Those Whom the Gods Wish to Destroy First Make Mad

The following is the text of the 10-minute presentation which Dr Tom Greeves gave at the SW Uplands Federation Conference on 19 October 2012.

In the past two decades two core policies of Natural England and DEFRA have been applied to Dartmoor commons which are misplaced, damaging and potentially disastrous in cultural terms – the policies of destocking the commons and rewetting the mires.

The destocking seems to derive essentially from a belief that heather moorland is the optimum vegetation for the Dartmoor commons and that its decline in the post-war period is due to ‘overgrazing’.  Neither tenet holds good. What is so special about heather? There certainly was more heather on Dartmoor in the mid-20th century but it was not always so. And did overgrazing really exist? – it did in some very particular areas where poaching occurred but actually the grazing pressure of the 1970s and 1980s was hugely beneficial in terms of the ‘public good’, enabling walkers to roam freely, farmers to tend and gather stock easily, and, of special importance, it revealed a suite of archaeological remains not seen before in the 20th century.

The huge levels of destocking required under so-called environmental schemes (up to around 80% in some instances) in the last two decades have not resulted in the reappearance of heather. Instead we have unpalatable long grasses, and gorse, which impedes access, endangers those gathering stock and obscures one of the finest archaeological landscapes in the world, thus preventing research and analysis.

The second core policy, that of rewetting the mires, has been carried on in various guises since 2007, and is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the Dartmoor blanket bog. The bog is old – 8,000 years or so – and inevitably where it has built up to a depth of 2m or more, on slopes of a certain gradient, pieces will occasionally ‘calve’ off like an iceberg from a glacier. If a plateau bog (like Winneys Down 1 and 2 or Flat Tor Pan), pools will form on its flat wet surface. These will eventually revegetate quite naturally as evidenced from the Flow Country of Scotland (4000 square km of blanket bog). The core tenet of this project is that the bog is eroding. Of course it is – all land surfaces erode – but what has not been demonstrated is that this erosion is in any way significant or different to what has happened before. We have eyewitness descriptions going back nearly 200 years (disgracefully not researched by any of the partners in the project) that describe the bogs as they are today – nothing significant has changed. To justify work of the cost and scale now in progress, such significant change should long ago have been demonstrated, based on long-term observation. There are no such data, and there is no crisis that needs dealing with.

Despite five years of so-called pilot schemes, we still have no results in the public domain. The first two schemes at Amicombe and Blackabrook Down were on the sites of commercial peat digging of the 19th century and essentially involved blocking ditches despite these being ecological niches being gently filled by natural means. More recently, with money which supposedly Ofwat has allowed South West Water to raise from its water rates, attention has been turned to previously undisturbed plateau bogs with peat up to 6m deep and still growing. No proof of significant or unexpected erosion has been presented. Astonishingly, machines have been allowed to access these remote areas (Winneys Down 2 is more than 3 miles from the nearest road) to dig blocks of undisturbed peat and vegetation and then use them to create dams behind which water pools as a potential hazard, while forming unsightly tracks etc where no such thing existed before. Yet close at hand in each of these areas are plenty of examples of natural revegetation which has not been observed and monitored.

Winneys Down

Winneys Down

Winneys Down

Three cultures are pertinent here:

  1. That of Natural England and DEFRA – a metropolitan, external culture, academic and specialist, and very powerful because of its financial strength, treating hill farmers as if it were some colonial power dealing with awkward natives.
  2. Dartmoor National Park – a shallow external culture, non-academic, surprisingly deficient in knowledge of land and its meaning, but relying on the ‘warm-glow’ factor that goes with its label.
  3. Hill farmers – an ancient distinctive, indigenous culture, deeply knowledgeable about husbandry and the moor, deferential to academics but unfamiliar with external processes, confused, and essentially voiceless. Only 175 families are actively involved in grazing the commons. Their whole way of life is under threat.

The so-called partnership is not one of equals. The dominant culture of Natural England and DEFRA has shown itself to be coercive and arrogant, threatening graziers who hesitate to sign up to HLS or support the Mires Project, or who counter demands to reduce stocking levels. Whose knowledge counts?

