Response to News Item in The Times, 18th September – Removal of Sheep from Okehampton Commons

Sheep shown the door on Dartmoor

You may have seen recent press reports regarding Natural England requiring all sheep to be removed from Okehampton Commons over the winter. This, of course, would be breaking a two hundred-year-old tradition of year-round grazing and cause very real problems for the commoners concerned, potentially putting them out of business and leading to the complete loss of livestock. This in turn would have a devastating impact on the well-established ecology of a large tract of moorland and the delicate ecological balance and diversity of the SSSI, without the positive benefits of conservation grazers.

I immediately wrote to the Natural England Team Manager, Eamon Crowe, to raise our concerns and reiterate the Dartmoor Society’s position regarding the value of maintaining traditional management practices and the dangers of significant reductions of mixed grazing. I urged them to meet with the commoners as soon as possible to clarify the situation and negotiate sustainable levels of livestock, while listening to local knowledge and wisdom regarding the practical issues involved with animal husbandry that make it very difficult to meet the expectations of ecologists without constructive dialogue and compromise.

He wrote back and said “I accept all you say below and I can assure you that it not the intention of NE and I have had 26 years of experience on Dartmoor not to let this happen.” There has evidently been a misunderstanding between the two parties and I was told that they were “in the middle of negotiations”. 

We will continue to monitor the situation as the outcome may have ramifications for the rest of the Dartmoor Commons. Our policy is to encourage positive and constructive debate on the issues between parties, based on sound research and objective evidence. As well as academic studies, we feel strongly that such evidence should include anecdotal and photographic comparisons going back decades as well as previous vegetation surveys. 

As a consequence of the Gidleigh Common Day, organised by the Society in August 2018, a winter cattle grazing trial was instigated. We had hoped to be able to follow this up this summer to receive reports on its effectiveness and to witness the results on the ground but this has had to be put on hold until Covid restrictions allow, all being well, next summer. We were also looking forward to hearing Eamon Crowe speak from the Natural England perspective at our postponed AGM in April this year and, again, we hope to reschedule this in the New Year.   

With increasing concerns over climate change and accelerating loss of species, it is more important than ever that all parties understand each other’s perspectives and the practical issues and talk constructively rather than simply make public criticism. We will always endeavour to broker constructive, face-to-face negotiations, based on sound reason and common sense rather than risk stirring up hostility in such a way. 

Alan Endacott, Acting Chairman
The Dartmoor Society