The politics of rewilding on Dartmoor

Mention the word ‘wild’ or any of its derivatives in connection with Dartmoor and conflict and argument will swiftly follow.  An oft – used phrase ‘Dartmoor – the last Wilderness’ is such an example as the farming community will quickly remind you that Dartmoor is not a wilderness or wild – it is in fact a man created landscape. The use the term ‘rewilding’ is currently entirely divisive, almost entirely as a result of the environmental journalist George Monbiot.

The first modern initiative to rewild Dartmoor began in the early 1990s by a small community group called Moor Trees [1] who wanted to see more deciduous woodland on Dartmoor. Their approach was generally inclusive, participatory and non-confrontational.

The next proposal came from Taylor (2005) where in his book Beyond Conservation he proposed that the south west corner of Dartmoor would make an ideal area where rewilding could take place.

beyond-conservation

He suggested that as the land was in part owned by the National Trust this would help get the project going. He also suggested that this ‘rewilded’ corner of Dartmoor would be able to support a viable population of lynx. This proposal remained solely as an idea in a book, the practical complexities, obstacles and social implications were never explored or discussed with any local stakeholders including the National Trust. Indeed at the recent Dartmoor Society conference on rewilding Taylor said that the Dartmoor proposal had been abandoned  due to the complexity of the Commons legislation (Kevin Cox pers comm).

lynx_lynx2
Lynx By mpiet (http://www.mindbox.at/gallery/) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

These two examples of rewilding perhaps indicate why the term is so misunderstood and so contentious. On one hand rewilding can be small scale, participatory and non-threatening whilst on the other it can be seen as imposed, far reaching and threatening. As a result many definitions of rewilding exist and the concept means many different things to different audiences.

Monbiot (2013) in his book Feral provided his definition ‘The rewilding of natural ecosystems which fascinates me is not an attempt to restore them to any prior state, but to permit ecological processes to resume. ….. Over the past few decades, ecologists have discovered  the existence of widespread trophic cascades. These are processes caused by animals at the top of the food chain, which tumble all the way to the bottom. Predators and large herbivores can transform the places in which they live. …. They make a powerful case for the re-introduction of large predators and other missing species.’ (Pages 8-9).

feral2

As POSTnote (2016) points out there is no single definition of rewilding ‘but it generally refers to reinstating natural processes that would have occurred in the absence of human processes. With this definition it is clear to see why the Hill Farming community on Dartmoor has been so outraged and opposed to the idea of rewilding on the moor.

It was therefore surprising when in October 2015, the Dartmoor National Park Authority invited Monbiot to come and speak on rewilding to the biennial National Parks Conference [2]. His used of words such as ‘sheepwrecked’ and ‘the white plague’ to describe his views of the sheep grazing regimes on Dartmoor caused widespread offence amongst the farming community [3] but won him many supporters from elsewhere [4].

Monbiot has back on Dartmoor (and Exmoor) in January 2016 and this time he was lambasting conservationists for permitting, encouraging and engaging in swaling activities on the Moor [5]. As mentioned in section 3.3 swaling is the deliberate burning of gorse, heather and grasses (particularly Molinia) on a rotational basis to produce new palatable grazing for stock. Monbiot considered this activity to be entirely inappropriate as it encouraged additional ‘sheepwrecking’ and stopped the natural process of grass developing into scrub and finally onto woodland.

Perhaps more remarkably, Monbiot ended up being quoted in a Royal Society review paper on fire management for his remarks on Dartmoor swaling (Davies et al 2016a) which provoked a furious response from Monbiot in an article entitled ‘Bonfire of the Verities’ [6]. This in turn led the authors of the Royal Society paper to publish a further paper (Davies et al 2016b) where they specifically address Monbiot’s concerns. I have critiqued this rather extraordinary situation and the original Royal Society paper as it focuses almost  exclusively on burning to manage heather and ignores Molinia which as we have seen earlier (section 6.3.) is encouraged under some circumstances by burning [7].

screen-shot-2016-12-20-at-14-37-53

I have concluded previously [8] that Monbiot deliberately provokes controversy to make his point and by doing so creates a space where more measured debate can occur. Prior to his interventions this space did not exist.

