Hill-farming in a time of change. Stories from Dartmoor

Here is my paper from the Exmoor Society Conference in April recently published in the Exmoor Review – the text below is what I actually wrote …..

Hill-farming in a time of change. Stories from Dartmoor

Schemes, atmospheric pollution, climate change and Brexit

Adrian Colston PhD Researcher,

The Centre for Rural Policy Research, The University of Exeter

 I am a practitioner turned researcher – trying to understand why people disagree about upland management and grazing. I’ve had a 35-year career in conservation for the Wildlife Trusts and the National Trust – most recently 12 years as the General Manager for the NT on Dartmoor. I decided to undertake this research because I couldn’t understand what was happening on Dartmoor’s Commons – the reality didn’t seem to fit the narrative. Are the current problems on Dartmoor really caused by overgrazing?

I am now working as a rural social scientist and I’ve interviewed hill-farmers, conservationists, archaeologists, academics, landowners and representatives of relevant statutory bodies.

The quotes that follow are from various Dartmoor hill-farmers who were interviewed as part of this research.

During the headage payment era there is unanimous agreement that there was too much stock on Dartmoor’s Commons.

When were on headage payments it did get to the point where we were overgrazing, there is no doubt about it, but it wasn’t because we were bad farmers it was because we were following policy.  And it became stock or be stocked so you either stocked up to keep the other people’s animals out or you got swallowed up and your lear [1] was totally trashed.

The headage era was replaced with agri-environment schemes – the Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) scheme on Dartmoor was introduced in 1995. They resulted in the almost instant halving of sheep and cattle numbers and total removal of cattle in winter, under highly prescriptive management regimes with farmers being fined (or threatened with fines) for failure to comply.

Yes, there has been overgrazing, but I think when the environmentalists came in and said stop grazing, it should have been a managed withdrawal – not that we stopped overnight, because the Molinia [2] has taken over and it has drowned out more than we had lost, the environmentalists have lost more than we ever did.

 Whilst the agri-environment schemes paid farmers to reduce stock numbers it led to many acrimonious arguments amongst neighbours about how the monies were to be split.

 There are villages here that farmers won’t help when they used to calf a cow, because the environmental agreements have caused such a rift between the haves and the have-nots.  The ones that feel that some have received more money than they should have; there’s ones that have taken environmental scheme money and are not doing what they were asked to do because there isn’t the staff to police it.

 The prescriptive nature of the schemes also disempowered farmers.

 “.. they never gave us any credence that we had any knowledge whatsoever.  We felt, we were treated as second class citizens, basically unintelligent and had to be shown what we had to do at every whip and turn.”

 The prescriptions detailed by the ESA changed the behavior and hardiness of the cattle.

 All these animals (i.e. cattle) that are used to their lear, majority haven’t got a lear anymore because they are taken away from November until 15th April and then they’ve been indoors and they aren’t hill animals anymore, they’ve been brainwashed into being indoors and to expect them then to go out on Hangingstone [3] and live out there, well that’s not going to happen.

As a result, cattle and sheep often congregate in the lower parts of the moor in places where the sweeter grasses grow – these areas are then heavily grazed.

 I am going to tell you something from personal experience.  The quickest way to overgraze 30-40% of a Common, is to undergraze 60%

 The reduction in stock numbers saw a huge rise in the area of Molinia (which becomes tinder dry in the autumn, if ungrazed) and Western Gorse (Ulex gallii). The prescriptions saw restrictions on swaling [4]practices. Burning was prohibited from areas of blanket bog and the areas of dry heath which could be burnt were reduced in extent. As a result, in large parts of the moor there are huge areas of vegetation which are at risk from wild fires.

 It becomes almost impossible to burn on the Commons now there’s so much fuel load there, it is frightening, no-one wants to be responsible because we know we’ll be fined if we get it wrong.

 The huge rise in Molinia and gorse has impacted on access too, in order to walk on the Commons you frequently now need to follow the well-trodden tracks or the quad bike trails to get around.  The increase in vegetation has also impacted on the historic environment – smothering, for example stone rows and stone circles – 60% of all stone rows in England are on Dartmoor.

The overgrazing narrative however is hard to shift – it is still the dominant narrative for many conservationists. As a result, there are still calls to reduce stocking numbers.

