Richard Benyon, the Wildlife minister, was under pressure last night to explain what influence he had on a decision to drop landmark legal proceedings against a grouse-shooting estate that was burning peatland in a conservation area.
Natural England, the Government's environment watchdog, withdrew from an attempt to ban Walshaw Moor Estate from burning heather and other unauthorised activities in March. The case would have had major implications for moor owners, who burn heather to encourage new shoots, which are eaten by grouse increasing their numbers.
Conservationists expressed disappointment and surprise that the legal proceedings had been dropped. Walshaw Moor in the Pennines is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and the 16,000-acre estate is responsible for protecting its peatland, which includes the habitat of rare wading birds.
Natural England and Walshaw Estate Ltd issued a joint statement in March saying that they had resolved their dispute and that the estate had entered a "new management regime" in an agreement that was binding for 25 years. At the time the RSPB called the statement "opaque" and called for clarification on the details.
Mr Benyon, the Conservative minister responsible for wildlife protection at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), who last week backed plans to shoot out the nests of buzzards to protect pheasants, is a keen supporter of game shooting.
Mark Avery, a former conservation director at the RSPB said: "It makes me wonder what influence did Defra or its grouse-shooting minister have on the dropping of Natural England's legal case." Mr Avery has submitted Freedom of Information requests to both Natural England and Defra. Only Natural England have so far responded and Mr Avery said he has not yet received a satisfactory explanation as to why it dropped legal proceedings.
Martin Harper, the RSPB's current conservation director, said: "We are extremely concerned about how and why Natural England reached this decision. It came as a complete surprise, and raises a series of questions. We continue to seek an adequate clarification from Natural England of the process and thinking behind their decision."
A spokesman for Natural England said: "The 25-year agreement Natural England and Walshaw Moor Estate have recently entered into provides improved environmental protection for the Moors and also allows the estate to conduct its business activities.
"The benefits of the agreement are significant. For the first time, burning activities on the Walshaw Estate will be subject to specific controls."
Defra declined to comment on the decision to drop legal proceedings, saying it was a matter for Natural England.
Representatives for Walshaw Estate Ltd could not be reached for comment.
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