What will happen to farming in Devon post Brexit?

Yesterday I attended the Devon Local Nature Partnership conference ‘New Horizons for Devon’s Natural Capital’. Great speakers, well attended and well organised. Whilst there are many exciting initiatives happening right now in Devon and the ‘Green Brexit’ mission of Michael Gove gives environmentalists much to be optimistic about with the mantra of ‘public money for pubic goods’, I nevertheless left the conference with a sick feeling in my stomach. What does the future hold for Devon’s multitude of small family farms?

Most of my friends are not rural policy wonks and therefore they are unaware of the situation that farming in Devon (and elsewhere) finds itself. Read on.

Here is Professor Matt Lobley from the Centre for Rural Policy Research (where I work) at the University of Exeter talking about  Farm Business Income. Matt told the audience that the bottom 42% of small farms in England contribute just 2% of agricultural output…. There will be those who say these farmers are inefficient and a widespread re-structuring of the industry is required, I say be careful what you wish for. The consequences for the natural character, landscapes, biodiversity and social fabric of counties like Devon in losing 42% of its small family farms would be immense and would led to outcomes which would fly in the face of the Green Brexit objectives.

The rest of this blog attempts to explain the predicament that farmers in Devon now find themselves and gives a small insight into what has to be done over the coming 5 years. The following data comes from various Defra Farm Income reports.

This graph shows the average Farm Business income in England for the various different types of farming. It shows that across England cereals, grazing livestock (lowlands), grazing livestock LFA (Less Favoured Areas) and  mixed farming all lose money on the agricultural side of their businesses.

This table gives the actual figures included in the above graph. So if we look at Grazing Livestock (lowland) i.e. much of Devon that isn’t on Dartmoor or Exmoor, the figures show that the agricultural business lost £8,700 but agri-environment payments (money for looking after wildlife) generated £3000, diversified income (e.g. running a B & B on the farm) produced £6500, the Basic Payment Scheme (subsidy for owning land) provided £15,300 giving an overall Farm Business Income of £16,100. So £24,800 comes from grants, diversified non agricultural businesses and the Basic Payment Scheme to offset the £8700 agricultural loss giving the family farm an income of £16,100. That is not a living wage, i.e. the income provided is unable to pay the farmer, spouse and other working family members a rate of pay equal to the minimum agricultural wage.

The above figures are the 2016/17 figures for England but if you look at the regional numbers other trends emerge.

These are the 2015/16 figures: the average England FBI figure for grazing livestock is £14,400 but in the south west this drops to £10,300. The dairy sector on the other hand is stronger in the south west.

Here are the summary forecasts for 2017/18.

And here are the detailed forecast figures for 2017/18 along with the trends since 2012/13, an 8% decline for upland hill-farmers (LFA) and a standstill position for lowland grazing livestock. A major increase for dairy and a substantial one for cereals. A volatile market but a very precarious one for livestock farmers.

There are some pretty stark numbers in these datasets. Many farms, particularly small farms make small margins and many others are very reliant on agri-environment grants and the Basic Payment Scheme. After we leave the EU the Basic Payment Scheme will be phased out and public money for farmers will be provided in return for the provision of public goods (e.g. wildlife, access, looking after the historic environment, carbon storage, flood prevention, provision of drinking water etc). The following table shows the scale of the shift in policy and the implications of what might happen if it can’t be achieved.

The column titled CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) Subsidy is the sum of the agri-environment grants and the BPS subsidy. This is the amount of money therefore that farmers will have to earn via the provision of pubic goods if they are to maintain their current income levels. The final column shows what the impact would be on their Farm Business Income if they are unable to do this.

And here’s the rub – some farms on account of their location are much better placed than others to provide a suite of public goods and therefore receive public money. So for example hill-farmers in National Parks have made a very strong case that they can provide these public goods as these areas are rich in natural capital and this has been acknowledged by Government. On the other hand lowland graziers perhaps will find it much more difficult to provide public goods as they are not situated in National Parks with Bronze Age landscapes and Special Areas of Conservation where millions of people go for access and recreation.

The stated aim of these changes is to leave the environment in a better condition than it is in now, this means changes to the way things are done. Judging by the conversations that I’ve heard hill-farmers might be able to provide £22,800 worth of public goods to make up for the loss of their Basic Payment Scheme subsidy, the question is whether for example lowland graziers can provide £15,300 and dairy farmers £25,300 worth of public goods in return for the money.

I had a conversation with Robin Milton, Chair of Exmoor National Park, hill-farmer and NFU Uplands chair about this very topic yesterday and that was why I left the conference with a sick feeling in my stomach.

Atmospheric pollution, grazing numbers and soil compaction

Three things have happened to me during the last week which have really got me thinking.

Firstly, last week I gave a talk at the Fingle Bridge Inn – ‘The Elephant in the Uplands and a tale of two narratives’ – a story about the impact of atmospheric pollution on Dartmoor – see here. During the Q & A session after the talk we were discussing purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea) and I suggested that Molinia needed hard summer grazing from cattle to reduce its abundance. A member of the audience who was from an agricultural background then asked whether it would be a good idea therefore to lime the Commons ….. (i.e. the addition of calcium rich minerals to the soil to reduce the acidity).

To be honest I was a bit stumped. I thought that such an intervention on a Site of Special Scientific Interest would be a ‘potentially damaging operation’ and as a result Natural England would not permit it. More to follow later on ….

Secondly, my Twitter feed is full of discussions around soil compaction on Dartmoor.








Thirdly, I received an email from Kevin Cox, owner of part of Holne Moor Common which discussed the previous two issues. Kevin, like myself has heard Commoners recently advocating the use of lime, a practice that was common in the past even on the Commons of Dartmoor. He also sent me a paper (McCallum et al 2016) which suggested that the liming of upland pastures could be justified from a conservation perspective as it raised the pH which led to a significant increase in the earthworm population and thus provided an enhanced food supply for breeding lapwings.