In addition, atmospheric pollution from nitrogen causes acidification, fertilises Molinia, makes heather shoots more palatable to sheep and causes increasingly frequent and severe heather beetle attacks thus exacerbating the problems of Molinia dominant-heather depleted Commons. A problem that is poorly understood by conservationists and hill-farmers. Climate change is also reconfiguring habitats and species and the enhanced carbon dioxide levels are encouraging the growth of Molinia

However, the Molinia problem can be reduced, as has been shown at Molland Moor on Exmoor. Natural England have granted a derogation which permits all year round grazing by a herd of Galloway cattle which are supplementary fed in the winter. The Molinia has been dramatically reduced and the heather is returning. A similar trial at Gidleigh Common on Dartmoor is now underway.

However, increasing the number of cattle is not without its problems and will take time, if permitted.

Interviewer:   A lot of people tell me now that it’s not so easy upping the numbers of cattle back to what it was?

 Hill-farmer: No of course you can’t.  Because we have to breed our own, keep our own heifers and our own new lambs, because you can’t go Exeter (Market) on a Friday when you live here and buy your replacements because they won’t last here 2 minutes

In the uplands 91% of income comes from the basic payment scheme and 131% from subsidies as a whole.  Brexit means that we may need to re-design subsidies intelligently, and we may only have 7 years to do it.

Brexit could mean that agriculture becomes unsustainable, if the support isn’t there. So, if Brexit kicks in like they say it is going to kick in and there is no support then agriculture could be decimated for livestock producers, which will have a big effect up here. 

Initiatives like Dartmoor Farming Futures are attempting to give power and responsibility back to the hill-farmer but to date progress and uptake has been limited.

So, after listening to that for 30 years there are many farmers who will not make decisions on their own now. We’ve had this, since the 90s, that is a whole generation.  So, the new generation have lost some of the old ways because were not allowed to do it, so the next generation hasn’t really got the knowledge unfortunately, even under the Farming Futures in the Forest because for so many years we have been stopped doing things, people just aren’t coming out with what they want to do.  They can’t seem to grasp that we can come forward with things it’s been so long. They just haven’t grasped that there is some empowerment there for the farmer

If you get the narratives wrong you will get the solutions wrong too. This is really important as we head towards a new era of public money for public goods, payment by results and an outcomes approach. Particularly at a time when hill-farm incomes are hard pressed and the future agricultural support schemes are unclear.

The new Schemes need to resolve how to undo the undergrazing of extensive areas of the Dartmoor’s Commons – cattle grazing needs to be encouraged and made financially viable.

If we need and want a pastoral landscape we have to re-empower farmers to take responsibility for managing their land to produce the outcomes society wants and nature needs.  We need to rediscover local knowledge and find solutions that work locally, not those that are imposed

[1] A lear (or heft) is an area where a flock or herd of animals is shepherded – it becomes home to those animals and they remain in that place.

[2] Molinia is the scientific name of Purple Moor Grass and is the word used by hill-farmers to describe the species.

[3] Hangingstone Hill is on the high North moor in the Forest of Dartmoor Common.

[4] Swaling is the traditional Dartmoor practice of managing vegetation by controlled burning.

Glover’s Landscape Review and Cultural Landscapes

The Review commissioned by Michael Gove and led by Julian Glover has just published its final report and it is entitled ‘Landscapes Review’. It can be downloaded from the Defra website here.

This isn’t a full review of the report but highlights a few of the comments in it that relate to ‘cultural landscapes’ and IUCN Category V protected areas.

They are places which are lived in and farmed, as well as places full of nature, known by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as ‘Category V’: “areas where the interaction of people and nature over time has produced an area of distinct character with significant ecological, biological, cultural and scenic value”.

The 2016 report from the IUCN, Putting nature on the map, is a useful starting point because it recognises that our national landscapes are different from many others elsewhere in the world.

It states that landscape designation in England is based on “a clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long‐term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values”. These ‘Category V’ designations, which the UK led the way with, recognise the importance of protecting lived‐in landscapes. “In the case of conflict, nature conservation will be the priority,” it adds.  (p25)

To do this, we need people and nature to work together. We should encourage creative harmony.

They should do this through management which protects and enhances their special qualities as landscapes shaped by human and natural activity.

They should become exemplars of the IUCN’s Category V landscapes, supporting the very best in nature and natural beauty.  (p36)

Revised National Park Purpose and Duty No. 1

A revised statutory purpose that combines natural beauty and cultural heritage with the delivery of biodiversity and natural capital would be very significant. It would be a new statement of the national importance of our national landscapes in providing vital, life supporting ecosystem services, to be placed alongside their established role in protecting landscape and nature of national importance. It would also help enshrine the essential link between people and nature.  (p38)

The Glover Review Team have strongly sided with Cultural Landscapes – an article I wrote in 2017 about the designation of the Lake District as a World Heritage Site and cultural landscape gives some indication of the controversy around such a notion – see here. This second piece also shows how the cultural environment  and natural environment can collide – see here.