On the surface of this controversy it would appear that nothing is going to change, the occupiers of the land on Dartmoor have no intention of vacating it and Monbiot and his followers have no mechanism to enforce what they wish to see. To be fair to Monbiot he does suggest that the farming community could be retrained as ‘rewilders’ and therefore skill remain active on the Moor (Kelly 2015). However the arguments in favour of some form of rewilding are perhaps more nuanced. Monbiot has often talked about ‘ineligible features’ [9] (and see his DNPA presentation for example), these are ponds, clumps of scrub and small groves of trees which if present on land where Basic Payment Scheme subsidy is being claimed means that the land in question has to be removed from the claim as the features in question are ineligible for subsidy payments. This has led to the wholescale removal of such features from large tracts of farmland. To many including some Hill Farmers this has been a step too far, an unnecessary removal of interesting and important habitat and landscape features. Kelly (2016) for example acknowledges that whilst a full blown form of rewilding may be undesirable and unimplementable perhaps something which he terms ‘soft rewilding’ might be possible. He suggests ‘Uplands denuded of trees and shrub absorb less water, particularly if soils are compacted by sheep hooves, which leads to faster run-off and more flooding in lowlands.’ I have written about the differences between ‘hard rewilding’ and ‘soft rewilding’ and have argued that the latter has a role to play  in future management scenarios in the uplands by providing additional wildlife habitat and reducing the threat of flooding[10].

Quartz and Feldspar 2

These ideas have grown in attractiveness since the winter floods of 2015 and 2016 when the research in such places as Pontbren (Keenleyside 2013) demonstrated that uplands with tree cover absorbed 60x the amount of water than the adjacent pasture land. Natural Flood Management is being seen now as a useful option to deploy in the fight against flooding (EFRA 2016) and the uplands are seen as a key place where measures need to be taken.

The ‘ineligible features’ regulations make it difficult to enact Natural Flood Management Schemes unless farmers are willing to forego some subsidy payments. It is possible to get a derogation to allow scrub to grow but this is a complex and time consuming process as Sir Charles Burrell explained to the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC 2016 p31) when describing his own experiences on his Knepp Estate.

Now that Government Funding is becoming available for Natural Flood Management via the new Countryside Stewardship options the resolution of these issues become more necessary from the farmer’s perspective. Indeed Andrea Leadsom, the Defra Secretary of State made reference to ‘ineligible features’ in her key note speech to the Oxford Farming Conference on the 4th January 2017 when talking about cutting EU ‘red tape’, ‘No more existential debates to determine what counts as a bush, a hedge, or a tree’ [11].

The decision to leave the EU is likely to have profound effects on Dartmoor and the uplands elsewhere. As mentioned in section 5, the economics of farming in the uplands (and elsewhere) are entirely dependent on the subsidies from the Basic Payment Scheme and the agri-environment funds. After 2020 future funding is not guaranteed. It has generally been signalled by Defra Ministers that in future public funding will  be for the provision of ‘public goods’. Indeed George Eustice said on the 4th January 2017 at the Oxford Farming Conference that ‘UK farmers should expect support payments post 2020 for providing ecosystem services, but not subsidies’.

There will have been few people who would have thought that it might become Government policy to rewild large parts of the uplands, however this is not impossible – the Western Morning News and the BBC on the 4th January 2017 both ran a story which suggested that a leaked draft of the Defra 25 Year Nature Plan which they had seen included the idea that large parts of Dartmoor, Exmoor and Bodmin Moor could be allowed to rewild. Defra did not deny these reports and said they would be consulting in due course on proposals for the future of the uplands in the southwest.