Might the issues of atmospheric pollution, liming and soil compaction actually all be part of the same story?

The atmospheric pollution narrative
‘The Elephant in the Uplands and a tale of two narratives’ argues that the evidence that atmospheric pollution has detrimentally impacted on the vegetation of the uplands is compelling. This narrative explains the rise in extent and vigour of purple moor grass at the expense of heather especially in the light that heather beetle outbreaks have been and are widespread and destructive. Additionally, even in an era of reduced sheep numbers, heather shoots are vulnerable to selective grazing by sheep as nitrogen deposition has enhanced their nutritional value. I conclude that atmospheric pollution is a driver of change and not just an inconvenience.

However, although I referred to it on my extended blog on atmospheric nitrogen pollution (here), I had failed to make the link to one of the other impacts of nitrogen deposition – it also acidifies the soil.

The role of lime?
I was keen to understand better what my lime questioner had meant by his query, so I emailed him (Fairfax Luxmore). He replied that he had heard from a farmer in the Peak District that liming had increased the grazing output ten-fold and that liming also releases phosphate if the pH is low. He also stated that on Dartmoor where liming had traditionally occurred in the past it had encouraged the growth of ‘sweet grasses’ (which need phosphate) which the stock favoured. My previous literature review had identified that atmospheric nitrogen pollution on Dartmoor had changed the environment from being nitrogen limited to a phosphate limited one and that this change had favoured the growth of Molinia at the expense of heather.

The McCallum lime, earthworms and lapwing paper referred to above also outlines that lime sales for agricultural purposes peaked in the 1960s and has subsequently tailed off dramatically. So, at the very time that the deposition of atmospheric nitrogen pollution was sill increasing (and causing soil acidification), the application of lime which counter-acted it was decreasing. I have no data for the soil fauna and earthworms on Dartmoor but it is perhaps not unreasonable to suggest that the acidification of Dartmoor’s peaty soils would also have led to a decrease in earthworms and other soil fauna biomass.

Soil compaction on Dartmoor
It is uncontestable that the patter of cloven and uncloven hooves over the decades has led to the compaction of soils on the Commons of Dartmoor, especially as Kevin Cox explained in his email to me that the ungrazed soils on the other side of the Common fence were ‘friable and free-draining’.

Richard Smith & David Hogan

Compacted soil

Fence line on Buckfastleigh Moor edge

Free draining soil from over fence line

The question for me though is, has this compaction occurred as a result of grazing pressures post World War Two or is it the result of grazing pressures from the 12th century onwards? I ask this question as there appears to have been eras in the past when the Commons were grazed as heavily if not more heavily than the post war era without detrimental impact.

I have written before about Charles Vancouver and his claims that there were 14,000 sheep and the ‘usual proportion of cattle’ on Widecombe and Buckland in the Moor Commons in 1807, that the grass was knee high in May and barely half consumed in the beginning of November (see here). If Vancouver’s figures are correct I have calculated that the grazing pressure in 1807 was six times the figure considered acceptable today if the moorland vegetation is not to be damaged from overgrazing. Vancouver’s sheep figures are perplexing and many are sceptical about their validity, but perhaps there is an explanation.

A speculative synthesis
Atmospheric pollution levels in Britain rose following the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (a transitional process which started in 1760 and was in full swing by 1840), atmospheric nitrogen emissions peaked in the late 1980s but deposition levels have remained high especially in upland and urban areas. These compounds of nitrogen are driving vegetational change and have reduced the acidity of the soil in the uplands.

As a result, plant communities have become phosphate limited and nitrogen rich which has favoured grasses such as Molinia and the peaty soils have a much reduced soil fauna. The loss of the soil fauna (especially earthworms) has meant that soils are unable to recover from animal trampling and have become compacted.

In 1807, when Vancouver visited Dartmoor, the Industrial Revolution had barely started and atmospheric nitrogen pollution was very low. Phosphate was not a limiting factor and as a result ‘sweet grasses’ flourished and the soil was healthy and not acidified, earthworms and other soil fauna were abundant and were able to counter the compaction of the trampling of herbivores.

The evidence suggests that the impact of atmospheric nitrogen pollution is considerable, both to vegetation and the soil. It is also clear that levels of atmospheric nitrogen pollution will remain high for decades to come (Stevens 2016).

So, what of liming? There is some evidence to suggest that the liming of acid grassland does not reduce species richness in plant communities as long as manures or fertilisers are not also added (Kirkham et al 2008). However even if it were considered desirable (I think more work would be needed if SSSIs / SACs were to be limed) it is difficult to see how it would be practical across the 35,882 ha of Dartmoor’s Commons.

Photos courtesy of Kevin Cox.

Kirkmam F.W., Tallowin J.R.B., Sanderson R.A., Bhogal A., Chambers B.J. & Stevens D.P. (2008). The impact of organic and inorganic fertilizers and lime on the species richness and plant functional characteristics of hay meadow communities. Biological Conservation 141: 1411-1427.

McCallum H.M., Wilson J.D., Beaumont D., Sheldon R., O’Brien M.G. & Park K.J. (2016) A role for liming as a conservation intervention? Earthworm abundance is associated with higher soil pH and foraging activity of a threatened shorebird in upland grasslands. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 223:182-189.

Stevens C.J., (2016). How long do ecosystems take to recover from atmospheric nitrogen deposition? Biological Conservation, Vol. 200: 160-167

Local and scientific knowledge

This blog looks at local and scientific knowledge; how they differ, how they interact and why the former is making a comeback in conservation circles.

Local knowledge
Local knowledge is a form of informal learning and can be described as ‘experiential learning developed through trial and error by people who live in a particular area. As a result, it is dynamic and constantly evolving as it responds to changing conditions and external stimuli.’ (Mansfield 2018 p20). It is of direct relevance to the hill-farming community. It is about the relationship that local people have with their environment, its landscape and habitats along with its potential carrying capacity. In the English uplands the management of Common Land and the historic practice of transhumance [1] are clear examples of local knowledge systems in practice today and those from the past. As local knowledge is a trial and error process carried out in an incremental manner, people can make mistakes but then learn from them (Mansfield 2018). Clark and Murdock (1997) make the distinction between ‘local’ and ‘traditional’ knowledge, suggesting that the latter has a time element i.e. it is handed down from one generation to the next. They conclude that local knowledge is not necessarily traditional knowledge.

