Yesterday in my blog I wrote about what I thought leaving the EU might mean for Cornwall – see here. Today I will have a go at discussing what Brexit might mean for Dartmoor. This is pretty complex and bewildering – you have been warned.
One might think that being adjacent to each other the Dartmoor and Cornwall stories are similar. They are not though – Cornwall is a special case. The economy of Cornwall (measured by GDP) is 62% of the national average. This means that it is one of the poorest places in Europe and as a result Cornwall was given ‘Objective 1’ status by the EU and was able to access the ‘Structural Funds’. These funds provided the millions of euros for such projects as the setting up of the University at Penryn and funding for the dualling of the A30. The Isles of Scilly are also subject to Objective 1 designation and they too have received significant Structural Fund monies for projects such as the airport expansion and the quay redevelopment.
Whilst Dartmoor’s economy is below that national average it is not so low as to warrant Objective 1 designation and as a result none of the EU Structural Fund money has come to Dartmoor. Various other EU grants have come to projects on Dartmoor, for example the Castle Drogo project received a couple of hundred thousand pounds from the Interreg scheme. There are other examples no doubt as well but none are in the same league as the Structural Fund projects.
The main source of EU funding for Dartmoor comes from the Common Agricultural Policy. This is not unique to Dartmoor it is how farming is subsidised across the UK and Europe. There are two funds – Pillar 1 funds pay farmers via the Single Payment Scheme now known as the Basic Payment Scheme based upon the area of land they look after and Pillar 2 funds are provided through schemes such as Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) now known as Countryside Stewardship – here farmers are encouraged to carry out positive management to encourage biodiversity and other environmental features.
This funding stream for Dartmoor’s farmings, landowners and environment is substantial and vital – it amounts to around £7m per annum. It is a complex and controversial process.
The Pillar 1 money – the Basic Payment Scheme is administered by the Rural Payments Agency (part of DEFRA) and this year there have been huge delays in making the payments, there are still some who haven’t received their money which was promised at Christmas. There have been Parliamentary Inquiries and it is still a mess. This has put huge and unnecessary pressure on beleaguered upland farmers. This muddle is of the UK Government’s making not the EU.
The Pillar 2 money in the Countryside Stewardship (CS), formerly known as Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) schemes is finite and has to be competed for. Priority is given to farmers who look after sites of European importance for their wildlife. On Dartmoor this means the two huge Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) – see the map below. These two large SACs are made up of many Commons and are farmed via grazing with sheep, cattle and ponies by the Commoners who have ancestral rights associated with their farms off the high moor. These Commoners and the landowners of the high moor have to come together and agree with Natural England how the moor is to be managed i.e. what will the grazing levels and swaling regimes be and then they have to haggle amongst themselves as to how the money will be split amongst them. This has proved to be very divise, it has split Dartmoor communities and led to feuds and much unhappiness.
There are around 120 active Commoners on Dartmoor along with a greater number of Commoners who do not exercise their rights. The stakes are very high – I know of Commoners who receive over £50k per annum from their HLS/CS schemes. There are others who receive much less or indeed nothing at all.
The process behind this has been drawn up by DEFRA / Natural England and not by the EU. It would have been much better for Dartmoor and its Commoners if a system of HLS/CS allocation had been devised which had not pitted farmer against farmer in squabbles for the money.
So the key question for the future is – will there be £7m per annum for Dartmoor’s farmers to keep them on the hills and to manage the moor’s special habitats, wildlife and archaeology?
The Leave campaigners have said yes, of course there will be funding for farmers once we have left – we will just have to wait and see and hope for the best. But many of these people are opposed to the green movement calling it the green blob and George Eustice has said the following “The UK could develop a more flexible approach to environmental protection free of spirit-crushing Brussels directives if it votes to leave the EU …”
I suspect one of the ‘spirit-crushing’ Directives he is referring to is the Habitats Directive. This is the very Directive which formed the network of Special Areas of Conservation to protect the habitats and species of Dartmoor (and elsewhere).
It should be noted that the selection of SACs in the UK was the responsibility of our Government and the task was carried out by Natural England with the assistance of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. The selection criteria for Dartmoor’s SACs can be viewed here.
In essence the habitats that are a primary reason for selection of Dartmoor as an SAC are:-
Northern Atlantic wet heaths with Erica tetralix
European dry heaths
Old sessile oak woods with Ilex and Blechnum
On the surface this seems straight forwards even if it is rather technically written. The Government have tasked Natural England to ensure that the country’s SACs are in favourable condition by 2020. Thus the HLS/CS funding schemes are targeted at the SACs to ensure their management is for the benefit of the wildlife.
The dismantling of the SACs / Habitats Directive following Brexit could detrimentally impact on the conservation of Dartmoor’s special places. However all is not lost as the SAC network on Dartmoor based upon the Sites of Special Scientific Interest network which is based on the UK Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 – see the map below and compare to the SAC map.
Currently the Dartmoor moorland SACs are not in favourable condition. I have written extensively about this in the past making specific mention of the National Trust’s Estate in the Upper Plym and heather – see here (the bit after George Monbiot).
However Natural England have further interpreted the SAC designation for Dartmoor, the eagle eyed of you, might have spotted in the JNCC citation that beside the Blanket bog description it also says ‘* Priority feature‘. In order to get the SAC into favourable condition it is only the priority feature which needs to be in favourable condition and not the other habitats. I have heard senior Natural England and DNPA repeat this which explains why there is now less concern from the statutory bodies regarding the state of heather on the moor.
So the woes surrounding the distribution of existing monies and the arguments concerning the condition of the moor are matters controlled now by the UK Government and their agencies. If they chose so to do the funding allocation procedures could be simplified for farmers tomorrow. Additionally if Natural England chose to include all habitats that are the ‘primary reason’ for SAC selection then the circular debates that are currently taking place might also be resolved.
So the real outstanding questions are:-
1 Will the post Brexit Government allocate £7m per annum to Dartmoor farmers or will they get less?
2 What strings will be attached to these monies? Will they be their solely to support farmers or will they also be there to incentivise protecting the precious landscape, its habitats, wildlife and archaeology for others to enjoy?
Upland farmers are iconic beings and as James Rebanks has demonstrated in his book ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ they are hugely popular and respected by the public.
In a similar vein Dartmoor as a place is loved too and any attempts to water down its protection will be met with outrage and uproar.
Nevertheless the future is very uncertain and in the overall scheme of things Dartmoor, its farmers and its natural environment may not get the attention they need when they need it.