In my last blog I discussed the 2019/20 Defra Farm Business Income figures, particularly those relating to the uplands and I also talked about the changes to agricultural funding – the withdrawal of the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) and the introduction of the new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS). That blog focused on what hill-farmers needed to achieve in funding levels from the new scheme to maintain their current levels of income – which are parlous. This blog looks at a report which proposes how hill-farmers might reduce their costs as a mechanism for bolstering their farm income, an approach which might deliver significant benefits to hill-farmers but also to the environment. I discuss whether it might also create some unintended consequences.
In November 2109 a report entitled ‘Less is more: improving profitability and the natural environment in hill and other marginal farming systems’ by Chris Clark and Brian Scanlon was published. The report was funded by RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts and the National Trust and it can be downloaded here. It has attracted much attention and debate as it suggested that ‘reducing output (and hence stock numbers) to a level where stock are grazed only on the farm’s naturally available grass (i.e. without artificial fertilisers), increases profit (or reduces losses), through significant savings of variable costs’. In addition they argue that such an approach has environmental benefits on farms as it de-intensifies the land-use. The ‘Less is more’ ideas relate to the Home Farm’s in-bye fields on Dartmoor i.e. the fenced / walled little fields around the farm adjacent (usually) to the Commons.
It is indisputable that the management of these in-bye fields has intensified over time, a process which began post war and was funded by government agricultural grants. The process of this intensification is neatly described by James Rebanks in chapter 2 ‘Progress’ in his recently published second book English Pastoral. Ironically the intensification of Dartmoor’s in-bye field accelerated following the introduction of the the Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) schemes in the mid 1990s. When the ESA was introduced stock numbers (sheep and cattle) were cut by around 50% and the practice of over-wintering cattle on the Commons was forbidden. As a result many of the ‘excess’ stock were accommodated on the in-bye fields and as the cattle were now back on the Home Farms by the end of the October, it meant that they then have to be fed in sheds throughout the winter before they could return to the Commons to graze. This produced a second wave of intensification, hayfields were replaced by inorganically fertilised re-seeded silage fields which were, in a good year, cut three times. The introduction of the ESAs on Dartmoor therefore brought a series of unintended consequences – a further intensification in the management of the in-bye land unpinned by the use of inorganic fertilisers and fields re-seeded with agriculturally productive grass seed mixes.
The ‘Less is more’ concept would neatly take Dartmoor back to the old laws of ‘Levancy and Couchancy’ – the idea that stock on the Commons should not exceed a number that could not be supported by the Home Farm’s capacity to grow the grass to feed them through the winter when they were not on the Commons i.e. the historic tradition of Dartmoor hill-farming – spring and summer grazing on the Commons, autumn grazing in the in-bye on the aftermath (late summer grass growth after the haycut) and winter feeding from the summer’s hay.
From the late 19th century this historic tradition was replaced a new type of hill-farming. Hardy stock breeds from Scotland were introduced – initially Scotch Black-faced sheep and Galloway cattle. These animals were able to defy the levancy and couchancy rules as they could out-winter on the Commons and the old system was broken. A new tradition was born which I call the modern tradition. This modern traditional way of farming was ideally suited to the era of headage payments, which paid subsidies based on the number of animals on the Commons, the more animals – the more subsidy. By the 1980s it was becoming clear that the number of sheep and cattle on Dartmoor’s Commons was becoming unsustainable as ecological damage was being caused by the stock numbers and some of the associated practices, such widespread and frequent swaling. This was the era when the over-grazing narrative was born. As a result the ESAs were brought in to reduce stocking levels and limit swaling regimes on the Commons.
As my last blog on upland farm economics and the new government environmental priorities demonstrated, there is now a renewed pressure on hill-farmers to cut their costs and to deliver environmental benefits as part of the government’s nature recovery programme. The ‘Less is more’ approach if linked in with funding from the forthcoming ELMS could transform the in-bye land for nature on Dartmoor whilst at the time helping to make upland hill-farming profitable (or at least less, unprofitable). Such a message is hard for many hill-farmers to accept, they have been brought up in the post-war productivistic era of agriculture and scaling back now is anathema to many. Nevertheless some hill-farmers are adopting this approach – Rebanks’ third chapter ‘Utopia’ in English Pastoral, for example.
A return to the ‘Lees is more’ / laws of levanchy and couchancy is very likely to deliver environmental benefits on the in-bye land and that is a very good thing. It is also likely to be welcomed by many environmentalists and conservationists who will see the accompanying cuts in stock numbers as a mechanism to reduce the ‘over-grazing’ problem on Dartmoor. However, the over-grazing narrative is now a piece of history and no longer a reality on Dartmoor – the actual situation that prevails is much more nuanced …. the over-grazing narrative is hard to shift and deeply ingrained in many but ….. wrong narrative = wrong solution. Very large tracts of Dartmoor’s Commons today are seriously under-grazed or completely ungrazed. This is exhibited on the ground by the huge tracts of impenetrable tussocky, unpalatable Purple Moor Grass, referred to as Molinia. This Molinia ‘jungle’ has developed in its current form since around 2000. Historic heavy grazing and swaling encouraged the Molinia to become more dominant in the overall sward but the heavy grazing kept it at bay. The reduction in cattle grazing associated with the introduction of the ESA, along with the Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001 and high levels of atmospheric nitrogen deposition on Dartmoor have meant that the Molinia ‘jungle’ has developed across very large areas of the Commons. It is widely acknowledged that the best way to manage the Molinia is by grazing with cattle in May, June and July (when it is growing and palatable) . However, today hill-farm economics mean it is difficult to magic up the necessary numbers of cattle. The consequence of the Molinia ‘jungle’ is that the remaining stock on the Commons avoid these areas and as a result are concentrated on the much reduced areas of sweeter grasses, which are often closer to the moor gates – these areas as a result become heavily grazed – indeed over-grazed.
Whilst many issues are contested on Dartmoor’s Commons there is almost universal agreement that more cattle (and more ponies) are necessary if the desired biodiversity improvements are to be delivered. However when the laws of levancy and couchancy operated in the past, it was during the era of transhumance – the historic tradition, the time when non-moorland farmers from the South Hams, the lands to the east, north and west of Dartmoor brought their cattle in their thousands (The ‘Red Tides’ of South Devons and Ruby Reds) to summer graze the Commons alongside the stock of the resident Dartmoor hill-farmers. The modern tradition of Dartmoor hill-farming ended transhumance and replaced it with exclusive all-year round grazing by animals of Dartmoor’s hill-farmers. A new return to levancy and couchancy will not lead to a new era of transhumance and therein lies the conundrum. The in-bye and the Commons are part of the same system, part of the same story – something that has been lost and something that needs to be re-found, however ‘Less is more’ masks a void which somehow needs to be filled. We need to find a new tradition, indeed a new narrative – a narrative that is better than the one it replaces . And somehow, Dartmoor will need more cattle and ponies. …..