That said, the Review team are also very strong in saying that National Parks and AONBs, to be called in future National Landscapes, need a ‘renewed mission to recover and enhance nature’.

Any hill-farmers reading this will no doubt be very relieved – the rewilders  may not be

I suspect in the coming days we may hear more about this ……. as I haven’t seen anything yet …..

Heather beetle damage on Dartmoor 2019

I have been very surprised how much Heather Beetle damage there is on Dartmoor this year. The Heather Beetle larvae hatch in June and then feed on the young leaves and shoots. As a result the affected parts of the heather plant turn orange brown.

Heather Beetle damage. It is very characteristic and eye catching.

Last week I walked from Rowtor on Okehampton Common up the military road to Observation Post 15 and then down to Ockerton Court. All the way along the track there are signs of extensive damage to the heather plants – I would estimate that over 90% of plants are affected.

Work carried out in the north of England and in Scotland suggest that the larvae are active until the end of August when they drop down into the litter and pupate into adult beetles. Despite three separate searches on Okehampton Common, the Forest of Dartmoor and Headland Warren Common I only managed to find three larvae and one adult beetle.

Here is a Heather Beetle larvae on Okehampton Common eating the few remaining green leaves of the plant.

I suspect that the absence of larvae and adults during my searches in the first week of August means that the larvae have already dropped into the litter and are beginning to pupate – as a result larvae and adults are not visible. However the very extensive areas of damaged heather indicates that they have been very active in June and July.

It is possible for the heather to recover from this attack and I will be monitoring it to see if it does. However parts or all of the heather plant can be killed. When this happens the shoots turn from orange brown to grey.

This is mature heather at Ockerton Court which has been killed by Heather Beetle

In this image the areas of dead heather (darker brown bits) are being over run by Purple Moor Grass (Molinia caerulea) – the bright green shoots of this year’s growth and the light brown leaves from last year. Molinia is unable to replace heather whilst the heather is alive but can and does do so when it is dead.

Heather Beetle is a seriously under-recorded species on Dartmoor – the National Biodiversity Network database has just one record and the is from Fingle Woods and not from the high moor!

There is clearly a need to gather more records ….

There is anecdotal evidence nationally that Heather Beetle attacks are getting worse and it has been suggested (based on research from the Netherlands) that the severity and frequency of Heather Beetle outbreaks is linked to the levels of atmospheric pollution – particularly nitrogen levels.

Dartmoor receives high levels of nitrogen deposition as a result of its high rainfall – Natural England have reported that Dartmoor receives 24kg / ha / annum of nitrogen (as NOx) which is damaging the blanket bog and mires. This high level of nitrogen deposition may also be responsible for the high levels of Heather Beetle damage.

Heather Beetles are a natural part of the moorland wildlife community and historically damage to heather was limited except in the ‘outbreak’ years. Last year when I was walking the Commons in July I also noticed extensive areas of affected heather – at this point in time heavy attacks appear to be frequent – maybe even annual.

There are implications for wildlife, conservation and hill-farming as a result of these serious Heather Beetle attacks.

  1. The heather plants themselves are either killed or remain stunted
  2. The species of wildlife which feed on heather shoots are also impacted – this includes moth species such as the Emperor Moth and the Fox Moth, whose hairy caterpillars are important prey items for one of Dartmoor’s iconic and successful birds – the cuckoo.
  3. Heather has long been a conservation indicator for the condition of Dartmoor’s Commons and historically grazing levels were reduced significantly to reduce overgrazing pressures to conserve heather.
  4. Heather is also a winter food for sheep on the Commons, if the amount of heather generally is significantly reduced as a result of Heather Beetle attacks it put pressure of the remaining plants that have survived.

Ironically it is thought that the severity and frequency of Heather Beetle attacks has increased because the nitrogen has made the young shoots and leaves more nutritious, it is also reported that sheep preferentially graze the new shoots too for the same reason.

There is a dearth of information on Heather Beetle issues on Dartmoor but from my own observations this year and last it is a potentially serious and widespread problem. However it would also appear that the problem is not universal across the moor. I searched for it in the heather stands around the Warren House Inn  and found Heather Beetle attacks to be minor – perhaps this level of damage is the natural level – whereas the levels seen on Okehampton Common, the north part of the Forest and on Headland Warren Common are the outbreak levels.