I have written in the past about the observations of Charles Vancouver, the agricultural improver (see here) , who in 1807 wrote

“The importance of the first description of these wastes (referring to his earlier writing on the boggy character of Dartmoor), can in no way be so fully shewn as by stating the stock feeding upon them. The Commons belonging to the parish of Widdecombe [and Buckland in the Moor] will furnish a sufficient example, when in the month of October last, there were estimated by gentlemen residing in the neighbourhood, to be no less than 14,000 sheep, besides the usual proportion of horned cattle.” p228

A dry summer (as just observed), is always the most favourable for these sheep walk. These afforded in the months of August and September last, flocks were more numerous, and in much higher condition, than has ever been observed by the surveyor in any other part of England, when such have not been aided by access to the enclosures or artificial food. Yet the grass of the sheep-walks upon the forest of Dartmoor, in the beginning of November was scarcely half consumed.” p346-347

Additionally, Mercer (2009 p303) quotes Vancouver who reported seeing ‘knee high grass’ on the Widecombe Commons in May. Ample grazing at the beginning of the growing season and scarcely half consumed in November. What makes these observations all the more remarkable are that they appear to show that the grazing densities of animals on these Common exceeded the maximum stocking levels seen on Dartmoor during the 1970s and 1980s – the so called era of overgrazing.

This must surely be a prime example of local knowledge, built up by generations of hill-farmers and as such is a good example of traditional knowledge.

Scientific knowledge
Scientific knowledge, on the other hand is a formal process where general truths of the natural world are built up through systematic study using scientific methods – the knowledge of facts, principles and laws.

As Cole stated (1992)

Natural scientists were trying to uncover the next page of a book that had already been written, whose conclusion, though currently unknown, was predetermined or inevitable. Nature, rather than sociological processes, determined the way in which scientific knowledge developed (p3 and quoted in Clark & Murdoch 1997).

A very good example of the generation of scientific knowledge is the research carried out on Dartmoor by Professor Jeremy Thomas and his fellow researchers which unravelled the complex life cycle of the Large Blue butterfly along with its very specific habitat requirements (Thomas et al 2009) – see here. This knowledge ultimately led to the successful re-introduction of the species to Somerset and Gloucestershire.


Uneasy bedfellows?
As the examples  of the Widecombe Commons and the Large Blue show local and scientific knowledges can be very powerful and lead to desired outcomes. However, trying to integrate local and scientific approaches has often proved problematic.

Clark & Murdoch (1997 p39) state that scientists ‘tend to assume that science is a ‘special’ form of knowledge and that it should stand aloof from local ways of thinking.’ Toogood (2003) writing about Scottish Natural Heritage and its relationships with crofters and estate owners in the Highlands suggests that State ecologists and conservationists have been criticised because they interfere with and exercises control over crofters and large estates and the institutional culture, forms of scientific knowledge and assumptions about nature and society are at odds with the aspirations of local people regarding rural development and land reform. He goes on to suggest that this ‘conservation culture’ is a legacy of the nation’s former colonial past where:-

  1. science is given priority over lay knowledge
  2. nature is separate from culture
  3. bureaucratic control and standardisation of nature takes precedence over other forms of engagement with land

Additionally, in a study looking at hill-farmers’ attitudes towards scientists in the Lake District following the Chernobyl radio-active fallout incident in 1986 found that the scientists were only trusted and believed if their research proved credible and reliable. In addition, the Lake District hill-farmers resented the fact that their local knowledge was not considered scientific enough to be used by the researchers which on occasion led to ill-conceived research methodologies (Wynne 1992).

Local knowledge and cognitive conflict
However local knowledge systems do not always have positive outcomes, Mansfield (2018) cites the example of impact of the Highland Clearances in Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Clan system which was in use in the Highlands for centuries had evolved to provide subsistence-level farming which was in a sustainable harmony with the environment- a local and traditional knowledge system. External agricultural improvers however saw the situation differently, they believed that the land was under-used and that it could be managed more intensively, the land was sold and the incumbents were displaced to allow for a more intensive pastoral agriculture. This led to unsustainable over-exploitation (along with much misery). Mansfield terms this process as cognitive conflict i.e. the way in which different groups see an issue from their own knowledge bases which is at odds with the other.

Ironically, the Vancouver example above eventually led to a form of cognitive conflict well over a century after the 14,000 sheep were counted. Vancouver, of course, was visiting Devon to determine how agriculture could be made more productive and whilst he stated in no uncertain terms that the Commons should not be improved agriculturally – ‘The disturbing of this herbage, however inferior it may appear in the eye of the refined agriculturalist, is on no account whatever to be recommended to be permitted.’. Change however slowly and gradually began to happen, partly driven by the ‘improvers’ and partly driven by fashion. Wool production became unprofitable, mutton was replaced by lamb and perhaps most importantly the breeds of sheep and cattle changed to those that could be grazed all year round on the moor so by the 1940s, transhumance along with levancy and counchancy[2] were forgotten traditional practices and the lowland farmers were dis-enfranchised from the Commons. Following on from the 1947 Agriculture Act all year-round stocking numbers in the uplands were increased fuelled by subsidy and headage payments – by the 1990s this all had to be reversed as this type of management led to habitat degradation through overgrazing. The older systems of local and traditional knowledge replaced by a new productivist local knowledge which ultimately proved to be unsustainable. In addition, there is a suggestion that during the period of agricultural intensification (1950-1980) farmers spent less time walking the land due the use of more hi-tech machinery along with time and labour constraints and as a result their local knowledge base of their environment was eroded (Morgan & Murdoch 2000). In an upland context the introduction of quad bikes as a means of accessing the Commons may have had a similar impact.

