Defra’s 2021-22 Farm Business Income stats – what do they mean for Dartmoor?

Defra has recently published its Farm Business Income (FBI) figures for 2021-22. The full details can be found here. The FBI statistics given an overall picture of the financial health of farming in England by farming type and these are summarised below. Overall farming had a good year with the exception of the pig sector whose woes have been widely reported. 

The uplands of England are detailed in the report as ‘Livestock Grazing (LFA)’, [LFA = Less Favoured Areas], I will use these figures as a proxy for what happened on Dartmoor in 2021-22. The data represent the average figures for upland farms in England but nevertheless are useful in providing trends and comparisons to previous years. The Defra commentary on the Grazing Livestock (LFA) figures is as follows.

So, in summary, upland farming in England had its best year financially since 2011-12 and this was largely driven by strong sales particularly from sheep. The figures did somewhat surprise me as input costs (fertilisers and fuel costs for example) had already begun to rise by late 2021 as a result of global geopolitical insecurities. Additionally, the concerns of Brexit on sheep sales to Europe appear not to have impacted on upland farm finances. Nevertheless, the full impacts of the war in Ukraine will not be fully felt until the 2022-23 figures are published.

It should also be noted that despite the unprecedentedly strong sheep sales and prices the average English upland farm only made a profit of £200 from its agricultural activity. FBI for upland farms rose by almost a third to an average of £42,900 with almost of this coming from public subsidies, environmental grants and diversified income. Without these income streams the average upland farm would have made a profit of just £4100. The FBI data for Grazing Livestock LFA farms since 2012 is summarised in the table below and is depicted in the two graphs below the table.

Agri-environment Schemes
DiversificationBasic Payment Scheme 
Farm Business Income
Aes & BPSFBI- Aes & BPS
2012/13(8900)9100 1600 17800 19600 26900 (7300)
2013/14(13200)9100 2000 16600 14500 25700 (11200)
2014/15(11800)8800 2200 15500 14700 24300 (9600)
2015/16(10700)9800 2300 17700 19100 27500 (8400)
2016/17(9400)11200 2400 22800 27000 34000 (7000)
2017/18(12500)12000 2900 25900 28300 37900 (9600)
2018/19(21500)10300 2700 24000 15500 34300 (18800)
2019/20(16600)11300 2600 25500 22800 36800 (14000)
2020/2021(6600)10400 2900 26700 33400 37100 (3700)
2021/2022200 12300 3900 26500 42900 38800 4100 
Grazing Livestock LFA

What is evident from the FBI graph is that upland farm income is very volatile – the 2021-22 figures are almost 3 times as high as the 2013-14 ones. It is also worth noting that there has been a steady and significant growth in upland FBI over the past three years.

However, in my view, the strong 2021-22 figures mask the underlying financial fragility of upland farming (including Dartmoor). The impact of the war in Ukraine on Dartmoor hill-farming is something I have written about before – see here and I fear that the financial impact of this will not be felt until the 2022-23 financial year. In addition the drought in the summer this year has led a shortage of fodder which will impact many detrimentally over the coming winter months. It is also proving difficult to forecast whether sheep prices will remain high, partly due to global uncertainties but also the impact of rising costs and the pressure this puts on household budgets.

Finally, there is the uncertainty created by the on-going changes in UK domestic agricultural policy. The Government has recently re-stated that it is not considering a change to the Agricultural Transition Plan, which means that the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) subsidies will be completely phased out by 2027 (with a 50% reduction by 2024). Additionally, there is still a lack of clarity on what the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) will look like and what the payment levels will be. This is particularly true for upland areas and for common land. ELMS will replace existing agri-environmental grants schemes such as Higher Level Stewardship in 2024. Based on the 2021-22 FBI figures BPS and agri-environmental grant schemes accounted for 90.4% of the average upland farm’s FBI in England. If the BPS and environmental grant payments are excluded from the FBI the average upland farmer in England would only have £4100 to live on for a year. Applying the same logic to the 2018-19 figures the average upland farmer would have made a loss of £18,800……..

Unexpected farm data from Dartmoor and Exmoor

If you had asked me what agricultural trends were prevailing in our uplands over the past five years, I would have said something along these lines.

