Country diary: burning question raised by the Fishlake floods

Snailsden Edge, South Yorkshire: The landscape looks wild, but for years it has been managed for the benefit of grouse

Sploshing along under Snailsden Edge, the light rain angling in from the north turned to sleet: white bands of it stung my face. Fed up with this mild torture, I ducked into the lee of a high stone wall to wait for a patch of clear sky arriving behind it. My view was wide but darkly ominous: across to Dead Edge Flat, where the moor was seamed with black gullies cut by rain into the peat, and then grandly rightwards to Withens Edge, where Derbyshire, South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire meet, the watershed between east and west, and below it the top of Great Grains Clough, source of the River Don.

It is little more than 30 miles from where I stood to the flooded village of Fishlake, on the banks of the Don and a name now familiar from news reports. You can’t turn back the clock to witness firsthand how and when people lose their way, but you can with rivers. Were there any clues as to the Don’s downstream delinquency in what I could see now of its infant flow? Rivers, like people, are complex and the Don’s catchment covers more than 700 square miles, so it would be risky to jump to conclusions. But I could see some signs of early dysfunction.

An angler fishing on the canal near Sykehouse and Fishlake with flooded fields beyond
An angler fishing on the canal near Sykehouse and Fishlake, with flooded fields beyond. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Across the moors were ranks of black boxes: grouse butts. Several hundred yards away, I watched an all-terrain vehicle – the preferred means of transport for the modern gamekeeper – patrolling the moor. In the 1840s Snailsden was one of the first places to develop driven grouse shooting, and ever since then these moors have been burned to promote the growth of young heather shoots, which the grouse eat. This landscape is wild and elemental, but there’s little natural about it.

The impact all that burning has on how quickly water runs off these moors is contested. But in the same week Fishlake flooded, Yorkshire Water, which owns thousands of acres of moorland hereabouts, announced new guidelines for those who lease its land for shooting, including, for the first time, a presumption against burning. The news felt to me like the first rays of sunshine after long weeks of rain.


Ed Douglas

The GuardianTramp

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