A new dawn for local knowledge?
Following the introduction of the agri-environment schemes in the 1990s stocking numbers on the Commons began to decrease, restrictions were put on overall numbers and in many cases winter grazing was stopped. Unfortunately, despite the detailed management prescriptions from the scientists at Natural England the Commons failed to recover – the heather continued to decline and unpalatable purple moor grass spread, much to everyone’s consternation. Relations between the hill-farmers and ecologists dropped to an all-time low, stocking numbers had decreased but it appeared the science wasn’t to be trusted. A new approach was needed to rebuild trust between the various disgruntled parties.

This new approach is known as Dartmoor Farming Futures (DFF) (Waldon 2011). The DNPA summarises the project as follows [3].

Dartmoor Farming Futures is an experimental pilot project aimed at developing a new approach to the management of the public and environmental benefits associated with Dartmoor’s moorland that:

  • Offers farmers and landowners more responsibility for the design and delivery of agri-environment schemes;
  • Focuses on the complete range of public benefits (ecosystem services) that are associated with upland farming (from food production to carbon sequestration) and identifies priorities for particular spatial areas; and
  • Facilitates a collaborative approach to agreeing the outcomes sought, delivering the management required and assisting with the monitoring of the process.

The initiative was developed by Dartmoor National Park Authority and Dartmoor Commoners’ Council with support from the Duchy of Cornwall, Natural England, Royal Society for Protection of Birds, South West Water and the Ministry of Defence. The pilot resulted from a proposal to Defra in 2010 and is being run on two areas of common land: Haytor and Bagtor and the Forest of Dartmoor.

Farming Futures links into and complements the Dartmoor Vision, a shared vision developed with landowners and users which sets out what the moorland will look like in 2030. As part of the work on Farming Futures the original Dartmoor Vision was updated to include valued access, stored carbon and water resources.

The pilot is now in its fourth year and an evaluation process has been undertaken which looks at the impact of DFF on hill-farmers’ behaviours, perceptions and farm businesses (Manning 2017). The Forest of Dartmoor pilot covers 11,170ha and the agri-environment scheme which involves 80 active Commoners focuses on the ecological elements of the area. Manning (2017) concluded that the evaluation has provided evidence that DFF

is resulting in commoners having a greater understanding of what agri-environment schemes are looking to achieve and the outcomes that they are delivering. Commoners are showing an increased awareness and knowledge of the key species, habitats and archaeological features that can be found on their common. Participation with training and monitoring plays an important role in increasing their understanding and the subsequent empowerment to take control of the management. Commoners are increasingly recognising their role as land managers, not only for livestock production but for the production of ecosystem services and have a better understanding of the impacts that their management decisions have for the production of these services.

At least on a couple of Dartmoor Commons great efforts are being made to see whether local knowledge can be combined with scientific knowledge, it is early days but if such an approach can be made to work, delivering both ecosystem services and hill-farming outputs it will be a step forwards. Given time and some experimenting maybe the scenes described by Vancouver can be seen again – a productive version of hill-farming and a vibrant series of habitats.

The spontaneous vegetation of this part of the forest, among many other herbs and grasses, consisted of purple melic grass, mat grass, downy oat grass, bristle-leaved bent, eye-bright, bulbous rooted rush, common termentel, smooth heath-bed straw, common bone binder, cross-leaved heath, common heath or ling (dwarf), milk-wort, dwarf dock and agrostis vulgaris in very large quantities.
Vancouver (1808)

Adams W.M. & Mulligan M. (2003b) Decolonising Nature: strategies for conservation in a post-colonial era. Earthscan. London.

Clark J. & Murdoch J. (1997) Local knowledge and the precious extension of scientific networks: a reflection on three case studies. Sociologia Ruralis 37: 38-60.

Manning J. (2017) Dartmoor Farming Futures: evaluation report. Natural England, Duchy of Cornwall, Dartmoor National Park Authority and the Dartmoor Commoners Council. http://www.dartmoor.gov.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/916104/Dartmoor-Farming-Futures-Report.pdf (accessed 15th June 2017)

Mansfield L. (2018) Managing Upland Resources. New approaches for rural environments. Whittles Publishing. Caithness. Scotland.

Mercer I. (2009) Dartmoor: a statement of its time. Collins. HarperCollins. London.

Morgan K. & Murdoch J. (2000) Organic vs. conventional agriculture: knowledge, power and innovation in the food chain. Geoforum 31: 159-173.

Thomas J.A., Simcox D.J. & Clarke R.T. (2009) Successful Conservation of a Threatened Maculinea Butterfly. Science 325: 80-83

Toogood M. (2003) Decolonizing Highland Conservation. In Adams W.M. & Mulligan M. (2003).

Vancouver C (1808) General View of the Agriculture of the County of Devon – observations on the means of its improvement. McMillan. London. https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/General_View_of_the_Agriculture_of_the_C.html?id=BwhLAAAAYAAJ&redir_esc=y

Waldon J. (2011) Dartmoor Farming Futures Report to Dartmoor National Park Authority, Dartmoor Commoners’ Council and Natural England. http://www.dartmoor.gov.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/164564/DFF-final-report.pdf

Wynne B. (1992) Misunderstood misunderstanding: social identities and public uptake of science. Public understanding of Science 1: 281-304.

[1] The practice of summer grazing on the upland Commons by animals kept in the lowlands at other times

[2] All stock on the Common in the summer had to be accommodated and fed on the farm in the winter months

[3] http://www.dartmoor.gov.uk/lookingafter/laf-landmanagement/dartmoor-farming-futures

Michael Gove returns to the uplands

Michael Gove has just delivered his keynote speech to the NFU Conference in Birmingham – you can read the full speech here. I have selected the passages which refer to the uplands.

