One of my favourite Dartmoor walks

This must be one of my favourite walks – starts at Meldon reservoir and then up to Yes Tor, on to High Wilhays and down to Dinger Tor, over to Lints Tor and then back to Meldon via the West Okement River through Black a tor Copse. It is around 8.5 mils and it took me 3 hours with three short stops.

Here the route via Strava

After a climb up from Meldon you get on a ridge and can see Yes Tor (right), West Mill Tor (middle) and Rowtor (left)

Part of Yes Tor

On top of Yes Tor (619m) look along the ridge to High Wilhays (621m)

High Wilhays – highest part of Dartmoor

Smoke drifting west from the big grass and gorse fire near to Watern Tor

Dinger Tor

Lints Tor

Looking down the West Okement Valley from Lints – almost looks like a Scottish Glen.

Back up to Lints with Great Knesset behind

Ancient oak amongst the clitter

Inside Black a tor Copse – magical and mystical

Black a tor Copse with Black Tor above it

Black Tor

Waterfall on the West Okement

It is a pretty straight forwards walk assuming the visibility is good but you do need waterproof boots as the West Okement section crosses numerous flushes. Obviously a map and compass job just in case … Can be walked clockwise or anti-clockwise.

Soil compaction on Dartmoor

I’ve now seen first hand some compacted soils on the moor. We spent some time looking at some soils which should have good drainage qualities opposed to the peat water logged soils higher up.

Richard Smith (Environment Agency), Sue Everett (Sustainable Soils Alliance), Mark July (former Natural England) and Tim Harrod (former Soil Survey of England and Wales) inspecting a compacted soil on Peter Tavy Common

The compaction means that the water cannot flow into the profile as there is a layer of compressed (gleyed) soil which is impermeable – as a result this soil has a perched water table. When it rains hard the water flows across the surface and down the hill side. The Environment Agency are interested in ameliorating this so that flooding incidents in Peter Tavy can be reduced.

Here is a soil from the Moor Gate series which is not compacted – the soil is friable to the touch and shows no signs of compression or gleying. Heavy rain on this soil will flow down through the profile and not across the surface.

The general theory is that the compaction at say, Peter Tavy Common happened between 1960-1990 and main suspects were cattle and ponies.

The question now is do these soils have the capacity to repair themselves or are they permanently damaged? These compacted soils are often very acidic and as a result possess very poor soil faunas which could potentially undo the damage.

I would be interested to know whether the last 60 years of atmospheric nitrogen pollution has lowered the pH of these soils and as a result reduced the soil fauna’s ability to repair the soil structure.

Unfortunately I cannot find anything in the literature to evidence a progressive lowering of pH in upland soils over the past 60 years – does anyone know of any evidence for this?

Soils are now very high on Defra’s agenda and it seems that answering questions like this and finding a remedy for such upland soil compaction is a high priority.

However there is a problem. The organisation that could have answered this question The Soil Survey of England and Wales has been disbanded (1987) and today soil science is a low profile academic discipline meaning that there are very few qualified professionals around to carry out such studies.

This has mean that the publication of ‘Soils in Devon IX Soil Survey Record No. 117 by Dr Tim Harrod has been undertaken pro bono by a retired soil scientist from the former Soil Survey of England and Wales. It is a majestic piece of scholarship which should have been funded by the State and not by crowd funding!

 

Defra undoubtedly needs to invest in soil science and soil scientists as otherwise solutions to problems will all too often be based on speculation (as above and here) and not science.

Two days on Dartmoor

I’ve just spent two days up on Dartmoor helping to train our 10 Tors teams (Torquay Boys Grammar School and National Trust’s Wild Tribe). You could hardly have picked two more contrasting days weather wise! Saturday was cold, very misty and drizzly / rainy. Sunday was much warmer and the sun came out. Here are a few pictures from the weekend. This was our penultimate training walk before the event in May so the purpose was to get lots of miles into our teams’ legs, as a result we have been all over the place. No pictures from Saturday morning ….. too foggy.

Still plenty of snow around even at relatively low levels

And here is Hare Tor behind the Willsworthy Range – looks almost like a scene from the Highlands

Still raining but clearing up – Kings Tor from Four Winds

 

And then to our wild camping site behind Foggintor Quarry – Great Staple Tor in the background (middle) with Roos Tor to the right and Cox Tor to the left. Not a bad spot – very wet ground though – had to pick a camping spot carefully.

Sunday by contrast was glorious – here is the East Dart Valley from Postbridge

The clapper bridge a Postbridge – had to wait a while for it to be people free.

Looking across to Fox Tor with the infamous mire in the middle distance

The Devonport Leat near Whiteworks

Another view across to Fox Tor and its mire with Whiteworks in the foreground

Despite the Saturday weather a brilliant weekend, well organised, a big thank you to all the volunteers for checkpointing and congratulations to the young people for putting in the miles.