The body which has the prime statutory duty (under the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985) to look after the husbandry and grazing of the commons is the Commoners Council. All other parties should be supporting this role and subsidiary to it, but able to offer advice and money where appropriate. Restocking of the moorland is essential in order to create the overarching public good of a dominant grassland sward, but one full of subtle variety. The present damaging rewetting programme involving machinery and disturbance should be abandoned immediately. The project should shift radically to one of observation, monitoring and benign research, if need be over a long timescale, recognising that the 12,500 hectares of Dartmoor blanket bog are like an old friend – wrinkled, characterful but wise. Only thus will the core culture of Dartmoor hillfarming be maintained and encouraged.

Tom Greeves illustrated his presentation with several quotes, which are given below:

1. Heather – ‘a symbolic plant in much ‘conservation specialist’ thinking…Yet many ecologists will point to  heather-dominated stands of vegetation as among the least species rich’(Prof. Ian Mercer, Dartmoor – A Statement of its Time (2009), 112-3)

2. Livestock numbers on Dartmoor Commons:

c. AD 1200-1500 a minimum of 10,000 cattle summer grazing on the Forest, plus 10,000 on surrounding commons = 20,000 cattle + 100,000 sheep (Harold Fox, Dartmoor’s Alluring Uplands (Univ of Exeter Press, 2012, 91)

1808 14,000 sheep on ‘commons belonging to the parish of Widecombe…besides the usual proportion of horned cattle’ (Charles Vancouver)

October 1942estimate by Head Ranger (Endacott) of stock levels on military range: 10,000 sheep, 200-300 cattle (in winter), 2,000-3,000 cattle (in summer), 1500 ponies (National Archives)

November 1942estimated  numbers of stock on West Quarter : 2,000 bullocks, 10,000 sheep, 1000 ponies (National Archives)

1963 – 2,000-6,000 ponies; 50,000 sheep (Dartmoor Commoners/RSPCA/Horse & Ponies Protection Association)

Pre- Cross Compliance of mid-1990s – approx. 20,000 animals (Andy Guy of Rural Development Service of DEFRA, speaking at 9th Dartmoor Society Debate, 2006, ‘’Designer Wilderness? What Future for Dartmoor’s Vegetation?’)

2006fewer than 10,000  animals – since introduction of ESAs in 1994 (Andy Guy, idem).

3. Vegetation:‘The grass is getting so long we’re losing all the birds – the skylarks are going and there are no lapwings any more – and people can’t walk in some places’ (Farmer Donna Penwill quoted in Western Morning News, 12 October 2012).

4. Blanket bog: ‘the East Dart…proceeds down the valley, augmenting considerably as it drains the hill on the west side, which is one immense peat-bog, broken into small banks or hillocks, the intervals being entirely occupied with a swamp of black peat. These several morasses are indeed worthy of inspection, being the origin of numerous brooks and rivers, although little known or visited by the explorers of Dartmoor wonders.’ (May 1830 – Sophie Dixon, A Journal of Ten Days Excursion on the Western and Northern Borders of Dartmoor pp 25-6).

5. Blanket bog: ‘The ground, which for many feet deep is nothing but black peat of a soapy consistency, is rent into chasms running in every direction, and the surface is thus divided into small islands, as it were, covered with a coarse grass…This boggy land…stretches for several miles…and cannot fail to impress him who seeks its solitudes. There is a grandeur about these wild portions of the forest, where nature still reigns with undisputed sway…’ (1888 – William Crossing, Amid Devonia’s Alps or Wanderings & Adventures on Dartmoor pp 127-8).

6. Rewetting: ‘The areas [of Dartmoor] which are currently being wetted do not benefit reservoirs directly’ (Alison Butts, South West Water, email to Elisabeth Greeves, 27 February 2012) .

7. Comments by Dartmoor Commoners’ Council Members on the effects of Destocking/Rewetting, and signing up to ESA/HLS agreements:

‘We have destroyed our living’ – ‘We are indigenous people being pushed and pushed and pushed’ – ‘We don’t trust them [Natural England] any more’ – ‘We are slowly losing our place here’

But compare: ‘I don’t want to alienate people who send us whacking great cheques’.

8. Dartmoor Commoners’ Council:  ‘Under the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 the Dartmoor Commoners’ Council governs the exercise of common rights, animal husbandry and vegetation management on the commons’ (Dartmoor National Park Management Plan 2007-2012, p.31).