Letter to MP’s by Alan Endacott

In April 2023 Alan Endacott, former chair of the Dartmoor Society, wrote to MP’s raising his concerns about the proposals to remove livestock from the Dartmoor Commons.
When it was decided to hold an independent review of this proposal, led by David Fursdon, he wrote to the review board with further comments and attached the letter.
Alan has a unique and unparalleled understanding of these issues, and we thank him for adding his knowledge to this debate.
Letter to MP's by Alan Endacott
Alan’s comments to the review board:
First of all may I say how much I welcome the independent Review and hope for a balanced and sustainable outcome that all parties will feel able to sign up to.
Having been born on a Dartmoor family hill farm and involved in a number of Dartmoor organisations and cultural projects down the years – including Chairing the Dartmoor Society, Curating the Museum of Dartmoor Life and currently undertaking a PhD on its prehistory – I feel I have a fairly well-founded and long-term objective view of the Moor’s environmental management. I have studied past changes of climate, vegetation and management (although not necessarily first-hand) and witnessed various shifts of policies and their impacts in my own lifetime. It is all too clear that a long-term, broad-based, well-resourced and consensual approach is required – underpinned with positive, two-way communication. Much easier said than done I’m sure!
For information, I attach an open letter, which I sent to MPs back in April when concerns were first being raised. Some of the issues may well have already been addressed or were, perhaps, based on miss-information received at the time but might, none-the-less, be useful to the Review if you wouldn’t mind passing it on to David Fursdon. I would be happy to answer any questions he may have subsequently if I can be of any assistance.
Letter to Members of Parliament
Members of Parliament
House of Commons
12 th April, 2023

Dear all
Open Letter regarding the Proposed Reductions in Stocking Levels on
Dartmoor Commons by Natural England
I am very concerned about the recent proposals to further drastically reduce stocking
levels on Dartmoor’s commons on a number of grounds and fear that, if carried out,
this policy will give rise to an irreversible ecological, cultural, archaeological and
economic catastrophe that could easily be avoided.
It is hard to understand the logic, given the clear evidence on the ground of the
negative impact of previous stock reductions on biodiversity and the increasing
dominance of brute species such as Molinia, gorse and bracken, to the detriment of
many other species. Natural England’s own approach has been inconsistent on the
matter and there appears to be no consistent overall regional strategy, with other
upland areas, such as Exmoor National Park, being treated quite differently. On the
face of it, the policy seems to be more of a personal whim. This cannot be right when
so much is at stake?
In terms of the potential impact of this policy, firstly, there is the damage to farming
and the local economy. Dartmoor hill farmers are an integral part of the broader
Devon livestock industry and cannot be seen in isolation. Issues like movement
restrictions, transmittable diseases, traditional learing and husbandry practices, land
availability and prices etc., will make the proposals unworkable for most of the
existing commoners and they will be forced to leave the industry.
This will effectively bring to an end hundreds (or, quite possibly, thousands) of years
of hill farming on Dartmoor and the loss of a unique way of life. Many of Dartmoor’s
hill farming families (including my own) can trace their local origins back to before
records began and DNA evidence suggests that their forbears were among the first
farmers in the region with an unbroken succession. In other parts of the world, this
rich cultural heritage would be celebrated and sustained but it’s no exaggeration to
claim that the implications of this policy are tantamount to cultural genocide on a
scale not dissimilar to the Highland clearances.