Does this report signal the resurrection of Natural England and the revitalisation of rural communities?

Today saw the publication of a House of Lords Select Committee report – The countryside at a crossroads: is the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 still fit for purpose? – you can download it here.

On the surface this may seem like a rather dry and obscure topic but this 96 page report analyses how policy work in government has further marginalised rural communities and details how Natural England has been emasculated since May 2010. The report explores why these two issues are important and explains the impact that this has had on rural communities, biodiversity and landscapes. It goes on to make a number of recommendations which aim to rectify the situation. It is a withering critique of the policies of the Coalition and Conservative Governments that have overseen a catalogue of changes which have diminished the quality of rural life and the conservation of biodiversity in England.

For me there is considerable irony in much of this story – the 2006 Act was passed under Tony Blair’s government and was championed by the then Secretary of State David Miliband, Labour were not naturally seen as the party of the countryside. The demolition job that has been carried out since 2010 has happened under political parties who are purported to support country life and the countryside. The main suspects involved were four Conservative Secretaries of State: Caroline Spelman, Owen Paterson, Liz Truss and Andrea Leadsom.

The best way for me to summarise this report is to print below the first five paragraphs of it. The emphases within the text are mine and not those of the Select Committee.

Twelve years have passed since the Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act received Royal Assent in March 2006. This legislation built upon institutional changes that began with the creation of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in 2001. The Act introduced major structural changes, abolishing the Countryside Agency and English Nature and transferring many of their functions to a new body, Natural England, which was charged with conserving, enhancing and managing the natural environment. The Act also sought to promote the interests of rural areas by establishing an independent Commission for Rural Communities, charged with raising awareness of rural needs, and passed responsibility for some elements of rural delivery to the Regional Development Agencies.

Since 2006 many of these provisions have been hollowed out. Natural England has been subjected to severe budget cuts, leading to concerns regarding its ongoing ability to perform core regulatory functions. The Commission for Rural Communities has been abolished and was replaced by a unit within Defra—the Rural Communities Policy Unit (RCPU)—which has itself subsequently been abolished. Rural society, the rural economy and our natural environment have not been well served by these changes.

The Act gave Natural England a broad remit, including the promotion of nature conservation, protection of biodiversity, conservation of the landscape and promotion of public access to the countryside. To deliver against this remit requires adequate resources and—within the recognised procedures applied to non- departmental public bodies—a good degree of independence from Government. Natural England currently enjoys neither of these essential prerequisites.

The Government must address this situation urgently. We recommend that Natural England should be funded to a level commensurate with the delivery of its full range of statutory duties and responsibilities. We share the concerns of witnesses who have told us that Natural England no longer has a distinctive voice and urge the Government to take action in recognition of these concerns. We also make specific recommendations that seek to improve Natural England’s performance of its planning obligations, particularly with regard to conserving the landscape.

The Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) performed an important role as an advocate for rural England. Abolition of the Commission has left a number of gaps in the Government’s understanding of the needs of rural areas; of particular concern is the loss of the CRC’s independent research capacity. More broadly the closure of the CRC and the RCPU, combined with the abolition of the Regional Development Agencies, means that most of the NERC Act’s provisions pertaining to rural communities have now been annulled. This has had a profound negative impact upon the way in which the Government handles rural needs and has diminished focus on the economic potential of rural areas, to the cost of us all.

The Report contains 45 recommendations. 5 about Brexit and the natural environment, 23 about the role of Natural England, 6 around the biodiversity role, 9 about rural communities and 2 about green lanes and rights of way.

In essence the Report states that the Government needs to effectively fund and allow Natural England much more independence and ensure that rural communities are given a voice at the heart of Government.

To achieve this the Report urges that Natural England’s budget is increased significantly, that the rural affairs remit of Defra (Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) is shifted to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and that the responsibility for ‘rural proofing’ future Government policy is taken from Defra and given to the Cabinet Office.

It is easy to forget that before Natural England was emasculated and had its work framed as ‘the badger cull’, ‘sorting out the mess in the uplands’ and ‘hen harrier re-introductions’ it was a strong and powerful voice for nature as was its predecessor body English Nature.

This Report if implemented would make a massive difference to biodiversity and to rural communities in England. I wonder how Michael Gove will react? Will he allow some parts of the Defra empire go so that he and it can focus on the massive task of Brexit, agriculture, the environment and food and will he adequately fund Natural England or will he ignore the recommendations and file the report?

Ben Goldsmith joins the Defra Board – look out Dartmoor!

Ben Goldsmith is a well known environmentalist, he is the son of James and Annabel Goldsmith and brother of Zac Goldsmith, the Tory MP for Richmond Park. He has recently been appointed to the Defra Board. He is also a financial supporter of the Tory group of modernisers known as the Notting Hill set, which includes Michael Gove MP and Secretary of State for the Environment as a member.