“Rural communities depend on profitable agricultural businesses to thrive. The landscapes which draw tourists, from the Lake District to Dartmoor, the Northumberland coast to Pembrokeshire, depend on farmers for their maintenance and upkeep.”

“As does the work of organisations like the Prince’s Countryside Fund which support smaller farms, especially those in more challenging areas. I firmly believe that supporting those farmers who help keep rural life, and economies, healthy is a public good.”

“I am acutely conscious that the changes which are coming to farming leave some sectors more worried than others. And I am particularly aware that many smaller farmers, such as dairy farmers in areas like Devon or upland sheep farmers in Cumbria and Northumberland, fear that the future is particularly challenging for them. Margins are tight. Milk and lamb prices are far from generous. The risks to profitability of Bovine TB or other forces beyond the farmers’ control add to stress. And the prospect of public support diminishing or disappearing makes many wonder how they can go on. I believe we have to ensure future methods of agricultural support recognise how critical it is to value the culture in agriculture – Devon and Somerset would not be as they are – with the countryside as beautiful as it is and communities as resilient as they are – without dairy farmers. Cumbria and Northumberland, Yorkshire’s Dales and Pennine Lancashire would not be as they are – both as breathtakingly beautiful and as resilient – without upland farmers.”

“And yes, I am romantic about it. You cannot read James Rebanks’ A Shepherd’s Life, with its descriptions of life sheep farming in the Lake District, without realising how precious and valuable a link with all our pasts the continuation of farming in communities such as James’ provides. Men and women are hefted in those hills just as much as the sheep they care for. And preserving profitable farm businesses in those communities is just as much a public good as investment in anything I know.”

The specific mention of uplands and hill-farmers as ‘public goods’ therefore entitled to ‘public money’ will be seen as a big relief to many as the 25 year Environment Plan made no mention of the uplands at all and led to consternation in some quarters. e.g.

Gove did mention the uplands in his Age of Acceleration speech at the Oxford Farming Conference in January:-

On hill-farmers
So that does mean …. asking how we can support those farmers, for example upland sheep farmers, whose profit margins are more likely to be small but whose contribution to rural life and the maintenance of iconic landscapes is immense.

Rural resilience as a public good
Finally there is rural resilience. There are any number of smaller farm and rural businesses which help keep communities coherent and ensure the culture in agriculture is kept healthy. Whether it’s upland farmers in Wales or Cumbria, crofters in Scotland or small livestock farmers in Northern Ireland, we need to ensure support is there for those who keep rural life vital. The work of the Prince’s Countryside Fund has been invaluable here and the kind of enterprises that it supports are, I believe, worthy of public support.

but it was curious to say the least that they didn’t get a mention in the 25 year Environment Plan.

So Michael Gove has responded to the ‘feedback’ he has received and made specific mention. The Devil though is still in the detail which we have yet to see. This should begin to emerge once the Consultation Paper on the future of agriculture is published in a month or so.

The key questions to answer in the Consultation Paper with regards to the uplands are

will sufficient public money be made available for the uplands
will hill-farmers be prepared to earn it by the providing the public goods?

The end of livestock farming? A world of narratives and counter narratives

There has been a lot of coverage in the media in recent months about the global impact of the livestock industry. For example, New Scientist (27th January 2018) led with ‘Living on the veg – is veganism just a fad or should we all give up meat and dairy?’ The article states that 25% of the ice-free land on the planet is devoted to livestock grazing and on top of that 33% of all cropped land is used to produce food for livestock. It goes on to ask whether instead of producing animal food we should in fact be using that land to produce human food.

The UK Government in 2011 produced a foresight report called The Future of Food and Farming which suggested that by 2050 we needed to produce 50% more food than we do now in order to feed the growing global population and their increasing preference for a meat diet.

But Colin Tudge (the environmental journalist) and Ruth Tudge from the Campaign for Real Farming, quoting Professor Hans Herren,  Director of the Millennium Institute in Washington DC, state that globally we already produce enough food for 14 billion people i.e. twice the number of people on the planet, see here.

Producing protein via livestock production is inefficient when compared to plant production. As the graphic shows over 1 m2 of land is required to produce one gram of beef. By comparison wheat required 0.04 m2 and pulses need only 0.01 m2 – a 100 fold difference between beef and pulses.

George Monbiot suggests that sheep in the UK provide 1% of our diet but occupy around 4m hectares of the uplands. Monbiot has also stated that as a result of the large number of sheep in our uplands they have been effectively ‘sheepwrecked’ (see here, here and here). A paper in Science of the Total Environment suggests that if we want to reduce biodiversity losses globally the answer is to reduce meat consumption as the eating of meat is increasing dramatically and as a result more ‘wild’ land is required for domestic stock..

The New Scientist article also reviews the impact of livestock farming with regard to climate change. 14.5% of global greenhouse gases are emitted by human livestock – an equivalent amount to that produced by all trains, cars, ships and planes.

The discussion around meat consumption is now to be found in the agricultural mainstream as well as the environmental arena. In January this year the topic was debated at the Oxford Farming Conference, the UK’s leading agri-business forum. The motion put forward was ‘This House Believes Eating Meat Will Be A Thing of the Past By 2100’ – you can read about it here and here and watch the debate here. Prior to the debate commencing only 20 of the audience of farmers supported this motion, but after the debate led by George Monbiot and Philip Lymbery (Compassion in World Farming) against hill-farmer Gareth Wyn Jones and farmer and researcher Emily Norton, 100 additional farmers ended up supporting the motion. The motion did fail with 276 nos and 120 ayes but it was an unexpected result considering the audience.

There is a growing and convincing body of evidence which demonstrates that intensive cattle rearing which is reliant on cereals for sustenance is damaging to the environment, detrimentally affects the climate and is ultimately unsustainable with an increasing world population where the growing ranks of the middle classes are turning to a more meat rich diet.

