Hill-farming in a time of change. Stories from Dartmoor

Here is my paper from the Exmoor Society Conference in April recently published in the Exmoor Review – the text below is what I actually wrote …..

Hill-farming in a time of change. Stories from Dartmoor

Schemes, atmospheric pollution, climate change and Brexit

Adrian Colston PhD Researcher,

The Centre for Rural Policy Research, The University of Exeter

 I am a practitioner turned researcher – trying to understand why people disagree about upland management and grazing. I’ve had a 35-year career in conservation for the Wildlife Trusts and the National Trust – most recently 12 years as the General Manager for the NT on Dartmoor. I decided to undertake this research because I couldn’t understand what was happening on Dartmoor’s Commons – the reality didn’t seem to fit the narrative. Are the current problems on Dartmoor really caused by overgrazing?

I am now working as a rural social scientist and I’ve interviewed hill-farmers, conservationists, archaeologists, academics, landowners and representatives of relevant statutory bodies.

The quotes that follow are from various Dartmoor hill-farmers who were interviewed as part of this research.

During the headage payment era there is unanimous agreement that there was too much stock on Dartmoor’s Commons.

When were on headage payments it did get to the point where we were overgrazing, there is no doubt about it, but it wasn’t because we were bad farmers it was because we were following policy.  And it became stock or be stocked so you either stocked up to keep the other people’s animals out or you got swallowed up and your lear [1] was totally trashed.

The headage era was replaced with agri-environment schemes – the Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) scheme on Dartmoor was introduced in 1995. They resulted in the almost instant halving of sheep and cattle numbers and total removal of cattle in winter, under highly prescriptive management regimes with farmers being fined (or threatened with fines) for failure to comply.

Yes, there has been overgrazing, but I think when the environmentalists came in and said stop grazing, it should have been a managed withdrawal – not that we stopped overnight, because the Molinia [2] has taken over and it has drowned out more than we had lost, the environmentalists have lost more than we ever did.

 Whilst the agri-environment schemes paid farmers to reduce stock numbers it led to many acrimonious arguments amongst neighbours about how the monies were to be split.

 There are villages here that farmers won’t help when they used to calf a cow, because the environmental agreements have caused such a rift between the haves and the have-nots.  The ones that feel that some have received more money than they should have; there’s ones that have taken environmental scheme money and are not doing what they were asked to do because there isn’t the staff to police it.

 The prescriptive nature of the schemes also disempowered farmers.

 “.. they never gave us any credence that we had any knowledge whatsoever.  We felt, we were treated as second class citizens, basically unintelligent and had to be shown what we had to do at every whip and turn.”

 The prescriptions detailed by the ESA changed the behavior and hardiness of the cattle.

 All these animals (i.e. cattle) that are used to their lear, majority haven’t got a lear anymore because they are taken away from November until 15th April and then they’ve been indoors and they aren’t hill animals anymore, they’ve been brainwashed into being indoors and to expect them then to go out on Hangingstone [3] and live out there, well that’s not going to happen.

As a result, cattle and sheep often congregate in the lower parts of the moor in places where the sweeter grasses grow – these areas are then heavily grazed.

 I am going to tell you something from personal experience.  The quickest way to overgraze 30-40% of a Common, is to undergraze 60%

 The reduction in stock numbers saw a huge rise in the area of Molinia (which becomes tinder dry in the autumn, if ungrazed) and Western Gorse (Ulex gallii). The prescriptions saw restrictions on swaling [4]practices. Burning was prohibited from areas of blanket bog and the areas of dry heath which could be burnt were reduced in extent. As a result, in large parts of the moor there are huge areas of vegetation which are at risk from wild fires.

 It becomes almost impossible to burn on the Commons now there’s so much fuel load there, it is frightening, no-one wants to be responsible because we know we’ll be fined if we get it wrong.

 The huge rise in Molinia and gorse has impacted on access too, in order to walk on the Commons you frequently now need to follow the well-trodden tracks or the quad bike trails to get around.  The increase in vegetation has also impacted on the historic environment – smothering, for example stone rows and stone circles – 60% of all stone rows in England are on Dartmoor.

