @karlasandersart | Photos by Steven Tiller @steventiller