Not too long ago Salford had its very own, very rare butterfly called, of course, the `Manchester’ Argus or Large Heath. It was browny orange, had big fierce `eyes’ tattooed on its wings, and unlike most butterflies which like to bask in the sun, this ‘ard Salford strain didn’t mind a bit of drizzle. It used to thrive on the boglands of Chat Moss but when the railways came, around 150 years ago, it became extinct in the area, only surviving in the Lancashire lowlands. Until, that is, a few years ago when there was a move to re-build its habitat and bring this unique butterfly home…
It’s early spring 2007 and I’m stood on some muddy tracks watching Salford’s land bleed to death. Almost as far as the eye can see there’s an expanse of sterile black soil without so much as a blade of grass peeping through. At the edge, deep ditches have been dug with pipes stuck in the sides to drain the water. In the foreground a confused hare has taken a wrong turn and scampers across the drying, dying soil before twitching his nose in disgust and hopping off onto the wild grass beyond its borders.
At the far end of the site a digger is secretly loading the soil - which used to support one of Europe’s rarest habitats - onto a huge tipper truck. This land, which has taken thousands of years to mature, will end up on garden centre shelves as products like grow bags for tomatoes, lasting for a few months in people’s greenhouses before getting chucked away. Welcome to Astley Moss East, right on the edge of Salford’s boundary with Wigan. It’s the world of Peel Holdings, the exploitation of peat and the lost battle of the Salford Butterfly.
Raised bogs. They’re not sexy like dolphins or tropical coral reefs but in terms of global importance they’re premier league. They exist in the middle of damp nowhere, and are formed over the ages from waterlogged mosses which expand like a wet sponge and rise above ground level. On the top grow some very special plants and bugs which attract rare birds and butterflies. Underneath the surface are deep layers of peat, and below that, clay, sand and gravel which attract profit sniffing big business.
To get to the peat, the land has to be stripped and drained. As the water continues to drip out of Astley Moss East and the digger continues to eat the peat and pile it onto the truck, Salford City Council don’t know that this is even happening, despite the fact that they are supposed to be monitoring the site.
“We are not aware of any peat extraction since October 2005” says a council spokesman. Our photos tell a different story. But then the recent history of Astley Moss East has been the unauthorised extraction of peat by Peel Holdings, owners of most of Salford’s precious mosslands (and an estimated 20% of Salford itself). Peel Holdings (last known group operating profit £105,679,000) is also the huge corporation which owns the Manchester Ship Canal, a handful of airports, the Trafford Centre and the Media City development at Salford Quays. Media City is soon to be home of the BBC’s Children’s Department, making programmes like Blue Peter which implore kids to be environmentally friendly.
Peat bogs are incredibly environmentally friendly because they act as `carbon sinks’ which store huge amounts of carbon – 5000 tonnes per hectare. They also absorb 0.7 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year from the air. The site at Astley Moss East is around 100 hectares. By digging up the bog enormous amounts of carbon dioxide that have been locked up for centuries are being released into the atmosphere. Nice…
The UK has lost 98% of its prime lowland raised bogs over the last century. Flattened for farming or raped for peat, they are listed as one of Europe’s most threatened habitats, and are so rare that even slightly trashed, or `degraded’ ones are protected in law, a directive passed down from the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.
For over two decades Astley Moss East has been a battleground between conservationists who want to preserve the bog and its creatures, and those who want it mined for minerals and peat. In the middle with the power to swing the outcome has stood Salford City Council hugging its Mosslands Heartland policy, flaunting its expensive `There’s Tons of Grass In Salford’ campaign and armed with a battery of eco strategies which state things like “the council believes that by working to conserve biodiversity, it is not simply fulfilling international and national obligations but is also improving the quality of life for Salford's residents, now and in the future…”
Yet, when push has come to shovel, the council’s caved in to the peat merchants. And unauthorised extraction of the land has gone on and on and on...to the point where there’s little of this prime habitat left to protect.
A quick scan though 20 years of planning applications for Astley Moss East shows a history of blatant neglect of the Salford Butterfly’s home. In 1984, when unauthorised peat extraction began, the Moss was a Grade A Site of Biological Importance and a breeding ground for one of the country’s most threatened birds, the Nightjar. Since that time it’s been a story of the council resolving to take action, followed by the tame granting of retrospective planning permission to extract peat with sloppily worded conditions that have never been fully met.
There have been half cocked restoration schemes submitted and legal wrangling over wording, delay after delay in coming to conclusions….and all the time in the background the peat has been taken from the land, whether authorised or not. In the interim, the Nightjar has left Salford as a nesting site forever and the Salford Butterfly’s bog has been battered.
In July 2004 it all came to a head when officers at Salford Council recommended that enforcement action be taken against Peel Holdings for “clear breaches of planning permission”… .that are “seriously undermining the new policies relating to the Mosslands Heartland”. That enforcement action never happened, and there are constant references in planning appraisals to the `compensation’ the council might have to pay Peel Holdings if peat extraction was stopped. Instead, despite objections, the council passed planning permission in December 2004 giving Peel Holdings permission to extract not only 50,000 cubic metres of peat every year for 13 years but also license to extract almost three million tonnes of sand and gravel, which lies underneath the peat, for 18 years. It left ecologists gobsmacked. And the Salford Butterfly in permanent exile.
