A new chapter begins – I start my PhD this week

After working for 33 years for environmental charities (The National Trust, The Wildlife Trusts and RSPB) I have decided to do something different! This week sees the start of my work on a PhD at the University of Exeter in the Department of Politics.


Below is my research proposal which was drawn up prior to us voting to leave the European Union.

The conflicts on Dartmoor’s Commons
– the politics of farming and the environment

Dartmoor has always divided opinions – to some it is England’s last wilderness, to others it is an open farmed and cultural landscape, many describe it as bleak and dangerous whilst others enjoy nothing more than endlessly exploring it. Overlaying the opinions Dartmoor is internationally important for its wildlife habitats and its historic environment, it provides a home and livelihood to the Commoners and others, it is the source of much Devon’s drinking water and in its blanket bogs is a huge store of carbon.

Dartmoor has been a place of great change since the Neolithic period when the wildwood started to be cleared for agriculture. Today change is driven by economics, environmental policy, the public’s desire for recreation and by climate change.

Trying to accommodate so many disparate objectives against the drivers of change has proven difficult and divisive. This division has often been portrayed as a conflict between farming and the environment – a battle between ‘town and country’. This approach though misrepresents the situation. There are also tensions within the farming community – a modern day ‘ tragedy of the Commons’ and the environmental sector is not united, often holding very different views based upon sectional interests and objectives.

The purpose of this PhD is to research various aspects of these conflicts to understand better the various stakeholders’ aspirations and anxieties.

I will use a range of methods such as literature review, expert judgment, focus groups, and interviews. I will not be setting out quadrats and doing vegetation and soil analysis. In other words, that this is essentially a social science thesis but one deeply infirmed by my own and other’s environmental management experience.

Proposed themes of research

  1. A literature review which contextualizes the Commons’ conflicts and discusses why the current policies, funding streams and plans have not been as effective as hoped.
  1. Moorland Condition. This topic is at the heart of debate. Natural England assess that the majority of Dartmoor’s designated Commons (Special Areas of Conservation and Sites of Special Scientific Interest) are not in ‘favourable condition’ despite a regulatory framework and decades of environmental farming subsidies.

Areas of research to include: Are Dartmoor’s Commons undergrazed or overgrazing, excessively burnt or swaled appropriately? Why is heather such a contentious plant? Why do the Commoners not trust Natural England or their management prescriptions, Is a ‘favourable condition’ approach the right approach?

  1. The Historic Environment. Dartmoor’s historic landscape is as important as its ecological one but many archaeologists are concerned that not enough attention is given to its conservation when compared to the management for wildlife. There are also a range of views amongst archaeologists and paleo-botanists which are seldom heard by a wider audience as they are not so well represented by vocal and powerful NGOs.

Areas of research to include: What do archaeologists want to happen on the Commons, what about bracken and heather, what do the paleo-botanists want?

  1. The Cultural Environment and upland farm economics

At the heart of the debate are 175 farmers and their families who manage the Commons. They appear to feel increasingly threatened and fear that their traditions are being lost as a result of policies driven by various parts of Government and NGOs

Areas of research to include: Detailed analysis of views, what do they want, what is their role / responsibility in delivering ecosystem services, how do they see their prospects in the future, what is their views on subsidies, grazing levels, swaling etc?

  1. Mire restoration

In recent years additional emphasis has been placed on the conservation of Dartmoor’s peat and in particular the blanket bog. Trial projects have been conducted over the past 5 years in partnership with South West Water and various academic institutes. These projects have proven to be surprisingly controversial with some Commoners and some archaeologists.

Areas of research to include: Analysis of need and scope of mire restoration on the Commons, why were the trials so controversial, what needs to be done in the future?

  1. Re-wilding

The re-wilding’ debate on Dartmoor has been fierce and highly contested. Does re-wilding or ‘soft’ re-wilding have any role to play when it comes to biodiversity, farming or flood prevention?

Areas of research to include: What do the various stakeholders think, what do the paleo-botanists think, what might ‘soft re-wilding look like?

  1. Conclusions

Professor Michael Winter, Professor of Land, Economy and Society in the Land, Environment, Economics and Policy Institute in the Department of Politics  has agreed to be my supervisor. Dr Duncan Russel, Associate Professor in Environmental Policy is my second supervisor.

Over the coming weeks and months I will be refining this especially in the context of the post Brexit world we now live in.



14 thoughts on “A new chapter begins – I start my PhD this week

  1. Gosh, so much of interest – I want to read it now! I hope juicy morsels will leak through in the blog over the coming months. Two years is a long time to wait. Good luck!

  2. Good luck Adrian – I have also contemplated doing a PhD “later”. I shall be v interested to see how you get on and if there’s anything I can to help, please let me know. You may be interested to talk to Stephen Ward who was working for NC on Dartmoor vegetation in the 60s. He’s a mine of information on all sorts of things.

  3. Hi Adrian

    I was interested to see you starting a PhD on Dartmoor Commons. About thirty-five years ago I worked on a PhD on Land Management and land use change as part of a Birmingham University Project on moorland change in National Parks (It was a hot topic then – Porchester report & Wildlife & Countryside Act).

    Sadly never completed but about 3/4 typed up if I recall correctly and stored in the attic! I’d like to see it get some use so if you would be interested to see it, I would be happy to drop it in when i am next in Devon. It may have something of use/ interest – it included lots of farmer interviews from the early 1980s.


    Charles Mathieson


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