Time to go wild with George Monbiot?

National Parks in the UK recently held their biennial national conference on Dartmoor. One of their invited speakers was George Monbiot – the Guardian environmental journalist, author of Feral and founder of Re-wilding Britain. Peter Harper, Chair of the Dartmoor National Park Authority has kindly sent me a link to Monbiot’s presentation which has been posted on You Tube. You can watch the whole talk below. It is pretty hard hitting and well worth watching – it is around 30 minutes long.

George’s talk was covered by the Western Morning News and attracted quite a lot of media coverage – see here.

The basic premise of his talk is that the upland areas of Britain have been devastated by sheep grazing (which he called the ‘white plague’) and over burning. In Northern uplands he also turns his vitriol on the rearing of grouse and the stalking of deer. He goes on to say that these practices are made possible as a result of farming subsidies. Monbiot suggests that organisations such as the National Parks  have turned a blind eye to the damage caused, instead focusing on the importance of the cultural aspects of upland farming.

Sheep and lamb 3A Scottish black face or a member of the white plague?

Peter Harper, who invited Mr Monbiot, said he believed 90 per cent of upland farmers would not be there without the subsidies. “Upland farming isn’t sustainable in its present form. We have a very challenging job ahead of us to change the status quo. But it’s all about working with people, not demonising them.”

So how does all of this relate to Dartmoor? Interestingly I have recently been working on a report on our 3000 acre Upper Plym Estate. This site is of European importance for its wildlife habitats but is considered to be in ‘unfavourable condition’ by Natural England. I have spent much of my 11 years on Dartmoor trying to work with the Commoners (who graze the moor with their sheep, cattle and ponies) and Natural England who regulate the management of the moor for wildlife to improve matters.

I have prepared a series of maps which show the changes on the Upper Plym since 1990.

Blanket bog 1990Area of good quality blanket bog in 1990

Blanket bog 2006Area of good quality blanket bog in 2006

Heathland 1990Extent of heathland in 1990

Heathland 2006Extent of heathland in 2006

Heather in cats 1&2 1990Heather in good condition in 1990 (NB heather also grows on the blanket bog as well as the heathland)

Heather in cats 1 & 2 2006Heather in good condition in 2006

Heather condition 1990-2006Areas where heather quality has declined between 1990 and 2006

These maps do not tell a happy tale. Our land is now in far worse condition than it was in 1990 as a result of overgrazing and burning (known as swaling on Dartmoor). We have recently  commissioned a further vegetation survey – I have yet to receive the document but has spoken to the author who confirms that the overall situation has probably not deteriorated further but neither has it improved. Since around 2002 the entire area has been subject to either an Environmentally Sensitive Area agreement or a Higher Level Stewardship agreement which has paid the Commoners and the NT (as landowner we get 10% of the payments but have no specific input into the management) to manage the land in a way which will be beneficial to its special interest (i.e. the blanket bog, the wet and dry heathlands). It has failed to deliver those improvements but it probably has halted the declines.

Monbiot has merely articulated in his own inimitable fashion what conservationists have known for a long time. The difference is that we have been trying to work with Natural England and the Commoners to give time to allow the reduced stocking numbers and revised and reduced burning schedules to yield their benefits. Our pending 2015 report shows that this approach isn’t working. Major change is needed.

So if the current system isn’t working what might? Monbiot recommends ‘re-wilding’ the removal of the sheep and the cessation of burning which will then allow natural processes to occur and the open moor revert back to the woodlands they once supported 6000+ years ago.

Farming on Dartmoor (and all the other UK uplands) is on a knife edge – without the subsidy many, if not all upland farmers may go bankrupt. The grazing and burning might cease and trees could grow, the farming culture could be lost, access might be changed and the historical landscape (for example the relic monuments from the Bronze Age such as stone circles, rows and huts) could be smothered by scrub.

SAM mapOur land in the Upper Plym is as important for its historic landscape as it should be for its wildlife

As Peter Harper said earlier in this blog “We have a very challenging job ahead of us to change the status quo. But it’s all about working with people, not demonising them”.

How true that is – but we have got to the point where the status quo, however must change, for wildlife, the historic environment, the Commoners and local communities.

This is the most important issue facing Dartmoor and I will be returning to it over the coming weeks and months – new economic models and management prescriptions are needed if we are all to move forwards.


15 thoughts on “Time to go wild with George Monbiot?

  1. Good stuff Adrian. Is there not another problem on Dartmoor – specifically that as the scrub develops it is dominated by the two gorses and these are vulnerable to accidental or deliberate burns. This repeated burning of gorse will hold back the succession to woodland. I’m not sure what the answer to this is. Perhaps in the long term (decades) enough trees will get established and eventually the gorseburn problem will disappear. In the meantime though the moor could become a rather dangerous place in dry conditions.

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