Global turbulence – what does it mean for Dartmoor, its wildlife and its hill-farmers?

Several months ago, I was invited to speak to a couple of groups of hill-farmers on Dartmoor to give my opinions on what the future held for them in light of Brexit and the introduction of new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) which will replace of the old subsidy and agri-environment policies. I have written about this in the past, for example I penned a piece entitled ‘Dartmoor is at a crossroads’ for the Summer 2021 issue of the Dartmoor Magazine. When preparing for these talks I had been very clear in my mind that it was not my role to tell people what they should do, instead I wanted to outline the various contexts, set out how I saw and interpreted the emerging new policy initiatives and discuss what hill-farmers’ options might be.

In 2022, hill-farmers find themselves in a very precarious economic position and Dartmoor itself is still struggling to find consensus on many farming and environmental challenges, be they the over-grazing / under-grazing, re-wetting and the re-wilding debates, for example. England’s new agricultural policies mean that subsidies (in the form of the Basic Payment Scheme) are being phased out and by 2027 will be gone. In 2020/21 the Basic Payment Scheme accounted for nearly 80% of English upland hill farm incomes and if the agri-environment payments are also included, these two payments represent 111% of their income which demonstrates that the average hill-farm in England loses money from its agricultural activities, which is very sobering.

The thinking behind the introduction of the new ELMS programme is that it will encourage sustainable farming practices which enhance wildlife and help to mitigate the challenges of climate change, in the uplands, particularly on our open moorland landscapes hill-farmers and their grazing animals sit at the heart of this recovery programme. There are two challenges here: can ELMS set out practical measures which hill-farmers can follow to benefit wildlife and fight climate change and equally important will the necessary funding be made available to ensure the livelihoods of hill-farmers are economically viable.

Change over the centuries on Dartmoor’s Commons

All this points to substantial change for hill-farming over a relatively short period of time. Over the centuries traditions have come and gone and been replaced by new ones in our uplands. To give a few examples of this, Dartmoor has seen the dissolution of the Monasteries which were at the centre of the sheep industry; a long period where wool king whereas today lamb is king and wool is not. There have been numerous agricultural depressions; the era of enclosure; the end of transhumance along with the introduction of Scottish sheep and cattle replacing traditional breeds such as the White-faced Dartmoor sheep. The Second World War saw huge pressure on domestic food production and its associated ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign. The 1947 Agriculture Act responded to the traumas of war and set out to encourage farmers to intensify their production to feed the nation – a challenge they very effectively rose to. Such was the success of this Act that additional measures were put in place to try and protect the environment and wildlife against the new ways of farming – the agri-environment schemes. During this period Dartmoor was designated as a National Park, we joined the European Union and farming was governed by the Common Agricultural Policy. Following the introduction of the agri-environment schemes the number of cattle, sheep and ponies dropped dramatically in an attempt to mitigate against the unsustainable grazing practices of the 1980s and 1990s. However, this led to a series of unintended consequences which sees much of the moor under-grazed and dominated by Purple Moor Grass usually referred to by its Latin name Molinia.

Huge changes and challenges over the centuries all of which changed the character of the moor and its farmers for better or for worse, but crucially both are still here today! Until quite recently I had thought that the two final pieces of the hill-farmer change jigsaw revolved around Brexit and the introduction of ELMS and as a result this was where I was focusing as I prepared to speak to the two hill-farmer groups which had invited me to speak to them.

The impact of global events

Then during 2021 various economic issues gradually began to become more apparent and consequential. The Covid pandemic had led to significant increases in freight cost leading to material shortages, geo-political shenanigans impacted on oil and gas prices and a fire at an electricity interconnector in Kent led to fears about power outages. The general consensus at the hostelry I frequent was that these issues would be short term in nature and within a year normality would resume! But then the war in Ukraine began and the turmoil that was afoot at the end of 2021 was significantly amplified and became a long-term issue. The war in Ukraine is reverberating around the world and will have serious consequences for many countries including our own. As citizens, as we are all too aware, we have already been impacted by major increases in fuel and power prices. I am now trying to assess what the consequences of these events will have on farming and food in the UK and what the reverberations for hill-farming on Dartmoor might be.

In the last few months the costs associated with farming have risen dramatically, for example, the cost of inorganic nitrogen fertiliser has risen from £200/t to over £1000/t and I have seen some forecasting it might go as high as £1350/t. Red diesel (subsidised fuel for farming) has gone from around 40p/l to £1.20/l, electricity and gas prices have gone up by 50% and domestic heating oil by 300%, whilst manufactured feed for livestock has risen by 30%. Inflation currently stands at 6.2%.

Much of the UK’s agricultural productivity (for better or worse) is underpinned by the use of nitrogen fertiliser (which is manufactured from gas). Whilst the use of nitrogen fertilisers in the uplands is less than in the lowlands it does play an important role for many in providing increased pasture and winter feed (mainly from silage). With fertiliser costs having increased five-fold it is difficult to see, given the economic state of hill-farming, how its use will not decline dramatically. This tied in with the increases in price of red diesel and manufactured and bought in feed will in my view lead to a reduction in the number of animals kept on Dartmoor now.

