I’ve now had a chance to read the section in Matthew Kelly’s book Quartz and Feldspar on farming on the moor (see here for details of the book and here for my blog on Preservation and Amenity from the book).
Again it is really interesting to read the perspective of a historian when it comes to the history and farming on Dartmoor – when you are a protagonist it is often difficult to see the Moor for the Molinia. What follows is my interpretation of Matthew Kelly’s historical analysis!
Farming on Dartmoor is carried out by the Commoners – families who have rights to graze the Commons (which others own) based upon the locations of their farms. Although these rights have changed over the years this system goes back centuries and it is these practices (the grazing of sheep, cattle and ponies) that have shaped Dartmoor.
Collective grazing on a finite resource can cause friction and conflict – a phenomenon described by the concept of ‘The Tradegy of the Commons’ – “a valued natural or human-made resource or facility that is available to more than one person and subject to degradation as a result of overuse”. This concept has always been at the heart of policy and politics on Dartmoor. Whilst the 200 or so active Commoners share the same job title they should be viewed more as a collection of individuals rather than a collective.
Kelly details how the Commoning system used to operate up until the end of the 19th century. It was a system known as transhumance – that is the summer grazing of the high moor followed by wintering of stock in the lowlands. This was known as levancy and couchancy. This all came to an end with the introduction of new types of stock – the White face Dartmoor sheep were replaced largely by the more hardy Scottish black face and the Devon Red Cattle were replaced by Belted Galloways. This enabled all year round grazing – a major controversial change to the old traditions and one which started the process of major changes to the landscape.
This intensification of grazing pressures was also paired with MAFF’s (The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) desire to see further agricultural improvements such as re-seeding, drainage and fertiliser applications. This only led to more controversy especially as now Dartmoor was designated as a National Park.
The awful winter of 1962 brought Dartmoor firmly into national view – a prolonged period of deep snow meant that many animals perished on the high moor during the winter from starvation and the cold. Questions were raised in Parliament and many accused the Commoners of putting profit ahead of animal welfare – a situation some said exacerbated by overstocking and winter grazing.
1981 saw the introduction of the Wildlife and Countryside Act which substantially beefed up the protection of the Sites of Special Scientific Interest which covered the majority of the high moor. This legislation coupled with the introduction of the first Countryside Stewardship schemes saw farmers paid but regulated to manage the moor in a way that was more compatible with its ecological and wildlife interests. Farmers were no longer paid for the number of animals they put on the moor (the controversial headage payment scheme) and restrictions began to appear on when and where swaling (the burning of moorland vegetation) could take place.
Tied in with this was the introduction of the Dartmoor Commons Act in 1985 which saw a new legislative framework brought in to regulate the Commoners via the Dartmoor Commoners Council – a legal mechanism for managing ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’. The first attempt to introduce the Act had failed as it was considered to give too much weight to agriculture and not enough to environmental protection.
Since then a kind of peace has emerged on Dartmoor – one which has seen improved management of the moor for its special wildlife but in parallel though, farm incomes for the Commoners have declined which in many cases has caused real hardship.
Whilst the management of the moor has improved or at least not deteriorated further the fact still remains that in the view of Natural England much of the Common land on Dartmoor is “not in favourable condition”. Despite the millions of pounds that have been spent supporting the Commoners there is still a long way to go to achieve “favourable condition”. The ‘kind of peace’ I described earlier is characterised by a simmering resentment from the Commoners at the power and influence that Natural England exert over their activities combined with a real fear about their own financial viability into the future despite the significant funding they receive.
The next few years, I feel, will be critical – will the Commoners survive and will the ecological condition of the moor improve? Most people involved on Dartmoor believe that it must, as there is no Plan B. However there are a few voices beyond the moor who think they have a Plan B – the re-wilding agenda and this will be the subject of a future blog.