The overgrazing narrative however is hard to shift – it is still the dominant narrative for many conservationists. As a result, there are still calls to reduce stocking numbers.

In addition, atmospheric pollution from nitrogen causes acidification, fertilises Molinia, makes heather shoots more palatable to sheep and causes increasingly frequent and severe heather beetle attacks thus exacerbating the problems of Molinia dominant-heather depleted Commons. A problem that is poorly understood by conservationists and hill-farmers. Climate change is also reconfiguring habitats and species and the enhanced carbon dioxide levels are encouraging the growth of Molinia

However, the Molinia problem can be reduced, as has been shown at Molland Moor on Exmoor. Natural England have granted a derogation which permits all year round grazing by a herd of Galloway cattle which are supplementary fed in the winter. The Molinia has been dramatically reduced and the heather is returning. A similar trial at Gidleigh Common on Dartmoor is now underway.

However, increasing the number of cattle is not without its problems and will take time, if permitted.

Interviewer:   A lot of people tell me now that it’s not so easy upping the numbers of cattle back to what it was?

 Hill-farmer: No of course you can’t.  Because we have to breed our own, keep our own heifers and our own new lambs, because you can’t go Exeter (Market) on a Friday when you live here and buy your replacements because they won’t last here 2 minutes

In the uplands 91% of income comes from the basic payment scheme and 131% from subsidies as a whole.  Brexit means that we may need to re-design subsidies intelligently, and we may only have 7 years to do it.

Brexit could mean that agriculture becomes unsustainable, if the support isn’t there. So, if Brexit kicks in like they say it is going to kick in and there is no support then agriculture could be decimated for livestock producers, which will have a big effect up here. 

Initiatives like Dartmoor Farming Futures are attempting to give power and responsibility back to the hill-farmer but to date progress and uptake has been limited.

So, after listening to that for 30 years there are many farmers who will not make decisions on their own now. We’ve had this, since the 90s, that is a whole generation.  So, the new generation have lost some of the old ways because were not allowed to do it, so the next generation hasn’t really got the knowledge unfortunately, even under the Farming Futures in the Forest because for so many years we have been stopped doing things, people just aren’t coming out with what they want to do.  They can’t seem to grasp that we can come forward with things it’s been so long. They just haven’t grasped that there is some empowerment there for the farmer

If you get the narratives wrong you will get the solutions wrong too. This is really important as we head towards a new era of public money for public goods, payment by results and an outcomes approach. Particularly at a time when hill-farm incomes are hard pressed and the future agricultural support schemes are unclear.

The new Schemes need to resolve how to undo the undergrazing of extensive areas of the Dartmoor’s Commons – cattle grazing needs to be encouraged and made financially viable.

If we need and want a pastoral landscape we have to re-empower farmers to take responsibility for managing their land to produce the outcomes society wants and nature needs.  We need to rediscover local knowledge and find solutions that work locally, not those that are imposed

[1] A lear (or heft) is an area where a flock or herd of animals is shepherded – it becomes home to those animals and they remain in that place.

[2] Molinia is the scientific name of Purple Moor Grass and is the word used by hill-farmers to describe the species.

[3] Hangingstone Hill is on the high North moor in the Forest of Dartmoor Common.

[4] Swaling is the traditional Dartmoor practice of managing vegetation by controlled burning.

2 thoughts on “Hill-farming in a time of change. Stories from Dartmoor

  1. Hi Adrian

    Really good read thank you.

    You have chronicled the history of how short sighted changes to agricultural policy, which swung from one extreme to another have severely and possibly irreversibly impacted on our upland landscapes in the SW.

    In my opinion on parts of Exmoor, this has also led to a loss of upland skills and willingness by some tenants to even contemplate restocking the hills.

    Thanks Paul

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. Hi Adrian
    I’ve always maintained that farmers need to be given freedom to agree and implement the management prescriptions they believe will deliver the ecological outcome. This would give them back control, job satisfaction etc. But what I miss in your article is the hard evidence on changes in vegetation.

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