Impacts on Dartmoor

If my prediction is correct this will reflect what Defra wish to incentivise via the ELMS programme on Dartmoor’s in-bye fields i.e. the cutback in the use of inorganic fertilisers and a reduction in stock numbers to benefit soil health and biodiversity. This is the approach advocated in a report commissioned by the RSPB, The National Trust and the Wildlife Trust in 2019 entitled ‘Less is More: improving profitability and the natural environment in hill and other marginal farming systems’ – by ceasing to use artificial fertilisers and reduce the stocking numbers accordingly it is argued that the reduction in outputs (i.e. stock sales) will be more than compensated by the saving made on the input costs (fertilisers), so the farm will become more profitable.

At the current point in time Defra have only published their ELMS proposals for Dartmoor’s in-bye land, the details of what farming activities will be rewarded on the Commons are currently unknown. This is causing uncertainty from a farming and ecological perspective. Grazing animals particularly cattle and ponies will be needed in the future if there is to be any hope of getting on top of the very extensive areas of Molinia that have developed on the parts of the Commons since the early 2000s. Re-wetting the blanket bog (as it already happening) will help reduce the Molinia there, but there are significant areas of rank Molinia on areas that cannot be re-wetted – here cattle and ponies could do the job and in doing so improve the moor for wildlife. Until Defra publishes its detailed moorland / Commons schemes it is unclear whether these desirable farming practices will be incentivised and made financially viable, additionally there will be a great deal of the ‘devil will be in the detail’.

New farming systems

Even prior to the covid pandemic, the increase in energy costs and the fall-out from the Ukraine war, moving from a subsidy-based funding of agriculture to one based on the provision of public money for the delivery of public goods (such as wildlife recovery and climate change mitigation) looked extremely challenging for farming and upland farming in particular. Whilst it is not yet clear what hill-farmers will be funded for on the Commons the situation is much clearer for their in-bye land – they are being encouraged to farm regeneratively and restore their soils and wildlife habitats. James Rebanks in his 2020 book English Pastoral describes some of the measures that he has undertaken on his upland farm in the Lake District which includes river ‘re-wiggling’, mob grazing with cattle and lots of tree and hedge planting. There are only a handful of farmers currently undertaking such practices on Dartmoor. The question remains – will significant numbers of Dartmoor’s hill-farmers become regenerative farmers if suitably rewarded, will they ‘follow the money’ and cut their input costs in order to have some chance of economic survival or will they carry on as they are?

As a result of all these complexities and issues, both national and international it seems inevitable that the number of farmers on the moor will reduce, perhaps significantly. The risk of bankruptcy is increased as are the mental health issues within farming. It is a very worrying time for hill-farming. It also seems inevitable that with less farmers and fewer grazing animals some areas of the moor will continue to scrub up and head towards woodland. This may or may not benefit wildlife, depending on what habitat the scrub regenerates on, the farmer whose lear it occupies may abandon that part of the Common or they may be able to financially benefit from managing it as a piece of wood pasture.

What about food security?

The war in Ukraine has also sparked a renewed debate on our nation’s food security and our degree of food self-sufficiency. Is the neo-liberal free-trade model of food security in deep trouble? There have been calls by the NFU and others to increase our domestic food production and ease back on the ‘public money for public goods’ agenda. The Labour Party have called for the phasing out of the Basic Payment Scheme of subsidies to be halted. At the time of writing George Eustice, the Secretary of State at Defra has said he has no plans to change the course we are currently on. It is impossible to predict what is actually going to happen next.

Time to all work together

Amongst all this uncertainty, calamity and tragedy, it is perhaps time for conservationists, re-wilders and re-wetters to strengthen their links with hill-farmers. There are very few people who want to see Dartmoor abandoned, the majority want to see Dartmoor as a mosaic of habitats, perhaps more wooded in some places but with an open character and the ‘long views’, described by Ian Mercer, in his 2009 Collins New Naturalist ‘Dartmoor’. To achieve this Dartmoor’s Commons need to be a predominantly pastoral landscape. 

Whilst neither place would describe themselves as examples of re-wilding, the National Trust’s Wicken Fen Vision in Cambridgeshire and the Knepp Estate in Sussex demonstrate graphically what can be achieved for the benefit of biodiversity and climate change mitigation with their use of large grazing herbivores. In the case of Wicken, the wetlands are managed using Highland Cattle and Konik Ponies, at Knepp English Longhorns and Exmoor Ponies, complimented by deer and a few Tamworth pigs manage this former heavy clay estate. I would argue that re-wilders and hill-farmers share a great deal of common ground.

As the hundreds of years of Dartmoor’s history has shown at times of crisis and change the moor and its farmers have been able to re-invent themselves to adapt to the new circumstances. We are on the cusp of this process starting a new iteration.

Dr Adrian Colston is an Associate Research Fellow at the Centre for Rural Policy Research at the University of Exeter. He recently completed a PhD which investigated the conflicts between hill-farming and the environment. Prior to that he had a 35 year career as a conservation practitioner, most recently working for the National Trust on Dartmoor and at Wicken Fen

One thought on “Global turbulence – what does it mean for Dartmoor, its wildlife and its hill-farmers?

  1. Pingback: Defra’s 2021-22 Farm Business Income stats – what do they mean for Dartmoor? – A Dartmoor blog

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