The number of agricultural holdings was going down due to consolidations which would see the average farm size increase. The amount of land farmed would be about the same, but the number of cattle and sheep would have decreased. The number of people employed in agriculture would have declined and the area of woodland on farmland would have remained the same.Defra have recently published their ‘Structure of the agricultural industry in June 2021’. There is a specific report on farming in National Parks see here.

I have collated the data within that spreadsheet for Dartmoor and Exmoor and compared 2016 with 2021. 

Dartmoor National Park20162021 + / –
Total holdings7878427.0%
Number of holdings <5-50ha48957617.8%
Number of holdings 50ha +298266-10.7%
Average farm size8066-17.5%
Total area farmed6333255890-11.8%
Beef cattle40121417854.1%
Exmoor National Park20162021 + / –
Total holdings559534-4.5%
Number of holdings <5-50ha3053060.3%
Number of holdings 50ha +254228-10.2%
Average farm size991012.0%
Total area farmed5508354014-1.9%
Beef cattle2413122372-7.3%

The Dartmoor data states that the number of holdings has gone up whilst the number of larger holdings has gone down as has the average farm size along with the total area of Dartmoor farmed. At the same time the number of beef cattle and sheep have gone up. The number of people employed in agriculture has also gone up and there has been a significant increase in woodlands on farms.

By contrast on Exmoor the total number of holdings has gone down as has the number of larger holdings. The average farm size has gone up by a small amount and the total area of farmland on Exmoor has declined by a small amount.  Beef cattle and sheep number have declined as has the number of people employed on farms. Again, there has been a significant increase in farm woodlands.

The Dartmoor data has really surprised me. It would appear to imply that a number of the larger farms have been split up into smaller units as the average farm size has reduced and the number of smaller units has increased which has led to a rise in the workforce along with the number of cattle and sheep. I can’t explain how compared to five years ago 7442 ha (11.8%) of land is no longer being farmed and likewise I can’t understand where the additional 415 ha (20.5% increase) of woodland actually is!

I don’t know Exmoor very well but the trends there seem quite close to my initial predictions, except for the 21.3% increase in woodlands on farms.

Any thoughts?

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

Dartmoor is at a crossroads

A piece I wrote for the Dartmoor Magazine published in the Summer 2021 Issue – as relevant now as it was then

Advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill.

Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.

What’s the future for hill-farming on the moor and whither Dartmoor?

On the evening of the 11th February 2021 early on in this latest lockdown, images started to appear on my Twitter feed of an enormous fire on the west side of Dartmoor somewhere in the vicinity of Tavy Cleave. This article looks at some of the reasons behind the fire and then goes on to look at the future prospects for Dartmoor and its hill-farmers.

The series of events that led to the fire
I was surprised it was that particular night, because I thought Dartmoor was covered in snow, but apparently it was not, however this was an inevitable event which has been waiting to happen for many years.

There are those who will tell you that Dartmoor is overgrazed and as a result there is little wildlife left, some even describe it as sheep-wrecked. Without doubt in the 1980s and 1990s grazing pressures from sheep and cattle did get out of hand, far too many animals overgrazing the vegetation, reducing the abundance of heather, poaching the peat, generally making a mess – all driven by Government-funded subsidies – the so-called headage payments, where the more animals you pastured on the Commons, the more money you received as a hill-farmer.

That era had to end and from 1995 schemes, initially the Environmentally Sensitive Area scheme (ESA), were brought in to reduce the grazing pressure and limit the frequency and extent of swaling (moorland burning) activities. I haven’t spoken to a Dartmoor hill-farmer who said everything in the 80s and 90s was fine and nothing needed to change. However, the specific farming prescriptions that were introduced with the ESA, whilst popular with conservationists, were very contested and unpopular with Dartmoor’s hill-farmers. Cattle and sheep numbers were cut by around 50% and more in some cases, cattle were prohibited from over-wintering on the Commons and swaling areas were reduced to 2ha in extent. These changes were well intentioned and plausible at the time but led to a series of unintended consequences.

The reduction in stock numbers led to a reduction in the grazing pressure, however the banning of the over-winter of cattle changed the nature of hill-farming on Dartmoor – sheds had to be built to house the cattle from the end of October, which meant that the hardy moorland cattle became soft and after that, when bad weather rolled in, they left their lears early (their ancestral places on their Common) and headed for their Home farms. The economics for hill-farmers of keeping hill cattle collapsed as costs increased and as a result cattle numbers reduced further still.