Running in parallel is the trend of veganism, in 2014, 1% of the US population were vegans, by 2017 this has risen to 5%. Likewise in the UK  the number of vegans has risen threefold in 10 years (New Scientist article). The UK there has also seen the emergence of a more radical form of veganism, albeit a small minority, who believe in direct action against farmers and abattoirs, to highlight what they believe as animal cruelty. In some instances, this has turned confrontational and unpleasant – see here. A topic discussed here by my colleague in the Centre for Rural Policy Research at Exeter University Charlotte-Anne Chivers.

So, should we all give up eating meat? Well, without a doubt the consumption of grain fed beef needs to decline dramatically in my view and that would mean that we would eat less meat which would probably also be quite good for us.

Or would it? Graham Harvey, the agricultural writer and script advisor for the Archers has produced a short film which argues that eating meat is actually good for us and that the increasing prevalence of cereals and sugar in our diets from the 1970s onwards is what has caused the health and obesity crisis – see here.

However, as Harvey’s film shows, grain fed beef is not the only type of meat available, there is also pasture fed meat as well. This is the prevalent type of farming that we find, for example on Dartmoor.

At Challacombe Farm on Dartmoor, Naomi Oakley and Mark Owen run a pasture fed system for their sheep and cattle under the Pasture Fed Livestock Association scheme. On their website they say:

Extensive grazing is essential to conserve the archaeological features of the farm and maintain its wildlife habitats, so the care for our livestock is at the heart of our work.

 Cattle, sheep and ponies all graze in different ways and their activities maintain a diverse range of habitats which are important for many rare species of flowers, birds and other wildlife.  Cattle graze using their rough tongues to wrap around and tear up vegetation, will eat coarse long grasses and so are particularly good at grazing our marshy areas and creating tussocky grass. Being heavier than the sheep they can push their way through scrub and get into rougher and wetter areas, opening it up and creating niches for wildlife to colonise. Sheep are nibblers, nipping grass off quite tightly and creating lawns, this can be great for fungi such as waxcaps. Much of the farm is scheduled as an Ancient Monument and without livestock grazing, features such as the medieval strip lynchets (the terraces on the hillsides) and the tin mining remains would become hidden and damaged by encroaching gorse, bracken and other scrub.

Challacombe is accredited with the Pasture Fed Livestock Association – this means our livestock only eat grass or grass products, never food, such as cereals, that could be eaten by humans. This pasture-based system means that our animals have access to grazing all year, with hay or haylage made on the farm being fed to them in winter when it is cold and wet to supplement their diets.

However, there is a counter narrative which suggests that pasture fed animals are worse for the planet as they produce more greenhouse gas emissions (see here) and of course there is George Monbiot’s counter narrative (already alluded to above) that grazing animals in the uplands – particularly sheep, destroy habitats and reduce biodiversity. As a result, the narrative goes, the uplands should be rewilded. The rewilding narrative is addressed by Naomi and Mark above and I have written about cultural landscapes before and the challenges of managing them  (see here and here).

As with so many issues to do with farming, food and the environment it is mighty complex and confusing, most people choosing the narratives which support their values and worldview to the exclusion of those that don’t.

The 25 year Environment Plan – the wait is over

After months of waiting the Plan has finally been published and launched by the Prime Minister. So ….. has the wait been worth it? Of course this is just a plan BUT if it is delivered an awful lot to do with the environment will change for the better. There will of course be those who say it doesn’t go far enough here and opportunities have been missed there – they will probably be right too. BUT, my goodness who would have thought a plan such as this would have been published during the Paterson or Leadsom eras? I’m not going to systematically review the document I’m just going to pull out a few bits and pieces that caught my attention and made me smile.

You can download and the the 25 year plan here and I recommend you do 

To start with I wonder whether the cover of the report contains a Defra joke? This is Mam Tor in the Peak District with the sun rising in the background (at least I assume it is rising). It is owned by the National Trust who are developing plans to encourage hen harriers and peregrines back into the area. A new dawn is breaking …. hang on …. that was somebody else.

Back to Gove, he repeats in his introduction this –

We will support farmers to turn over fields to meadows rich in herbs and wildflowers, plant more trees, restore habitats for endangered species, recover soil fertility and attract wildlife back. We will ensure broader landscapes are transformed by connecting habitats into larger corridors for wildlife, as recommended by Sir John Lawton in his official review.

In the main report we are told again that subsidies are on the way out.

£3.2bn is spent in the UK under the CAP. £2.59bn of this is spent under ‘Pillar 1’ – the ‘basic payment scheme’ (BPS). This pays farmers according to the amount of land they own, rather than the outcomes they achieve. It concentrates money in the hands of those who already have significant private wealth, without improving environmental outcomes.

And that the ‘greening’ measures have failed and that only a fraction of the money has been spent on things that make a difference.

There have been efforts to improve this by ‘greening’ one third of BPS payments – but scholars have recently found these to be largely ineffective. Just £0.64bn – 20% of the total – is spent on environmental stewardship programmes under ‘Pillar 2’.

The principle public good ….. that is progress!!

After a period of stability to ensure a smooth transition, we will move to a system of paying farmers public money for public goods. The principal public good we want to invest in is environmental enhancement.

OK nothing specifically about uplands, hill-farmers or Commons but Gove covered them in his OFC speech last week – see here. These topics will be specially covered in the Agriculture Command paper due in the Spring and all will be well! Hill-farmers will be supported and the uplands will be restored.

Incentives ….. and ….. the ‘polluter pays’ – I never thought that I would read that regarding fertiliser and pesticide usage

We will introduce a new environmental land management system to deliver this. It will incentivise and reward land managers to restore and improve our natural capital and rural heritage. It will also provide support for farmers and land managers as we move towards a more effective application of the ‘polluter pays’ principle (whereby for costs of pollution lie with those responsible for it).

Here is the strong influence on Government that the Natural Capital Committee has had. Before the NCC ‘externalities’ were just jargon from economists but now it looks like we will all be using the word to reduce pollution.

