The Dartmoor Society submission to the Dartmoor Independent Evidence Review. October 2023

The Dartmoor Society submission to the Dartmoor Independent Evidence Review. October 2023

The Dartmoor Society submission to the Dartmoor Independent Evidence Review. October 2023

Dear Mr Fursdon 

The Dartmoor Society believes that the targeted use of grazing animals and support for farmers is the most cost-effective and efficient way of facilitating ongoing landscape-wide conservation work.

The Dartmoor Society was founded in 1998 by Tom Greeves and others with support from many people who have a deep attachment to this landscape. We have taken a keen interest in the grazing of stock on Dartmoor and we advocate conservation initiatives based on high hi-quality data that consider nature, archaeology and our living farming culture in an integrated manner.  

The value of grazing to the archaeological landscape.

One result of a closer grazed vegetation on parts of Dartmoor in the 1970s was that it revealed an archaeological landscape of international significance that was easily accessible on foot. Dartmoor’s Bronze Age remains, as well as tinworking, stonecutting,and peatcutting features are unparalleled elsewhere in Europe and they should continue to be available for study, enjoyment and to stimulate imaginative thought. The Environment Act of 1995 states that aims of UK National Parks are to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage and promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the area by the public.  

Many significant monuments and features are currently disappearing under vegetation as can be seen in the photos in our Gidleigh Common Report 2018. https://www.dartmoorsociety.com/files/GidleighCommonDayReport.pdf

Ecological benefits of grazing animals

In 2016 we commissioned Footprint Ecology to carry out a habitat survey of Gidleigh and Throwleigh Commons, https://s3.eu-west-1.wasabisys.com/dartmoorsociety/wp-media-folder-dartmoor-society/wp-content/uploads/GidleighAndChagfordHabitatSurvey.pdf  

Our 2018 report is the result of a day on Gidleigh Common with stakeholders, discussing the 2016 survey and the changes that have occurred in vegetation in this area, from a relatively close-cropped diverse heather community in 1994 (English Nature Survey) to the Molinia and gorse dominated sward surveyed in 2016 and seen again at the Gidleigh Common Field Day in 2018. There are a number of good comparative photos in the report.

Examination of archive photographs, taken a century or more ago, suggest that the situation in 1994 was representative of the ecological balance on many Dartmoor commons prior to the advent of agri-environment schemes and that the assumption that the whole of Dartmoor was overgrazed preceding their introduction was based on the poor state of a minority that were demonstrably overgrazed.

The benefits of targeted grazing as a conservation tool are widely held. Adrian Colston cites two projects, the Wicken Fen Vision and Knepp Wildlands Project that ‘rely on herds of grazing animals to deliver their conservation outcomes’. He goes on to say, ‘by contrast on Dartmoor, the extensive areas of under-grazed Molinia, which are almost universally considered unappealing from a wildlife, archaeological and amenity perspective, have developed as a result of significant declines in stock, particularly cattle and ponies’. Adrian Colston 2021.

In the Autumn of 2022 we organised a botanical walk on Belstone Common, following the course of a similar walk made 100 years earlier. We found a surprising number of the same plant species and this diversity of flora was pleasing to find on what would perhaps be considered a fairly heavily grazed common. https://s3.eu-west-1.wasabisys.com/dartmoorsociety/wp-media-folder-dartmoor-society/wp-content/uploads/Botanical-Walk-PDFs.pdf.

Reasons for the unfavourable condition of Dartmoor SSSIs and SACs 

Despite the 2000 SSSI improvement programme to bring 95% of SSSIs into a favourable or recovering condition by 2010, the Dartmoor Commons that fall within the SSSI and SAC designations show little sign of recovery over 20 years later and in 2021 only 16% of the designated Commons were deemed by Natural England to be in favourable condition. 

Reasons for continued unfavourable conditions may not be all due to the current levels of grazing which have been consistently reduced over recent years, but may also be the result of atmospheric pollution, climate change and Heather Beetle infestation and other environmental pressures, not specific to Dartmoor or upland areas, that result in species decline. Further reductions in grazing would have negative consequences and would undoubtedly increase the likelihood, and the extent of wildfires in the future. 

Grazing to facilitate peat formation and suppress Molinia. 

Personal observations by Alan Endacott, our former vice-chair who was born into a Dartmoor farming family, are that grazing and occasional fast burning are part of a healthy regenerative cycle. He has observed that vegetation remained healthy, with good heather re-growth after swift burning events and subsequent grazing.  Molinia soon covered adjoining areas that were formerly covered by heather but which escaped burning. Objective studies of such phenomena would help understand these processes. 

Wildlife friendly farmers – the best conservators of our landscape.

Dartmoor farmers have adapted from being paid to graze large numbers of animals in the recent past, to grazing very few now and within tight seasonal parameters. These animals require managing to ensure that they graze specified areas. Graziers know where their animals like to go and why, because often their parents and grandparents have managed the moor. Targeted grazing can most effectively be achieved by a thriving hill-farming community, experienced in stock management and husbandry, who have the resources to shepherd their animals effectively. 

Dartmoor Farmers also instinctively understand the holistic connections between a balanced vegetation, wildlife and insect management, again, developed over generations of families managing their farms and commons. This understanding has been enhanced by working with environmentalists through government-run management schemes. When environmentalists who design and develop policies value this farming knowledge and engage in debate with farmers the desired outcomes are usually much easier to achieve. 

A living farming culture at risk.

Farming undoubtedly adds vitality to our local communities, grazing animals animate the landscape and the whole contributes to the local economy and to social cohesion.  We are acutely aware of the unbroken continuity of hill-farming families on Dartmoor and how the cultural significance of dwindling traditional communities in all parts of the world seems realised only when they are past saving.

One of the joys of Dartmoor, and a reason that it is attractive to visitors, is its traditional farm buildings set within a grazed landscape and associated field systems. These are farms with commoners rights on the high moor that must be sustained.  

Some farmers are making great efforts to farm with wildlife in mind, and we hope that new arrangements will ensure that the farmers who carry out wildlife-friendly farming as a matter of course are rewarded for their efforts. Farmers face a range of challenges and we argue for greater focus on their individual needs, especially as we are dependent on them to deliver the required outcomes.

Yours sincerely

Bill Murray and the Executive Committee of The Dartmoor Society

We acknowledge advice and information from:

Adrian Colston 

Conservationist and social scientist. PhD from the Centre for Rural Policy Research at the University of Exeter, ‘Stakeholder attitudes to the narratives of the Dartmoor Commons: tradition & the search for consensus in a time of change’ 2021

Alan Endacott 

Former vice-chair of the Dartmoor Society. Archaeologist, cultural historian, initiator of Dartmoor Ritual Landscapes Project, and founder of Okehampton Museum of Dartmoor Life. 

Tom Greeves 

Former chair of the Dartmoor Society. Cultural Environmentalist. MA PhD, author of ‘Dartmoor & the Displacement of Culture – Analysis & Remedy’, Transactions of the Devonshire Association 147 (2015) 1-44 (available as download from academia.edu)