Then in 2001, Foot and Mouth Disease massively impacted Dartmoor and many herds were culled and a season’s grazing was missed. This allowed the vegetation to really get away, in particular a grass known as Purple Moor Grass, also known by its Latin name as Molinia. This species will be well known to Dartmoor’s high moor walkers as it forms large tussocks, sometimes referred to as ‘babies’ heads’ which are extremely difficult and arduous to walk through. Today there are very extensive (thousands of hectares) of un-grazed or undergrazed Molinia. I call it the Molinia jungle and it seems to me that each year it expands in its extent.

Molinia is a palatable grass between May and July for cattle, after that it doesn’t get eaten and the sheep absolutely hate it and avoid areas dominated by it. The cattle, particularly Galloways have attracted an additional payment (as a rare breed) and hill-farmers have favoured cattle over ponies and as a result pony numbers have declined significantly. Finally, Dartmoor is subject to high levels of atmospheric pollution from nitrogen compounds (because it rains a lot) and that combined with climate change has favoured the growth of Molinia. In other drier areas, the same combination of factors has led to an increase in the abundance of gorse. 

All the hill-farmers I have spoken to talk about the ‘fuel load’ on the moor and by that they mean the dead Molinia leaves and the tall straggly gorse. When the Molinia and the gorse are dry, they become very flammable. The time when hill-farmers prefer to swale (a legal activity which burns gorse on peats which are less than 40cm deep) is when there are cold dry winds from the east, such conditions allow the gorse to be effectively burnt off and thus provide new fresh areas of palatable grasses for their livestock.

The Molinia jungle tends to grow on peat which is greater than 40cm in depth and here swaling is quite rightly no longer permitted as burning on deep peats can easily damage the Sphagnum mosses. The situation is further complicated by the fact that over the centuries much of Dartmoor’s blanket bog has been drained, for peat cutting for example, and as a result it is no longer hydrologically functional and has converted itself into wet heath rather than blanket bog, this is the place where the Molinia flourishes and expands making the Molinia jungle grow in extent.

On the night of the 11th February, a series of weather conditions combined: a strong, cold, dry wind from the east / south east, very low temperatures which froze the peat surface, the wet conditions of the moor were eliminated by the ice and the cold wind dried out the Molinia – the perfect conditions for a large fire. At the time I had no idea how the fire was started but thought it was unlikely that it was a spontaneous event! The Devon and Somerset Fire Service subsequently announced that they had received a phone call from someone who said they had accidently started the fire when they tipped over a cooking stove. Interesting to note that a week earlier under similar conditions a Cornwall Wildlife Trust nature reserve went up in flames and on the same night as the Dartmoor fire there were also moorland fires on Bodmin Moor and on Exmoor.

With such a fuel load on Dartmoor, it was an ‘accident’ waiting to happen. With the parlous nature of hill-farm economics, the reduction of stock numbers, particularly cattle and ponies, it is difficult to see how this fire will be the last. The Molinia jungle is what 25 years of semi-abandonment on Dartmoor’s wet heaths looks like. Given time (decades) the degraded deep peat soils will hopefully recover and additional funding will be made available to re-wet areas, but that option is eye-wateringly expensive on Dartmoor as around 50% of the costs are required to remove unexploded military ordnance …… in the meantime there are no easy, cheap or quick fixes.

In the days following the fire, scientists visited the burnt area which covered around 500 hectares in extent and their initial conclusions were that although the fire had been extensive (and spectacular) it appeared to have done little damage to the peat – indeed there are photographs I have seen of the red Sphagnum species appearing completely unaffected. The extent of the damage (or not) will perhaps become more apparent in the spring / summer when the vegetation begins to grow again.

What are the future prospects for Dartmoor, its wildlife, its archaeology and its hill-farmers?
At this moment in time none of the stakeholders involved with the high moor are happy with its current condition. This includes the conservationists who are unhappy with the declines in wildlife; the archaeologists who are concerned that the features of the historic landscape such as stone circles are disappearing under the vegetation; the peatland hydrologists are unhappy as the vast majority of the blanket bog is not hydrologically functional, those interested in re-wilding are not content as natural processes and recovering landscapes are not forthcoming and of course the hill-farmers are unhappy as they consider that their farming practices have been unreasonably disrupted. This quote from a Dartmoor hill-farmers perhaps represents their collective view – ‘Yes there has been overgrazing, but … the environmentalists have lost more than we ever did’. In many respects the conflicts over the way that Dartmoor is managed that have been ongoing for the past 25 years or so still remain contested and unresolved.