Farming can be a powerful force for environmental enhancement but it currently generates too many externalities such as emissions from livestock and pollution from fertilisers and pesticides. Overall, farming is now the most significant source of water pollution and of ammonia emissions into the atmosphere in the UK. It accounts for 25% phosphate, 50% nitrate and 75% sediment loadings in the water environment, which harms ecosystems.

Finally a clear and not tacit admission that atmospheric pollution harms soils and alters vegetation.

By ensuring fertilisers are used efficiently, we can cut the air and water pollution that harms public health and the environment, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Poor storage of manure and slurry can lead to the release of harmful chemicals and gases such as ammonia (in 2015, more than four-fifths of ammonia emissions in the UK stemmed from agriculture). This can cause acid rain, combine with pollution from traffic and industry to form smog, and harm soils and vegetation.

A clear indication that peat bogs will be conserved and managed better in the future.

Our peat bogs and fens are important habitats that provide food and shelter for wildlife, help with flood management, improve water quality and play a part in climate regulation. Most peat soils support ecosystems that are sensitive to human activities including drainage, grazing, liming and afforestation. This makes them susceptible to degradation if poorly managed.

If I were still working at Wicken Fen on the National Trust’s Vision or the Wildlife Trust’s Great Fen project I would be very excited about this – opportunities, opportunities, opportunities.

Over the last 200 years, we have lost 84% of our fertile peat topsoil in East Anglia. The fens there could lose the remainder in just 30-60 years given current land management practices and a changing climate. In view of this, we intend to create and deliver a new ambitious framework for peat restoration in England.

Habitat creation on a grand scale …

Through changes in the way we manage our land, we will develop a Nature Recovery Network providing 500,000 hectares of additional wildlife habitat, more effectively linking existing protected sites and landscapes, as well as urban green and blue infrastructure.

Five years ago commissioning a review into National Parks would have been a recipe for their further emasculation – this can only mean they are going to be strengthened and properly funded! Who to chair the review? Dame Fiona Reynolds would be a good choice in my view.

The UK’s first National Parks were created by an Act of Parliament in 1949 following the government’s 1947 Hobhouse Report, which remains the basis for most protected landscape designation in England today.

Now, 70 years on, the Government will commission a review for the 21st Century. This will consider coverage of designations, how designated areas deliver their responsibilities, how designated areas are financed, and whether there is scope for expansion. It will also consider opportunities to enhance the environment in existing designations, and expand on the existing eight-point plan for National Parks to connect more people with the natural environment.

To my eyes much of this plan looks excellent, of course it will only be effective if things happen – that is the next stage.

This tweet which I posted earlier sums up my feelings

There is also an annex which was published alongside the main report – this is also very good – it is full of useful data with url links to the sources. You can download the annex here.

I can’t see the Defra joke though in this image – can you?

The mystery of Vancouver’s sheep figures on Dartmoor in 1808

Charles Vancouver’s General View of the Agriculture of the County of Devon [1] written in 1808 is a widely cited source with regards to grazing and potential agricultural improvements on the Dartmoor Commons.

Vancouver’s book is an amazing treatise on the state of agriculture across Devon in the early 19th century and while much of its focus was on agricultural improvement it contains several sections about the grazing potential of the Dartmoor Commons.

Vancouver described Dartmoor as follows

The whole surface of Dartmoor, including the rocks, consists of two characters, the one a wet peaty moor, or vegetable mould, but affording good sheep and bullock pasture, during the summer season. The other an inveterate swamp, absolutely inaccessible to the lightest and most active quadruped that may traverse the sounder parts of the forest. P281

He then goes on to recommend that the ‘inveterate swamp’ is drained and improved but defends the ‘wet peaty moor’ as follows:

The depasturable parts of the forest, consist of a black moory soil, from eighteen inches to two feet in thickness, generally forming peat below, always highly charged with moisture, and ultimately resting upon a reddish-coloured argillaceous loam, called fox-mould, and which is also retentive of water in a very high degree. The spontaneous vegetation of this part of the forest, among many other herbs and grasses, consisted of purple melic grass, mat grass, downy oat grass, bristle-leaved bent, eye-bright, bulbous rooted rush, common termentel, smooth heath-bed straw, common bone binder, cross-leaved heath, common heath or ling (dwarf), milk-wort, dwarf dock and agrostis vulgaris in very large quantities. The disturbing of this herbage, however inferior it may appear in the eye of the refined agriculturalist, is on no account whatever to be recommended to permitted.

Vancouver goes on to describe the importance of the ‘wet peaty moors’ for grazing by sheep and cattle.

“The importance of the first description of these wastes (referring to his earlier writing on the boggy character of Dartmoor), can in no way be so fully shewn as by stating the stock feeding upon them. The Commons belonging to the parish of Widdecombe [and Buckland in the Moor] will furnish a sufficient example, when in the month of October last, there were estimated by gentlemen residing in the neighbourhood, to be no less than 14,000 sheep, besides the usual proportion of horned cattle.” p228


Mercer (2009) comments on these high sheep numbers suggesting that the Commons of Widecombe and Buckland today amount to 1032 ha. and therefore in 1808 were subject to a grazing pressure of over 2 sheep per ha. My own research concludes that the two Commons amount to 1940ha., nearly twice the area Mercer states. With regard to the cattle we are left unclear on their stocking density but Mercer (p292) states that Vancouver described them as standing ‘shoulder to shoulder’. These two Commons account for around 5% of Dartmoor’s Commons, so if we take an estimate that there were 10,000 cattle on the Commons of Dartmoor in the early 19th century we could speculate that there were 500 (5%) on these two Commons.

By doing this we are then able to construct some grazing pressures, measured in Livestock Unit (LSU) where 0.15 sheep equates to 1 bovine, which we can then compare to those seen in the modern era.

14,000 sheep May to Oct       =          2100 LSU

500 cattle May – Oct              =          500 LSU

Total                                                       2600 LSU

over 1940 ha of Common       =          1.34 LSU / ha / year.

