Should Dartmoor be a temperate Rain Forest or a cultural landscape? Discuss ..

I gave a 20 minute talk yesterday at Butterfly Conservation’s conference on the future of the south west’s uplands where I very briefly summarised the findings of my PhD research. I’m interested in why people disagree about the way that Dartmoor is managed and grazed and I’m looking at it from the perspective of the various stakeholder narratives. Is Dartmoor overgrazed or undergrazed? Should it be richer in wildlife? Should much of it be rewilded? Should the blanket bog, valley mires and wet heath be re-wetted? What about the historical landscape – should it be re-grazed so that the monuments become visible again within the landscape? What is to be done about the Molinia (Purple Moor Grass) jungle and the Western Gorse encroachment? What about the hill-farmers’ narratives? Lots of questions, lots of viewpoints and lots of disagreement.

My talk prompted this exchange on Twitter today following an initial tweet from Farming Wilder.

Followed by a response from George Monbiot – arguing that a temperate rain forest should be re-established.

But what of the existing wildlife interest?

A comparison of Dartmoor to the Amazon ….

The case for a varied but cultural landscape….

Is this the beginning of a compromise?

Nobody is actually happy with the status quo but …

Not all Dartmoor hill-farmers will agree with this but some evidently do …

An interesting social enterprise …

With the parlous state of hill-farm economics, the spectre of Brexit, continuing climate change and atmospheric nitrogen pollution, the status quo is untenable and change and new ideas are needed. This exchange suggests a possible alternative, there are of course many others such as a 21st century return to ‘Levancy and Couchancy’ (only keeping the number of animals on the Commons that you can feed over winter from the meadows on your home farm –  growing hay and silage organically) and a new Transhumance (summering of animals on the Commons and then ‘finishing’ of them in the lowlands).

To be continued ……

 

 

Hill-farm economics in 2018-19

In 2017 I wrote a piece about the 2016/17 Farm Business Income figures and how they related to farming on Dartmoor. Two years on, the 2018/19 figures have been published and they make for grim reading.

As a result of the cold late spring in 2018 followed by the very hot, dry summer hill-farmers faced increased feed costs. Additionally they received lower prices for store cattle, ewes and ewe hoggs at market. This resulted in a doubling of agricultural losses and a halving of their incomes despite subsidy levels remaining the same compared to 2016/17.

Upland hill-farming is categorised as ‘Grazing livestock (LFA)’

Here are the 2016/17 and 2018/19 figures for comparison.

In 2016/17 the agricultural elements of the hill-farming businesses made on average a loss of -£9400, by 2018/19 this had increased by £12100 to -£21,500. Farm incomes dropped by £11,800 from £27,000 to £15,500.

The final column in the above table shows that in 2016/17 without an subsidy the average hill-farm in England would have lost -£7000, by 2018/19 this had risen to -£18,800.

We are about to enter the third phase of agricultural policy since World War 2: ‘public money for public goods’, following on after the productivist era driven by the 1947 Agricultural Act and the era of ‘environmentalism’ underpinned by the agri-environmental schemes.

The new Public Money for Public Goods policy will see the Basic Payment Scheme and the agri-environment payments phased out and replaced by a new Environmental Land Management Scheme.

Even if all upland hill-farms received on average £34,300 (i.e. the subsidy level paid in 2018/19) for providing ‘public goods’ (carbon storage, water supply, wildlife, archaeology, access and landscape) we will be expecting hill-farmers to live on £15,500 per annum and that’s unsustainable surely?

I’m not sure our policy makers understand this …… but perhaps they do ….. and I won’t even mention the B word and possibility of a ‘no-trade deal’.

 

Glover’s Landscape Review and Cultural Landscapes

The Review commissioned by Michael Gove and led by Julian Glover has just published its final report and it is entitled ‘Landscapes Review’. It can be downloaded from the Defra website here.

This isn’t a full review of the report but highlights a few of the comments in it that relate to ‘cultural landscapes’ and IUCN Category V protected areas.

They are places which are lived in and farmed, as well as places full of nature, known by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as ‘Category V’: “areas where the interaction of people and nature over time has produced an area of distinct character with significant ecological, biological, cultural and scenic value”.

The 2016 report from the IUCN, Putting nature on the map, is a useful starting point because it recognises that our national landscapes are different from many others elsewhere in the world.

It states that landscape designation in England is based on “a clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long‐term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values”. These ‘Category V’ designations, which the UK led the way with, recognise the importance of protecting lived‐in landscapes. “In the case of conflict, nature conservation will be the priority,” it adds.  (p25)

To do this, we need people and nature to work together. We should encourage creative harmony.

They should do this through management which protects and enhances their special qualities as landscapes shaped by human and natural activity.