Dartmoor and its troubles in 2021, finds itself now caught up in three bigger national (and international) issues and how these play out over the coming few years will determine the future direction of the moor, for better or worse, depending on your perspective. The three big issues are the dual crises of biodiversity loss and climate change along with the changes to agricultural funding and policy resulting from our decision to leave the European Union. These three issues are inextricable linked and all three are being driven by new government policy and legislation. For some of these issues it is relatively clear what needs to be done but in other areas there is neither clarity of thought or policy.

Agricultural Policy
Hill-farming in the UK is already in a very precarious economic position, according to figures from Defra, the average English hill-farm in 2019/20 makes a loss of £16,600 on its agricultural business and the average farm income before the farmer’s family wages are paid is £22,800. The reason that hill-farmers make a low / modest income opposed to a loss is because of the associated subsidy system. Subsidies come in two forms currently – money for occupying / owning land, known as the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) and money from the agri-environment schemes (a-es), such as Higher Level Stewardship and Countryside Stewardship. The average BPS for the English uplands is £25,500 (more than the final farm income) and the average a-es payment is £11,300.

As a result of Brexit, the government has passed a new Agriculture Act which will phase out the BPS and a-es and replace them with a new scheme called Environmental Land Management (ELM). At the current moment a timetable for introducing these changes has been announced but crucially there are not details on what ELM will look like for common land like that found on Dartmoor. In addition, the phasing out of the BPS payments has already begun but ELM payments (assuming hill-farmers can negotiate an agreement) will not start until 2024. By 2024 larger hill-farmers will already have lost 50% of their BPS and will have no scheme available to replace the lost income. There are many of us involved in the policy side of agriculture who consider that this situation is a recipe for disaster and bankruptcy as a result, there is much work and lobbying going on behind the scenes to try to avert this scenario.

With regards to biodiversity, pretty much everyone wants to see a Dartmoor richer in wildlife. Following on from the 2018 Landscape Review carried out by Julian Glover and his team for government, restoring wildlife to our National Parks was seen as a major priority, indeed the Dartmoor National Park Management Plan 2020-25 states the following ‘In nature recovery areas (to be defined), the primary focus will be nature and letting natural processes take their course’. It is not clear to me what this means, for the past 25 years we have seen very detailed prescriptions covering stocking numbers, grazing periods and restrictions on swaling activities drawn up for the hill-farmers with the explicit aim of bringing the commons back into ‘favourable condition’ to use the conservation jargon, yet despite all the prescriptions, schemes and funding, we have on large parts of the moor ended up with what I described in the first part of the article. In many respects, for me, the Molinia jungle is what happens through partial land abandonment and ‘letting natural processes take their course’. I’m sure this is not what is meant or intended. From my own experience when I worked for the National Trust at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire we set up a wilding project called the Wicken Fen Vision and in order to get those natural processes to work it involved widescale hydrological restoration and herds of grazing animals (konik ponies and Highland Cattle).

I am desperate to see a Dartmoor richer in wildlife, but rather like in the section on agricultural policy what is required is detail and a plan, not just good aspirations.

Climate Change
When it comes to climate change mitigation Dartmoor has a huge role to play on account of its large stores of peat and the carbon that it contains. As detailed earlier much of Dartmoor’s peat is in a poor condition and is not hydrologically functional. Re-wetting the peat is expensive and there are thousands of hectares in need to restoration. As well as cost, the re-wetting is contested by some archaeological interests and by some hill-farmers. However, if the UK is to meet its carbon reduction targets, re-wetting much of Dartmoor’s peat will be needed and as such the government has made peatland restoration as one of its key priorities. If done sympathetically re-wetting Dartmoor’s peat can produce biodiversity benefits, conserve historic landscapes, sequester more carbon from the atmosphere and provide commoners and landowners with public money for looking after this vital resource.