Dartmoor boasts one of the greatest concentrations of archaeological remains in the
whole of northern Europe. Again, something that would be celebrated in other parts
of the world. Instead, many of Dartmoor’s remains have become engulfed by Molinia,
gorse and bracken over recent years due to livestock reductions.
Of course, some would argue that restoring nature is more important than
maintaining cultural heritage, whereas, in truth, the two should go hand in hand and
be mutually beneficial. It seems to have escaped Natural England’s attention that the
precious ecosystems that have evolved on the open commons of Dartmoor have
evolved over thousands of years because of managed grazing, and occasional
controlled burning, and so removing grazing and stopping swaling altogether will
inevitably destroy those delicate ecosystems encourage the proliferation of pests like
ticks and heather beetle, and inevitably lead to catastrophic wild fires.
Thankfully, the borderland and valley woodlands are generally healthy, expanding
and, largely, well-protected. I suspect financial incentives and media hype are
responsible for a certain amount of the pressure to plant more trees on the uplands.
This does not necessarily make it right and each proposal should be considered on
its merits, rather than pure dogmatic fervour or profit.
There seems to be a misconception that the open moor should naturally be forested,
possibly because of the Medieval administrative term ‘Forest of Dartmoor’. Large
parts of the uplands were indeed covered by scrubby forest early in prehistory but
much has changed since then in terms of soils, climate and agricultural and other
economic exploitation. It is highly unlikely that native broadleaves would readily re-
colonise the uplands, even if that were deemed desirable (and most would wish to
keep the beautiful, broad open vistas I’m sure).
In any case, peat is ten times more effective at carbon sequestration than trees so
an active peat forming vegetation would have far greater environmental value than
forest in this case and, from my personal observational experience, managed
grazing and occasional swaling is an essential part of this. For instance, I have seen
heather re-grow strongly after swift burning events and subsequent grazing, while
Molinia has taken over adjoining areas that were formerly covered by heather but
escaped burning. Objective studies of such phenomena should be made to
understand the processes instead of making unfounded assumptions, as tends to be
the case.
I have not seen any objective evidence that de-stocking works either, but plenty to
the contrary (for instance the ecology reports attached to the following report:
dartmoorsociety.com/files/GidleighCommonDayReport.pdf). You might also find it
interesting to read this blog on a botanical walk organised by the Dartmoor Society
last year: https://belstonevillage.net/belstone-blog/belstone-botanical-walk/ . I was
lucky enough to have been on this walk, which retraced the steps of one made over
a century before, and was encouraging to see the diversity of plant species still
surviving in the area, which was still being grazed by sheep and cattle.


However, bracken and Molinia were clearly starting to encroach, especially the latter
on the higher ground, where stock numbers had already been significantly reduced.
Belstone Common is one of those targeted in the latest round of significant stock
reductions. I spoke to one of the commoners there recently, who was virtually in
tears. His family have farmed the same farm (from which they actually take their
name) since the Domesday Survey almost a thousand years before. I find that
desperately sad.
What of the existing ecosystems? As far as I am aware, Natural England have not
considered this question or done any studies to examine the impact on such rare
plant species, or the insects, invertebrates, mammals and birds that depend on a
grazed heathland environment? Are they to be inadvertently condemned in the name
of ‘nature recovery’?
If the proposed policy goes ahead, I very much doubt whether hill farming or the
diverse species that depend on it will survive the decade, let alone a century or
Please do anything you can to put pressure on Natural England to think this policy
through again and to listen to those who have inherited the knowledge and skills to
maintain this rare and wonderful landscape.
In an ideal world all of the commoners’ associations would work together with NE
and conservation bodies like the RSPB and Devon Wildlife Trust, to bring their
collective expertise together to agree a range of traditional management techniques,
and exclusion areas, with fair compensation where applicable, to achieve a vibrant
patchwork of habitats to the benefit of all. This would require careful monitoring (and
variation if necessary) thereafter. However, this would also require significantly more
resources to make it work effectively. I see little point in ineffective half-measures
that cause far more problems and disquiet than they can ever resolve so it is crucial
that the Government plays its part too.

Yours sincerely,
Alan Endacott MA Mus.Dip.

PhD Resesearcher on the Prehistoric Ritual Landscapes of Northern Dartmoor, University of Exeter
Former Chair of the Dartmoor Society
Former Curator of the Museum of Dartmoor Life, Okehampton
Former Area Manager for Devon and Cornwall, English Heritage