Tim Melling, conservation officer for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, is an expert on the Salford Butterfly, or the Large Heath Coenonympha tullia to give it its posh name. He had hoped that Salford Council would have sent Peel Holdings packing, that the Astley Moss East bog would be restored and that eventually the butterfly could have been reintroduced to the area.
“It is possible to recreate its habitat relatively swifty and there was a fantastic opportunity to do this at Astley Moss East” he explains “However, Peel have now got permission for the further removal of peat and the gravels underneath which will leave a great big hole in the ground and this, basically, has scuppered any possibility of restoring the Large Heath because the area left isn’t big enough.
“Lowland peat bogs are of paramount importance” he adds “In terms of global biodiversity the thing that Salford could have brought to the party would have been their conservation and restoration. That would stand head and shoulder above anything else they could do for biodiversity in this region. This was a golden opportunity that was just sitting there, and in my opinion, they just rolled over and let a big developer ride roughshod all over them.
"Salford Council could have come out of this with bouquets and smelling of roses – in the end they lost a lot of respect from a lot of people. They could have created something of international importance but instead they are just tinkering around the edges, green wallpapering to make it look like they’re doing something, but underneath there’s nothing.”
In return for planning permission Peel Holdings proposed, amongst other things, to make an artificial lake in the huge sand and gravel hole; to try and recreate the bog at Astley Moss artificially (a plan scorned by many ecologists) and to manage a site at Botany Bay (owned by Peel, and soon to be part of its own `Forest Park’ development). The planning officer considered that these proposals, together with the “high quality of the sand and gravel” to be sold “outweighs the loss of the ecological resource that is degraded peat”.
The permission was also granted on the proviso that the Greater Manchester Geological Unit be commissioned to monitor Peel Holdings’ compliance with the conditions. When we phoned the Unit recently, over two years since the condition was imposed, they knew absolutely nothing about it, although they have subsequently been given the monitoring contract.
“We know we need to maintain a balance between development of our city and maintaining and conserving the city’s diverse environment” says Salford Council’s Lead Member for Planning, Cllr Derek Antrobus “We are concerned about the progress made regarding some aspects of this planning application and I have asked for further reports detailing action taken by the applicant and progress in ongoing negotiations with them.”
Judith Smith, the County Bird Recorder, is an absolute authority on the mosslands area. She’s been monitoring the site for many years and placed a passionate objection to Peel’s peat plans for Astley Moss East. She argues that while the “ineptness” of Salford’s Planning Department back in the 1980s was to blame for the loss of rare Nightjar birds, the lack of defence for peat sites goes all the way through to the government’s Natural England (formerly English Nature) agency in Peterborough, and the Government Office for the North West locally.
“I remember vividly the then head of GONW, Marianne Neville-Rolfe, speaking at the launch of the North West Biodiversity Audit in 1999 saying that `Greater Manchester was primarily an economic development area and therefore it might not be possible to provide the degree of protection to valuable wildlife habitats that might be offered elsewhere’” she says “I was appalled and challenged her twice in writing to confirm that but she never replied. I have given up trying to get any protection for sites from Natural England – brick walls come to mind…”
And this could have been the end of the story – the Salford Butterfly exiled in lowland Lancs, the Nightjars nesting sites knackered and the rare bogs rattling to the sound of Caterpillars rather than caterpillars. But no. Unfortunately it gets worse. Salford’s mosslands are about to be commercialised, awesome style...with Peel Holdings’ plans for a racecourse, Forest Park, the Port Salford rail and freight terminal, Salford City Reds stadium, more roads and more railways. Even Salford Council is getting the jitters….
“Peel Holdings clearly have their own vision for parts of Chat Moss” stated a Report to the Lead Member for Planning in June 2005 “There is concern that unless the public agencies, led by the local authority, have their own vision for Chat Moss, the opportunities to revitalise this unique former mossland landscape could be lost in a series of uncoordinated proposals that do not confer any real long term benefits for the City”
Whether this means that the Council are going to start standing up to Peel Holdings or that they just want to get in on the economic act is anyone’s guess. A clue on what the Council would like to do can be found in a presentation by planning officer, Nick Lowther, back in 2002, when he stated that the mosslands “could provide a significant wildlife resource” but that “land ownership is a key issue”. He listed `mineral extraction, commercial racecourse, rail/freight warehousing and potential road/rail connections’ as major pressures on the mosslands.
Salford Council’s vision for those mosslands is due out any week, while Peel Holdings’ Forest Park, racecourse and Port Salford schemes are due back at the council’s planning panel in May.
“Salford councillors need to realise what a lot of valuable wildlife sites they have” says Judith Smith “The mosslands and Botany Bay Wood are a vital green lung for the county of Greater Manchester”.
Those green belt sites are in the hands of Peel Holdings. On Astley Moss East the digger continues to load peat onto the lorry. Carbon continues to escape into the atmosphere. The land continues to bleed…
The battle for Astley Moss and the Salford Butterfly has been lost. But the war might just be beginning…