This series of tweets about Dartmoor may give us an insight into some of the thinking currently taking place within Defra.

 So is this what ‘public money for public goods’ looks like or we might be going to see some rewilding too?

What will happen to farming in Devon post Brexit?

Yesterday I attended the Devon Local Nature Partnership conference ‘New Horizons for Devon’s Natural Capital’. Great speakers, well attended and well organised. Whilst there are many exciting initiatives happening right now in Devon and the ‘Green Brexit’ mission of Michael Gove gives environmentalists much to be optimistic about with the mantra of ‘public money for pubic goods’, I nevertheless left the conference with a sick feeling in my stomach. What does the future hold for Devon’s multitude of small family farms?

Most of my friends are not rural policy wonks and therefore they are unaware of the situation that farming in Devon (and elsewhere) finds itself. Read on.

Here is Professor Matt Lobley from the Centre for Rural Policy Research (where I work) at the University of Exeter talking about  Farm Business Income. Matt told the audience that the bottom 42% of small farms in England contribute just 2% of agricultural output…. There will be those who say these farmers are inefficient and a widespread re-structuring of the industry is required, I say be careful what you wish for. The consequences for the natural character, landscapes, biodiversity and social fabric of counties like Devon in losing 42% of its small family farms would be immense and would led to outcomes which would fly in the face of the Green Brexit objectives.

The rest of this blog attempts to explain the predicament that farmers in Devon now find themselves and gives a small insight into what has to be done over the coming 5 years. The following data comes from various Defra Farm Income reports.

This graph shows the average Farm Business income in England for the various different types of farming. It shows that across England cereals, grazing livestock (lowlands), grazing livestock LFA (Less Favoured Areas) and  mixed farming all lose money on the agricultural side of their businesses.

This table gives the actual figures included in the above graph. So if we look at Grazing Livestock (lowland) i.e. much of Devon that isn’t on Dartmoor or Exmoor, the figures show that the agricultural business lost £8,700 but agri-environment payments (money for looking after wildlife) generated £3000, diversified income (e.g. running a B & B on the farm) produced £6500, the Basic Payment Scheme (subsidy for owning land) provided £15,300 giving an overall Farm Business Income of £16,100. So £24,800 comes from grants, diversified non agricultural businesses and the Basic Payment Scheme to offset the £8700 agricultural loss giving the family farm an income of £16,100. That is not a living wage, i.e. the income provided is unable to pay the farmer, spouse and other working family members a rate of pay equal to the minimum agricultural wage.

The above figures are the 2016/17 figures for England but if you look at the regional numbers other trends emerge.

These are the 2015/16 figures: the average England FBI figure for grazing livestock is £14,400 but in the south west this drops to £10,300. The dairy sector on the other hand is stronger in the south west.

Here are the summary forecasts for 2017/18.

And here are the detailed forecast figures for 2017/18 along with the trends since 2012/13, an 8% decline for upland hill-farmers (LFA) and a standstill position for lowland grazing livestock. A major increase for dairy and a substantial one for cereals. A volatile market but a very precarious one for livestock farmers.

There are some pretty stark numbers in these datasets. Many farms, particularly small farms make small margins and many others are very reliant on agri-environment grants and the Basic Payment Scheme. After we leave the EU the Basic Payment Scheme will be phased out and public money for farmers will be provided in return for the provision of public goods (e.g. wildlife, access, looking after the historic environment, carbon storage, flood prevention, provision of drinking water etc). The following table shows the scale of the shift in policy and the implications of what might happen if it can’t be achieved.

The column titled CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) Subsidy is the sum of the agri-environment grants and the BPS subsidy. This is the amount of money therefore that farmers will have to earn via the provision of pubic goods if they are to maintain their current income levels. The final column shows what the impact would be on their Farm Business Income if they are unable to do this.

And here’s the rub – some farms on account of their location are much better placed than others to provide a suite of public goods and therefore receive public money. So for example hill-farmers in National Parks have made a very strong case that they can provide these public goods as these areas are rich in natural capital and this has been acknowledged by Government. On the other hand lowland graziers perhaps will find it much more difficult to provide public goods as they are not situated in National Parks with Bronze Age landscapes and Special Areas of Conservation where millions of people go for access and recreation.

The stated aim of these changes is to leave the environment in a better condition than it is in now, this means changes to the way things are done. Judging by the conversations that I’ve heard hill-farmers might be able to provide £22,800 worth of public goods to make up for the loss of their Basic Payment Scheme subsidy, the question is whether for example lowland graziers can provide £15,300 and dairy farmers £25,300 worth of public goods in return for the money.

I had a conversation with Robin Milton, Chair of Exmoor National Park, hill-farmer and NFU Uplands chair about this very topic yesterday and that was why I left the conference with a sick feeling in my stomach.