Sod off and leave the peat moors alone

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The Independent Online
William Bunting was proud to call himself "a bad-tempered old sod". When he went walking on the moors near his Humberside home he always took a revolver, a swordstick, a machete, wire-clippers and his business cards.

He insisted he needed the first three for self-defence - hinting that he had had occasion to use them. The clippers and cards came into play if he found that someone had blocked a footpath: after cutting the wire he would thoughtfully leave his card behind, explaining: "Let the buggers sue me if they dare."

Irascible, foul-mouthed and middle-aged, Bunting was my first environmental campaigner - my precursor of today's Friends of the Earth, Greenpeaceniks and Swampies. I came across him more than 25 years ago, when I was a trainee reporter on the nearby Goole Times and I'm reminded of him by news from a reader, Pete Bowler, that must have him revolving under the sod.

Bunting's life's work was to try to save the moors, then called Thorne Waste, from threats ranging from building an airport to digging them up for peat. At the time, I couldn't see the point. Their name seemed to say it all: I could not imagine a more desolate, apparently useless stretch of bog.

I was wrong. The moors, now dignified as part of the Humberhead Levels, are one of the country's most valuable wildlife havens, home to more than 5,000 species. It is one of the largest lowland mires left in Britain: nationally less than 1.5 per cent of the original bogs remain in prime condition.

An engineer's fitter, Bunting taught himself biology (discovering a new species of algae), Latin, medieval English and Norman French (to press ancient documents to his cause). He boasted of writing a daily protest letter to the authorities.

His finest hour came in 1972, after the agricultural company Fisons dug ditches to drain the most ecologically valuable part of the moor for peat extraction. He recruited a motley army, not unlike today's road protesters, called them "Bunting's Beavers", and set them to work blocking the drains with dams up to 40ft thick. When Fisons cleared them (one day it blew up 18) the Beavers went on building them until the firm gave up.

Anyway, last week's news from Mr Bowler, who is with the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, is that Mr Bunting's greatest achievement may be eroded. Thanks to his campaign, the moors were declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), but now the official watchdog, English Nature, is thinking of taking the designation away from part of the area.

Mind you, it is not a simple story. Fisons' successor, Levingtons, holds planning permissions dating from the 1940s, which override the SSSI protection, to extract peat from almost all the moors. It is a familiar problem. Over- generous old permissions bedevil public control of quarrying as well as of peat mining.

For mines they are. Gone are the men cutting turfs with special spades. Now peat extraction chews up whole landscapes to pot house plants.

But I digress. Three years ago, as protests grew, Levingtons gave English Nature freehold to all its peat lands, provided it then leased them back for extraction. It says that, by this deal, some areas will be protected, while it continues to work the rest.

For its part, English Nature is only considering removing SSSI designation from areas - some 5 per cent of Thorne Waste and 35 per cent of nearby Hatfield Moor - that have already been so chewed up that no vegetation remains.

Sounds reasonable? Consider this. Thanks to pressure from bodies such as the Wildlife Trust and Friends of the Earth, many big retailers will no longer sell peat dug from SSSIs. Removing the designation evades this ban.

I think I know what William Bunting would have said. But I could not possibly print it.

One defeated plan for Thorne Waste was to use it for landfill rubbish - which would at least have justified its name. This brings me to something you may have missed amid last week's emotional farewells. "Not only will Hong Kong be making history when it reverts to Chinese control," says publicity material on my desk, "but it is a fascinating place in landfill terms." I thought you needed to know.