Concluding remark
Dartmoor, its environment and its hill-farmers are at a cross-roads, there is much uncertainty and much precarity but there is also much opportunity. There are encouraging signs too, government has stated that it intends to maintain agricultural budgets, it has prioritised protected areas like Dartmoor and says it will pay public money for the provision of public goods, of which Dartmoor has a great many. It is also encouraging to see new posts being created by the National Park Authority to drive nature recovery and assist hill-farmers with this transition. I have said this before publicly and I will say it again, everyone needs to follow the money so that on the other side of this major series of changes there will still be cuckoos, commoners, cattle, cists and carbon.

Dr Adrian Colston, Associate Research Fellow,Centre for Rural Policy Research, University of Exeter

Title quotes from Lord of the Rings Tolkien (1954) The Fellowship of the Rings

Long-winged Cone-heads in Devon

Prior to 1990 the Long-winged cone-head (Conocephalus discolor) was a nationally scarce species restricted to a few localised sites along the south coast of England. After 1990 the species underwent a dramatic range expansion. It was first recorded in Devon in 1994 at Dittisham. The species appears to be continuting to expand and it found in a wide variety of places in the county. It prefers to inhabit rough ungrazed grassland such as road verges and waste ground.

Long-winged cone-head

They are secretive animals which can be found by searching long vegetation. However the easiest way to locate them is by using a bat detector. Their call resembles an old fashioned chugging tractor!

Song of the Long-winged cone-head heard through a Batbox Duet bat detector set at 40KHz.

The current range of the Long-winged Cone-head is set out in the following map. This map is undoubtedly an underestimate of their current distribution.

Long-winged cone-heads can be confused with Short-winged cone-head (Conocephalus dorsalis) – in 2014 I produced a blog which enabled the reader to tell the two species apart – see here.

If you see or hear any Cone-heads in Devon – please let me know – I’m the county Recorder for Orthoptera – email me: adrian dot colston at gmail dot com …. many thanks

Great day in the field – Roesel’s Bush-cricket

The sun came out this afternoon so I headed into the field in search of Roesel’s Bush-cricket – a species first recorded in Devon in 2014 which until now I have failed to find! Went to a couple of areas where it had been recorded before. I found a single adult in an uncut road verge on the south side of Rewe and then found three individuals by the food alleviation scheme in Exwick directly adjacent to to the north side of Station Road.

Roesel’s Bush-cricket – long-winged specimen f.dilata in Exwick

Roesel’s Bush-crickets are tricky to find but with the use of a bat detector (which makes their distinctive but inaudible songs audible) they can be tracked down. I use a Batbox Duet set at 40kHz and their songs then become audible.

Roesel’s Bush-cricket played through a Batbox Duet at 40KHz

Here is the current known (to me) distribution of Roesel’s Bush-cricket in Devon

And this is the classic habitat – rough uncut grassland

If you see or hear any Roesel’s Bush-crickets in Devon – please let me know – I’m the county Recorder for Orthoptera – email me: adrian dot colston at gmail dot com …. many thanks

Roesel’s Bush-cricket in Devon

Prior to 1980 Roesel’s Bush-cricket had a restricted distribution in the UK being found in coastal grasslands from Kent to the Humber. After 1980 the species began a dramatic range expansion north and west.

The species was finally recorded in Devon in 2014 but is colonisation of the county has been slow.

Below is a list of all the records of Roesel’s Bush-cricket in Devon, I’m sure it is an under-estimate and I am keen to receive further records if you have seen it in Devon.

