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.
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.
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.
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