It seems to me that there is a clear need to better understand the Heather Beetle situation on Dartmoor, this would be in the interests of Natural England, the Dartmoor National Park Authority and the Dartmoor Commoners Council. The time to survey for the impacts of Heather Beetle is July and August. Maybe a bit of ‘Citizen Science’ could come to the rescue?

I would also be interested to hear from people who have found the characteristic orange brown stands of heather this year on Dartmoor.

I’ve written before about Heather Beetles and this link takes you to my blog which contains further information and some references you can download.

The wildfire site at Gidleigh

I’ve been back to Gidleigh Common today to see what the wildfire area (April 2018) looks like this spring.

The wildfire area is the green bit. The brown bits are the areas of ungrazed Molinia (Purple Moor Grass) which were not affected by the fire. The rocks on the skyline top right are Watern Tor.

Just to the south is the rest of Gidleigh Common, part of Chagford Common and the new takes up to Sittaford Tor. As you can see the majority of it is dominated by Molinia.

Amongst the green bits were five different herds of cattle – all Galloways or Belted Galloways – the black dots in the picture. The cattle were only grazing in the fire area and none in the Molinia. These cattle are not Gidleigh Common cattle – they have been drawn in from elsewhere – mainly the Forest of Dartmoor. The cattle love the new sweet grass that grows after a fire. That is good for the burnt area but bad for the unburnt areas which simply become more overgrown. It looks there will be no grazing this year (again) in places like the flanks of Hangingstone Hill (see yesterday’s blog – here).

The Gidleigh Galloways (and some ponies) were grazing to the north on an area that was burnt 7 years ago but has been grazed every year since. Again the areas of Molinia to the right are untouched.

Too much Molinia and not enough cattle ….

Gidleigh Commoners are currently trialling winter grazing of Galloways – they won’t eat much of the Molinia in the winter but they do trample it down. The winter feeding of the cattle is being done sympathetically by good shepherding and there appears to be no detrimental effects.

What for the future?

Some hill-farmers advocate new light burns each year in adjacent Molinia patches to lure the cattle onto the new growth. But without more cattle (which hill-farm economics does not really encourage) it is hard to see how the Molinia problem can be ‘solved’ on the Home Commons such as Gidleigh – let alone the massive Forest of Dartmoor Common which is now largely a Molinia jungle.

This whole topic is down for debate at the Dartmoor Commoners Council meeting this Wednesday …..should be interesting but I bet there won’t be a consensus.

 

 

A ray of hope in the Forest?

I went for a long walk on Dartmoor yesterday up into the Forest of Dartmoor. For those of you not familiar with the area it is dominated these day by Molinia – Purple Moor grass. Walking is only comfortable if you follow defined tracks as the vegetation is now very overgrown and under grazed.

Here is the view from the flanks over Hangingstone Hill looking over towards Steeperton Tor and the Belstone Ridge. The light coloured vegetation is Molinia and the darker patches in the middle distance are areas of heather (Calluna vulgaris).

Here is a close up version of the same habitat. As you can see the vegetation is ungrazed. Historically this area would have been grazed and summer grazing by cattle along with their winter trampling would have controlled the growth.

I have been to this area many times over the past 18 months and have never seen any cattle up here, only a handful of sheep and a herd of ponies. The ponies too can make a difference but their numbers are much reduced and there are now few incentives for hill-farmers to increase their pony numbers.

However there is an area between Okement Hill and Hangingstone Hill where there is still an active lear (an area where stock have been shepherded to remain and graze). Here the area has been grazed in the summer and the Molinia growth has been eaten. In addition the heather is thriving.

If only this could be replicated over the thousands of acres of ungrazed Molinia on the moor but sadly the shepherding practices and numbers of cattle required currently aren’t in place and moorland economics make such a prospect remote. Something for the new Environmental Land Management Schemes to address?

The web of life – badgers, bees and bee-flies

So here is a badger foraging in my garden

It digs holes and scrapes in its search for food

And then …. a Tawny Mining Bee (Andrena fulva) excavates her nest in one of the badger scrapes – the entrance looks like a little volcano.

And this is the female Tawny Mining Bee who excavated this nest

And here she is emerging from her nest

Lurking nearby is the Dark Bordered Bee-fly (Bombylious major) which is a parasitoid i.e. it lays it egg in the burrow of the Tawny Mining Bee (and other species) – its larvae then eat the larvae of the bee

Also lurking in the nearby flower bed is Gooden’s Nomad Bee (Nomada goodeniana) – another parasitoid species, but this a bee not a fly and fortunately for the Tawny Mining Bee it lays its eggs in the nests of other Mining Bee species

And all of this happening in my back garden in Exeter over the past couple of weeks …..