They should become exemplars of the IUCN’s Category V landscapes, supporting the very best in nature and natural beauty.  (p36)

Revised National Park Purpose and Duty No. 1

A revised statutory purpose that combines natural beauty and cultural heritage with the delivery of biodiversity and natural capital would be very significant. It would be a new statement of the national importance of our national landscapes in providing vital, life supporting ecosystem services, to be placed alongside their established role in protecting landscape and nature of national importance. It would also help enshrine the essential link between people and nature.  (p38)

The Glover Review Team have strongly sided with Cultural Landscapes – an article I wrote in 2017 about the designation of the Lake District as a World Heritage Site and cultural landscape gives some indication of the controversy around such a notion – see here. This second piece also shows how the cultural environment  and natural environment can collide – see here.

That said, the Review team are also very strong in saying that National Parks and AONBs, to be called in future National Landscapes, need a ‘renewed mission to recover and enhance nature’.

Any hill-farmers reading this will no doubt be very relieved – the rewilders  may not be

I suspect in the coming days we may hear more about this ……. as I haven’t seen anything yet …..

Heather beetle damage on Dartmoor 2019

I have been very surprised how much Heather Beetle damage there is on Dartmoor this year. The Heather Beetle larvae hatch in June and then feed on the young leaves and shoots. As a result the affected parts of the heather plant turn orange brown.

Heather Beetle damage. It is very characteristic and eye catching.

Last week I walked from Rowtor on Okehampton Common up the military road to Observation Post 15 and then down to Ockerton Court. All the way along the track there are signs of extensive damage to the heather plants – I would estimate that over 90% of plants are affected.

Work carried out in the north of England and in Scotland suggest that the larvae are active until the end of August when they drop down into the litter and pupate into adult beetles. Despite three separate searches on Okehampton Common, the Forest of Dartmoor and Headland Warren Common I only managed to find three larvae and one adult beetle.

Here is a Heather Beetle larvae on Okehampton Common eating the few remaining green leaves of the plant.

I suspect that the absence of larvae and adults during my searches in the first week of August means that the larvae have already dropped into the litter and are beginning to pupate – as a result larvae and adults are not visible. However the very extensive areas of damaged heather indicates that they have been very active in June and July.

It is possible for the heather to recover from this attack and I will be monitoring it to see if it does. However parts or all of the heather plant can be killed. When this happens the shoots turn from orange brown to grey.

This is mature heather at Ockerton Court which has been killed by Heather Beetle

In this image the areas of dead heather (darker brown bits) are being over run by Purple Moor Grass (Molinia caerulea) – the bright green shoots of this year’s growth and the light brown leaves from last year. Molinia is unable to replace heather whilst the heather is alive but can and does do so when it is dead.

Heather Beetle is a seriously under-recorded species on Dartmoor – the National Biodiversity Network database has just one record and the is from Fingle Woods and not from the high moor!

There is clearly a need to gather more records ….

There is anecdotal evidence nationally that Heather Beetle attacks are getting worse and it has been suggested (based on research from the Netherlands) that the severity and frequency of Heather Beetle outbreaks is linked to the levels of atmospheric pollution – particularly nitrogen levels.

Dartmoor receives high levels of nitrogen deposition as a result of its high rainfall – Natural England have reported that Dartmoor receives 24kg / ha / annum of nitrogen (as NOx) which is damaging the blanket bog and mires. This high level of nitrogen deposition may also be responsible for the high levels of Heather Beetle damage.

Heather Beetles are a natural part of the moorland wildlife community and historically damage to heather was limited except in the ‘outbreak’ years. Last year when I was walking the Commons in July I also noticed extensive areas of affected heather – at this point in time heavy attacks appear to be frequent – maybe even annual.

There are implications for wildlife, conservation and hill-farming as a result of these serious Heather Beetle attacks.

  1. The heather plants themselves are either killed or remain stunted
  2. The species of wildlife which feed on heather shoots are also impacted – this includes moth species such as the Emperor Moth and the Fox Moth, whose hairy caterpillars are important prey items for one of Dartmoor’s iconic and successful birds – the cuckoo.
  3. Heather has long been a conservation indicator for the condition of Dartmoor’s Commons and historically grazing levels were reduced significantly to reduce overgrazing pressures to conserve heather.
  4. Heather is also a winter food for sheep on the Commons, if the amount of heather generally is significantly reduced as a result of Heather Beetle attacks it put pressure of the remaining plants that have survived.

Ironically it is thought that the severity and frequency of Heather Beetle attacks has increased because the nitrogen has made the young shoots and leaves more nutritious, it is also reported that sheep preferentially graze the new shoots too for the same reason.

There is a dearth of information on Heather Beetle issues on Dartmoor but from my own observations this year and last it is a potentially serious and widespread problem. However it would also appear that the problem is not universal across the moor. I searched for it in the heather stands around the Warren House Inn  and found Heather Beetle attacks to be minor – perhaps this level of damage is the natural level – whereas the levels seen on Okehampton Common, the north part of the Forest and on Headland Warren Common are the outbreak levels.