Many studies have been published which seek to recommend appropriate grazing levels on upland grasslands and heaths. The majority of these have been carried out either in Scotland, the Peak District and the Pennines.

In north-east Scotland a grazing pressure of 0.2 cattle and 2.7 sheep / ha (this equates to 0.605 LSU / ha [2]) caused damage to heather communities. Additionally, with cattle at 1.2 / ha (1.2 LSU / ha) there was a 32% decline in 4 years and a decline from 80% to 5% heather cover in 10 years. With 5 sheep / ha (0.75 LSU / ha) there was a 9% decline in heather cover over 4 years (Welch 1984).

A grazing pressure of 2 sheep / ha (0.3 LSU / ha) on heather moorland and 0.37 sheep / ha (0.055 LSU / ha) on blanket bog was considered to be compatible with nature conservation objectives. Whilst 0.5 sheep / ha (0.075 LSU / ha) on heather moorland and 0.1 sheep / ha (0.015 LSU / ha) on blanket bog was required for heather to regenerate (Evans & Felton 1987).

On the face of it the grazing pressure reported by Vancouver is in excess of that which modern research found that habitat damage would occur. However Vancouver reported both cross-leaved heather and ling as being notable in these pastures.

The situation is further complicated as Vancouver also reports the following.

“From the number of sheep annually summered upon Dartmoor and Exmoor forests, the ewes and lambs of which are always brought down into the country on the approach of winter, it will be readily supposed, that a large proportion of sheep stock is always found to occupy the surrounding districts during the winter season. The greater part of these flocks, however being wethers (castrated rams), and chiefly preserved for their wool are left upon the forests during winter.” P345

The sheep in question here are White-faced Dartmoors, these sheep were being raised to produce wool and mutton. The wethers were the principle producer of wool fleeces and may have been kept for up to 6 years. The key factor in the above text is that they were being overwintered on the moor. It is widely assumed that all-year round grazing on Dartmoor did not occur until the late 19th century and the early 20th century when Scotch Black-faced sheep and the Galloway cattle arrived. It would appear that the practices of transhumance (summer grazing and winter resting) along with levancy and couchancy – the rule that determined the number of grazing stock that could be summered on the Common by reference to the capacity of the land to which the rights were associated to feed stock over the winter months, i.e. all stock on the Common in the summer had to be accommodated and fed on the farm in the winter months were already breaking down.

If we assume that that the wethers accounted for 8000 of the 14,000 sheep (‘the greater part’) then we need to add an additional 1200 LSUs in to the calculation.

14,000 sheep May to Oct       =          2100 LSU

8000 wethers Nov to Apr       =          1200 LSU

500 cattle May – Oct              =          500 LSU

Total                                                        3800 LSU

over 1940 ha of Common       =          1.96 LSU / ha / year.

Grazing pressures at these levels, according to the recent research would cause serious problems of overgrazing and habitat degradation. However this would appear not to be the case in 1808 as Vancouver goes on to report:

“The number of sheep thus summered and kept the year round upon the forest of Dartmoor, the depasturable parts of which, in a dry summer, is one of the best sheep-walks in the kingdom, is not easy to ascertain; but if any inference can be drawn from the returns made from Widdicombe and Buckland in the Moor, their numbers must necessarily be very considerable indeed. A dry summer (as just observed), is always the most favourable for these sheep walk. These afforded in the months of August and September last, flocks were more numerous, and in much higher condition, than has ever been observed by the surveyor in any other part of England, when such have not been aided by access to the enclosures or artificial food. Yet the grass of the sheep-walks upon the forest of Dartmoor, in the beginning of November was scarcely half consumed.” P346-347

Additionally Mercer (p303) quotes Vancouver who reported seeing ‘knee high grass’ on the Widecombe Commons in May. Ample grazing at the beginning of the growing season and scarcely half consumed in November.

Vancouver’s 1808 account of sheep on Dartmoor contrasts markedly with that of Robert Frazer who in 1794 published a ‘General View of the county of Devon with observations on the means of its improvement’[3]. On page 53 he states

The south and east quarter are the driest and best for sheep, and from the most accurate information I could obtain, there are not five thousand sheep kept on both these quarters. Certainly not so many on the north and west. So that if we say 10,000 sheep for the whole of Dartmore, we shall be beyond the mark. I think there are not 8,000 in the whole forest in any summer.

However, Fogwill (1954) in his essay on Pastoralism on Dartmoor stated that in Annals of Agriculture there is a footnote stating that ‘this a great error’.

It is difficult to unravel this mystery and we may never be able to do so: perhaps the gentlemen of the parish miscalculated the number of sheep; perhaps the 14,000 sheep were not solely on the Commons or perhaps the breeds of animals involved i.e. the White-faced Dartmoor sheep and the Ruby Red Devon cattle impacted less severely on the vegetation than Scotch Blackfaces and Galloways.

Or maybe, just maybe, in the time before the Industrial Revolution began, before the era of atmospheric pollution and climate change, the hill-farmers of Dartmoor had perfected a system of pastoralism which allowed them to graze the Commons with great numbers of animals without damaging the vegetation.

A mystery indeed.

[1] The entire manuscript can be downloaded here free of charge https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/General_View_of_the_Agriculture_of_the_C.html?id=BwhLAAAAYAAJ&redir_esc=y

[2] LSU is known as a livestock unit Cattle = 1LSU, Ponies = 1 LSU & Sheep = 0.15 LSU

[3] Download free of charge here https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/General_View_of_the_County_of_Devon.html?id=-H5bAAAAQAAJ

Evans S. & Felton M. (1987) Hill livestock compensatory allowances and upland management. In Bell and Bunce (1987) pp66-72.

Fogwill E. (1954) Pastoralism on Dartmoor. Transactions of the Devonshire Association 86: 89-114.

Mercer I. (2009) Dartmoor: a statement of its time. Collins. HarperCollins. London.

Welch D. (1984) Studies in the grazing of heather moorland in North-East Scotland. II. Response of heather. Journal of Ecology 21: 197-207.