The Dartmoor Society’s letter to the press regarding the current controversy over further reductions in grazing on the Dartmoor Commons.

Dartmoor farmers and farming culture are being sacrificed to meet Natural England’s environmental targets.

Shoveldown stone row obscured by molinia grass. Photo:Tom Greeves
Shoveldown stone row obscured by Moninia grass that now covers much of upland Dartmoor. Photo: Tom Greeves

Dartmoor farming culture has shaped the landscape for thousands of years, ever since the early settlers erected the ceremonial monuments that are now recognised as some of the finest and most accessible in Europe. Modern day farming animates the landscape with ponies and cattle grazing the uplands. Pastoralism is still practiced, known on Dartmoor as ‘learing’ where sheep follow the lead ewe up to their place on the moor and graze the same patch year after year. Cultural traditions such as agricultural shows and fairs where stock is bought and sold and where news is exchanged amongst farmers still thrives and provides a focus among farming families who are also proud of the wildlife on their land and are adapting to work in harmony with nature.

Natural England’s current proposal is to reduce the number of grazing animals on Dartmoor by 76%. Over the past 25 years, farmers have relinquished the right to graze their allocated number of stock on the commons through Higher Level Stewardship schemes and this has already resulted in a 50% reduction of stock grazing on the Dartmoor Commons. During this time archaeological features have become obscured and access on foot has become more difficult. The predominance of Molinia grass, which has proliferated with the reduction in grazing animals, stifles much of the other heathland vegetation. Unpalatable to animals it can be seen in summer as a mass of yellow and it is difficult to see how the desired balanced mosaic of plants can be achieved.

The Dartmoor Society takes a holistic view on issues that relate to Dartmoor, within the context of climate change and species decline, but we see little or no evidence that the policies of the recent past have resulted in the desired improvements to the ecology of the moor.   The continued withdrawal of stock from the Dartmoor Commons will alter their appearance, threaten Dartmoor farming culture, and the viability of farming businesses. During the course of any negotiations or decisions, this must be acknowledged. Natural England’s environmental goals are to restore wildlife and to preserve blanket peat, and they state that their intention is to do this by working with farmers. The reasons for the decline in wildlife and biodiversity are complex and we are not convinced that these problems will be solved by the continued and sustained withdrawal of grazing animals.

The decline in bird numbers may, in part, be due to the increasing numbers of people using Dartmoor to exercise their dogs, allowing them to run free over the breeding areas of ground nesting birds. The proposed changes to the Dartmoor Bylaws where dogs must be kept on a lead during the bird breeding season is attempting to tackle this problem. Curlew, Ouzel, Golden Plover, and Red Grouse fall prey to foxes and corvids that are seen in increasing numbers.  Whilst some bird species appreciate long grass and scrub, Curlew and Lapwing chicks depend on short herbage. The impact of increased levels of public access to Dartmoor’s beautiful landscape and the pressure to build houses within the national park, as well as the intensity of settlement on the periphery must also be part of the reasons for declining species and habitats, yet tourism and house building is officially encouraged.

There is no doubt that some wildlife and habitats are in decline and that the monoculture of molinia that has taken over with the reduction in grazing animals needs to be tackled. We accept that intensely grazed areas cause damage to vegetation, and sometimes bringing animals off the commons causes grazing pressure around the home farm where it is most visible. We also recognise that the peat and heathland vegetation is a precious resource and has a vital part to play in the water resources and the storage of carbon. Bird species and biodiversity as a whole has declined and there is an urgent need to reverse this trend.

The Dartmoor Society argues for a more nuanced approach that places emphasis on the consultation process with farmers, conservation groups, ecologists and other user groups, to find solutions that are specific to our locality. It appears to us that national targets are the driver in this latest process. Can the desired improvement to habitats really be achieved by pursuing the same policies that have been employed over the past 25 years? Do farmers, who have such an intimate knowledge of the land, have a real say in the future or is everything preordained? Is Natural England’s approach open to consultation with stakeholders, or are its hands tied by national policies?

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