It seems to me that there is a clear need to better understand the Heather Beetle situation on Dartmoor, this would be in the interests of Natural England, the Dartmoor National Park Authority and the Dartmoor Commoners Council. The time to survey for the impacts of Heather Beetle is July and August. Maybe a bit of ‘Citizen Science’ could come to the rescue?

I would also be interested to hear from people who have found the characteristic orange brown stands of heather this year on Dartmoor.

I’ve written before about Heather Beetles and this link takes you to my blog which contains further information and some references you can download.

The wildfire site at Gidleigh

I’ve been back to Gidleigh Common today to see what the wildfire area (April 2018) looks like this spring.

The wildfire area is the green bit. The brown bits are the areas of ungrazed Molinia (Purple Moor Grass) which were not affected by the fire. The rocks on the skyline top right are Watern Tor.

Just to the south is the rest of Gidleigh Common, part of Chagford Common and the new takes up to Sittaford Tor. As you can see the majority of it is dominated by Molinia.

Amongst the green bits were five different herds of cattle – all Galloways or Belted Galloways – the black dots in the picture. The cattle were only grazing in the fire area and none in the Molinia. These cattle are not Gidleigh Common cattle – they have been drawn in from elsewhere – mainly the Forest of Dartmoor. The cattle love the new sweet grass that grows after a fire. That is good for the burnt area but bad for the unburnt areas which simply become more overgrown. It looks there will be no grazing this year (again) in places like the flanks of Hangingstone Hill (see yesterday’s blog – here).

The Gidleigh Galloways (and some ponies) were grazing to the north on an area that was burnt 7 years ago but has been grazed every year since. Again the areas of Molinia to the right are untouched.

Too much Molinia and not enough cattle ….

Gidleigh Commoners are currently trialling winter grazing of Galloways – they won’t eat much of the Molinia in the winter but they do trample it down. The winter feeding of the cattle is being done sympathetically by good shepherding and there appears to be no detrimental effects.

What for the future?

Some hill-farmers advocate new light burns each year in adjacent Molinia patches to lure the cattle onto the new growth. But without more cattle (which hill-farm economics does not really encourage) it is hard to see how the Molinia problem can be ‘solved’ on the Home Commons such as Gidleigh – let alone the massive Forest of Dartmoor Common which is now largely a Molinia jungle.

This whole topic is down for debate at the Dartmoor Commoners Council meeting this Wednesday …..should be interesting but I bet there won’t be a consensus.

 

 

A ray of hope in the Forest?

I went for a long walk on Dartmoor yesterday up into the Forest of Dartmoor. For those of you not familiar with the area it is dominated these day by Molinia – Purple Moor grass. Walking is only comfortable if you follow defined tracks as the vegetation is now very overgrown and under grazed.

Here is the view from the flanks over Hangingstone Hill looking over towards Steeperton Tor and the Belstone Ridge. The light coloured vegetation is Molinia and the darker patches in the middle distance are areas of heather (Calluna vulgaris).

Here is a close up version of the same habitat. As you can see the vegetation is ungrazed. Historically this area would have been grazed and summer grazing by cattle along with their winter trampling would have controlled the growth.

I have been to this area many times over the past 18 months and have never seen any cattle up here, only a handful of sheep and a herd of ponies. The ponies too can make a difference but their numbers are much reduced and there are now few incentives for hill-farmers to increase their pony numbers.

However there is an area between Okement Hill and Hangingstone Hill where there is still an active lear (an area where stock have been shepherded to remain and graze). Here the area has been grazed in the summer and the Molinia growth has been eaten. In addition the heather is thriving.

If only this could be replicated over the thousands of acres of ungrazed Molinia on the moor but sadly the shepherding practices and numbers of cattle required currently aren’t in place and moorland economics make such a prospect remote. Something for the new Environmental Land Management Schemes to address?

A January afternoon on the high moor

Just for a change I went up onto Dartmoor this afternoon!

I went in search of the herd of Highland cattle which inhabit the Commons between the Warren House Inn, Headland Warren and Hameldown, spent a lot of time searching but to no avail! Facebook tells me they are still there …. somewhere!

Nevertheless found plenty of other things to look at and photograph – here are a few of my pictures.

A Swaledale near Headland Warren

Scotties near Headland Warren

Down the Challacombe Valley

On the drove up to Great Mis Tor

South Devons at a ring-feeder on the in-bye near Postbridge

A new perspective on the Postbridge clapper bridge

Scotch Blackface sheep under a busy Haytor

Saddle Tor via a Lensball

Take 2

Sunset at Saddle Tor

The sheep i.e. the ewes are now back on the Commons having been tupped (mated) by the rams – the Dartmoor farming year keeps turning.