SpeciesDateLocationGrid ReferenceRecorderNumberComments
Metrioptera roeselii08/08/2014Flockmill, ReweSS960007Karim Vahed1f. diluta
Metrioptera roeselii29/07/2017Trinity Hall Nature Reserve, AxminsterSY308957Alex WorsleyMultiple 
Metrioptera roeselii06/07/2018Dawlish WarrenSX9878Philip Chambers1f. diluta
Metrioptera roeselii21/08/2019Flockmill, ReweSS960007Gabriel Vahed1Male
Metrioptera roeselii26/08/2019A3052, WestonSY173907Kevin Rylands1 
Metrioptera roeselii01/09/2019Seaton MarshesSY2591Dave SmallshireMultiple 
Metrioptera roeselii25/06/2020Ross Meadow, Fingle WoodsSX795888Tom Williams1 
Metrioptera roeselii21/07/2020Axmouth – Lyme Regis CliffsSY273896John WaltersMultiple 
Metrioptera roeselii08/08/2020Halsden Farm, ExmouthSX9982Will Scott1 
Metrioptera roeselii09/08/2020Exwick, Exe ValleySX9093Will Scott1 
Metrioptera roeselii03/08/2021Beer meadowSY213894Christopher HodgsonMultiple 
This is a photo of the first record – found by Professor Karim Vahed at the Flockmill in Rewe, near Exeter. This is a ‘macropterous’ (f. diluta) individual i.e. it has long wings which enables it to fly and therefore disperse and colonise new areas. (Photo Karim Vahed)
Here is a male (non macropterous, known as brachypterous) individual, photographed at the same site in 2017 and found by Karim’s son Gabriel. This discovery would imply that a founder colony was formed in 2014 and persisted to 2017. The green strip on the pronotum and spots on the side of the thorax are diagnostic. (Photo Karim Vahed.)
Here is another male, this time photographed at Ross Meadow in Fingle Woods on Dartmoor in 2020. (Photo Tom Williams)

To date this year I have received one record from a new site at Beer, found by Christopher Hodgson. The species favours long unkempt grass and can be quite difficult to spot as individuals skulk. However Roesel’s Bush-crickets have a very distinctive song which is audible to those with good hearing. I use a bat detector to pick up the call now I’m older!

Follow this link to the website of Orthoptera UK and you can play a sound clip to hear how distinctive the song is. The individuals which the long wings stridulate and produce a loud song which to me sounds like standing under a high voltage electric pylon in the rain!

Now is the time to go out and find Roesel’s Bush-crickets. Majority of the Devon records are to the east of Exeter. On a hot sunny day see if you can see or hear any…. and if you do, please let me know as I’m the County Recorder for Devon for Orthoptera.

My PhD

On the 7th July 2021 I had my PhD Viva – I passed with minor corrections which were mainly typos – I have now corrected all of these and re-submitted the thesis for final approval. I am now a Doctor!

Some of you may be interested in what I have written so I am making it available as a download pdf in case you wish to read it!

Rather like the situation on Dartmoor’s Commons my PhD may prove contested and controversial – either way here it is – I have told it as I have seen it.

To download my PhD press here.

Defra announcements: FIPL and initial response to the Glover Review

Defra has made a number of announcements this morning about the Farming in Protected Landscape scheme (FIPL) and have given their initial reaction to the Glover Review published in September 2019 (see here and here).

By Protected Landscapes, Defra mean National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs). Defra have issued a press release (see here) which sets out the scope of the scheme. In essence this is a grant scheme to:- 

‘to make improvements to the natural environment and improve public access on their land – the next step in the Government’s landmark plans for a renewed agriculture sector outside of the Common Agricultural Policy. The funding will go towards one-off projects to support nature recovery; improve public access; mitigate the impacts of climate change; provide opportunities for people to enjoy and understand the landscape; and support nature-friendly and sustainable farm businesses.’

This is a grant scheme to fund works and is not an income support scheme for farmers and land managers.

More details on the Scheme are set out in a Guidance note (see here). To be eligible to apply applicants need to meet the following criteria – interesting to note that common land is included.

Additionally, for Dartmoor, the National Park Authority have produced a page on their website which expands on the Defra information (see here).

The page includes examples of the types of project which could be funded.

I haven’t yet discovered what the England and Dartmoor budgets are for this scheme, but this information will be needed so that applicants match their project aspirations to the available grant monies.

Initial response to the Glover Review

This is based on a Parliamentary Statement made by Secretary of State George Eustice (see here). Much of the Statement builds on previous announcements regarding nature recovery, access and inclusions issues. There are a few sentences on the future governance of protected areas.

‘Each of our protected landscapes has its own identity, and many of their functions require local accountability. However, we are also considering how their structures might be changed so that we can bring the family of protected landscapes closer together, and ensure there is more strategic direction nationally, while retaining their local functions.’ 

 These words seem to mirror the report from Tom Heap on Countryfile a couple of months ago, but we are going to have to wait until later in the year to receive the detailed proposals, which will then be consulted on.

It is good to see more information emerging but as with previous announcements the detail is partial and somewhat fragmented. The FIPL scheme is due to open in July 2021 so it will be useful to see the budgets for this sooner rather than later.