A report on our Farming Forum submitted to Oke Links magazine. May 2024

A report on our Farming Forum submitted to Oke Links magazine. May 2024
Janet Dwyer, Layland Branfield and Adrian Colston. Photo: Mike Rego

The Dartmoor Society regularly hosts public events that focus attention on the Dartmoor landscape. One of the main concerns has been the importance of our farming culture that stretches back thousands of years and the urgent need to support a sustainable and thriving modern day farming community on Dartmoor.

At our recent Farming Forum held in May at Postbridge village hall many people who are interested in Dartmoor’s future gathered to hear panelists Janet Dwyer and Adrian Colston and Chairman, Layland Branfield, explain some of the ideas in the Fursdon Review and the implications of the Government/Defra response.

Hazel Kendall, from the Dartmoor Hill Farming Project, was also there to explain the new schemes just being released by Defra that aim to help farmers use the natural resources on their land so that they can focus on improving the ecology and continue to provide premium farm products.

Mark Owen, from Challacombe Farm, spoke about an ambitious new initiative, the Central Dartmoor Landscape Recovery Project, that will eventually cover 90 square miles, in other words 30 percent of Dartmoor. Its aim is to manage the land in collaboration with neighbouring holdings, and in doing so, make the most of the different resources that each farm possesses. A two year study and planning period, when initiatives are agreed, is followed by 20 years of guaranteed funding to implement the actions.

Over the past 50 years Dartmoor farmers have had to deal with changing regulations and a transition from their pastoral roots. Traditional ways of managing vegetation such as swaling (burning) have been discouraged and stocking levels have diminished dramatically. Added to this is the problem of Molinia, a tough grass that covers much of Dartmoor. This has spread in recent years at the same time as the stock that could help control it have been removed from the uplands.

A year ago, at the same time as the Government was beginning to release information about a new system to create more sustainable ways of farming, news came that more grazing animals would be removed from the Dartmoor Commons to levels that left many fearing for the future of farming on Dartmoor.

This was the background to the Independent Review of Protected Site Management on Dartmoor (Fursdon Review) which was announced in May 2023. Seven months later, in December 2023, the review had been completed and published. The Government/Defra response came in April 2024, and now Defra has begun to publish details of its Sustainable Farming Incentive: Expanded Offer for 2024 that will form the basis of future farm payment schemes.

These schemes have the potential to put farmers at the forefront of decision making. The Dartmoor Society has always argued that farmers on Dartmoor need support because they are being asked to do a lot, and with generations of accumulated knowledge they are best placed to make sound management decisions if the aims set out are achievable.

They must be able to preserve a complex and internationally important cultural landscape shaped by thousands of years of farming, and maintain a healthy mosaic of vegetation and habitats for the birds and animals that live on Dartmoor by placing stock carefully to ensure conservation grazing works effectively.

The landscape they work in contains newly formed hydrological systems and ongoing peat restoration work, and this must be protected from damage by the feet of heavy animals.

The farmers must also be able to make an economically viable living from farming, when their premium products do not always attract a premium price with consumers.

Through our Farming Forum we were able to engage with farmers to find out what they thought about the new offerings. The message that came back was positive. Farmers know what can be achieved on their land and they have the skills to adapt in ways that they know from experience will work. Conversely, they know what is unachievable and the reasons why.

Our annual programme of events always includes a farm visit and these glimpses into farming life in the most beautiful settings are always a privilege. They also provide another opportunity for our members to gain a real insight into how modern Dartmoor farms of today work and how they are adapting to change.

To find out more about the Dartmoor Society see www.dartmoorsociety.com