It is difficult to imagine how such a programme might be enacted without causing serious damage to local farming communities, issues of access, landscape characteristics, existing wildlife habitats and the historic landscape of Dartmoor which initiatives such as Premium Archaeological Landscapes  aim to protect. There will be those who support such a move irrespective of the human and environmental costs as they will perceive that the wider gains outweigh the losses.

Rewilding on Dartmoor which started off an abstract concept with no implementation mechanism has become a spectre which now can’t be ignored. Hill Farmers and others will now have to wait until Defra publishes its consultation Green Paper on the future of farming later in the year which will hopefully cover rewilding and Dartmoor.

[1] see http://www.moortrees.org

[2] You Tube video of his presentation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYdm6k1tg3Y

[3] See here for example https://thefarmingforum.co.uk/index.php?threads/anton-coaker-george-monbiot-again.90582/

[4] For example his talk at Exeter University entitled Rewilding Well on 14th January 2016 was packed with enthusiastic supporters https://echo360.exeter.ac.uk:8443/ess/echo/presentation/c0868e98-0601-4f3a-a94c-3a9ad24d51f3

[5] Scorched Earth Conservation http://www.monbiot.com/2016/01/14/scorched-earth-conservation/

[6] Bonfire of the Verities http://www.monbiot.com/2016/03/10/bonfire-of-the-verities/

[7] Burning peatland and the complexity of socio-ecological systems. https://adriancolston.wordpress.com/2016/12/20/burning-peatland-and-the-complexity-socio-ecological-systems/

[8] A day with George Monbiot https://adriancolston.wordpress.com/2016/01/15/a-day-of-george-monbiot/

[9] https://adriancolston.wordpress.com/2016/02/04/george-monbiot-at-the-commons-environmental-audit-committee/

[10] https://adriancolston.wordpress.com/2016/10/05/rewilding-and-soft-rewilding/

[11] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/environment-secretary-sets-out-ambition-for-food-and-farming-industry

Davies G.M., Kettridge N., Stoof C.R., Gray A., Ascoli D., Fernandes, Marrs R., Allen K. A., Doerr S. H.,Clay G., McMorrow J. & Vandvik V. (2016a) The role of fire in UK Upland peatland and moorland management; the need for informed, unbiased debate. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 371: 1-17. See

Davies G.M., Kettridge N., Stoof C.R., Gray A., Marrs R., Ascoli D., Fernandes, Allen K. A., Doerr S. H.,Clay G., McMorrow J. & Vandvik V. (2016b) Informed debate on the use of fire for peatland management means acknowledging the complexity of socio-ecological systems. Nature Conservation 16: 59-77.

EFRA (2016) Environment Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee. Future Flood Prevention. House of Commons.

EAC (2016) Environmental Audit Committee. The Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum. House of Commons.

Keenleyside C. (2013) The Pontbren Project – a farmer led approach to sustainable land management in the Uplands.  Woodland Trust and Coed Cymru.

Kelly M. (2015) The Future of Britain’s Uplands: Thinking through History. Solutions July-August 2015.

Kelly M. (2016) Quartz and Feldspar. Revised edition. Vintage. London.

Monbiot G. (2013) Feral – searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding. Allen Lane. London.

POSTnote (2016) Rewilding and ecosystem services. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. No 537. Houses of Parliament

Taylor P. (2005) Beyond Conservation – a wildland strategy. Earthscan. London.

2 thoughts on “The politics of rewilding on Dartmoor

  1. George Monbiot produced another article on this subject in yesterday’s Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/11/farmers-fear-brexit-save-british-countryside-european-subsidy-wildlife-agriculture).
    What particularly grabbed my attention was the headline “Of course farmers fear Brexit, but it could save the British countryside”. So although Monbiot is not pro-Brexit, he does see some advantages, and is prepared to make the best of what he might see a a wrong decision.

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