English Pastoral – An Inheritance by James Rebanks

If you are interested in the future of our upland landscapes – then this is a really important book. It is the second book written by James Rebanks and follows on from his extremely successful and popular first work – The Shepherd’s Life (2015) which detailed the tradition and culture involved with being a Lake District sheep farmer. In all my talks and lectures on hill-farming on Dartmoor I use this Rebanks’ quote as it seems to capture the essence of how hill-farmers across the country view themselves.

Our farming way of life has roots deeper than five thousand years into the soil of this landscape. Taking my sheep down those lanes is what people have done here since the land was first settled. That is what these lanes are for, to let the little farmsteads access the mountain grazing. I am walking in the footsteps of my ancestors, and living a life they lived.

In his second book he describes his journey as he attempts to de-intensify his farming practices to bring wildlife back to his farm. The last 40 years or so has seen an era of conflict between hill-farmers and conservationists, the latter essentially blaming the former for unsustainable grazing regimes which have seen upland habitats and wildlife plummet in their abundance, quality and value. Hill-farmers, in their defence, argue that all they have done is follow government agricultural and environmental policy in an attempt to approach financial viability and produce food for the nation.

This is a timely book, farming and hill-farming in particular, are at a crossroads, we are about to leave the European Union, new trade deals have yet to be agreed, the Basic Payment Scheme which has subsidised farming in recent years is being phased out and a new and as yet unspecified Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) is to be introduced to support farming in return for environmental improvements. It is a time of change and great jeopardy for hill-farming, but nevertheless there are opportunities and glimmers of hope for those who can read the runes.

The book is divided into three long but sub-divided chapters and it is beautifully written. The first chapter, Nostalgia, looks back to when Rebanks was a young boy and fell in love with hill-farming under the tutelage of his grandfather – a man deeply rooted in traditional hill-farming practices, at the point in time when new more intensive farming practices were becoming widestread, practices which Grandfather Rebanks rejected.

By the end of that year, though, I had fallen in love with that old farming world. My grandfather had achieved what he had set out to do: I was no longer a boy hiding from the farm; I was a true believer.

The second chapter, Progress, details his farming life as an adult, working for much of it with his father in an era when hill-farming was changing from the traditional to the modern. This period sees, for example, the introduction and widespread use of inorganic fertilisers, the switch from cutting hay to silage and the use of pesticides along with major changes to the farmland landscapes and their associated wild animals and plants. There are some interesting insights into how farming practices changed and how this impacted on the curlews that formerly bred in the small fields.

Throughout this chapter it is clear that both Rebanks and his father were unhappy about the impacts that their more intensive farming  practices were having on the land and its wildlife. There is a revelatory section where an old but traditional farmer Henry dies and his land is split up and sold to others, the soils in his fields are tested for nutrient levels and general soil health and it transpired his soils were amongst the healthiest in the district. His traditional methods of mixed farming and field rotations along with the use of animal manures had protected and enhanced his soils without the need for artificial fertilisers and lime.

My father found this news a revelation. It shook him, because it said something about what the new farming was doing to the land. The most traditional farmer in the district had the healthiest soil……. My father knew the truth lay in Henry’s soil.

Rebanks discusses how the quest for ever cheaper food has degraded the environment and made farmers price takers, whilst at the same time had distanced consumers from the process of food production and how land was being managed.

This was business-school thinking applied to the land, with issues of ethics and nature shunted off to the margins of consciousness. There was no room for sentiment, culture or tradition, no understanding of natural constraints or costs. The modern farming mindset didn’t recognise these external things as relevant. This was farming reduced to a financial and engineering challenge, rather than being understood as a biological activity.

And so, his quest begins to try and transform his farming practices to benefit nature whilst still producing high quality local food.

The science of what has happened is chilling, and the fact that the loss of nature is escalating is evening more terrifying. ….. As farmers we now have to reconcile the need to produce more food than any other generation in history with the necessity to do that sustainably and in ways that allow nature to survive alongside us. We need to bring the two clashing ideologies about farming together to make it as sustainable and biodiverse as it can be.

The third chapter, Utopia, sets out how Rebanks is attempting to reconcile these two clashing ideologies, by fencing off river and stream banks, ‘re-wiggling’ water courses, ceasing to use inorganic fertilisers, substantially reducing pesticide use, planting trees, re-instating hedges and by re-introducing Belted Galloway cattle to his landscapes. These are impressive changes and achievements and perhaps unsurprisingly are accompanied by a flourishing of wildlife and soil health on his farm.

Rebanks suggests that his farming friends ‘crudely’ divide into three categories: a third have begun to change their farming and are ‘committed to trying to be good ecological stewards’, another third are ‘open to change but have limited room for manoeuvre as they are in the financial realities of trying to run a profitable business’, and the final third are ‘deeply sceptical – or still true believers in the intensive post-war model of farming’.

James Rebanks is a significant figure, he is this country’s most famous hill-farmer, this book clearly shows that he is in the ‘public money for public goods’ camp and that nature can be successfully blended into the cultural landscapes narrative of a World Heritage Site.

This is a must-read book for everyone interested in our upland landscapes: conservationists, ecologists, policy makers AND hill-farmers. Dartmoor’s recent history is similar to that of the Lake District in some respects but different in others: the in-bye land has seen agricultural improvement and intensification but significant areas of its common land is now substantially under-grazed. I have consistently suggested to Dartmoor’s hill-farmers that they need to ‘follow the money’ as the new ELMS emerge, English Pastoral sets out one way to achieve that.

The haunting ….

I use this quote in all my talks these days ….

“Conservationists see the conservation of living diversity as a moral necessity, something that is self-evidently right and just has to be done. In the language of conservation biology, conservation is a ‘mission’. Anything that detracts from that mission, or contextualises it as just one among other competing ideas or interests is therefore inherently suspicious.”

(Bill Adams, 2015, The political ecology of conservation conflicts)

Simon Phelps, a conservationist who works for Butterfly Conservation has just published this piece written in response to a talk I gave at the back end of last year where I quoted the above…..

Worth a look – you can read it here.

Thanks Simon – nice to get name checked and realise someone was paying attention!

 

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 …..

My 25 favourite Dartmoor photographs of 2018

As the year comes to an end I thought I would look back at my favourite photographs that I have taken in 2018 on Dartmoor – I think they capture the spirit of the place along with the people who work there and those who enjoy it.

The day the Commons turned green after some rain and the grass started growing – the sheep and cattle go to the Common

Beating the Bounds at Gidleigh Common – Penny Warren and Crispin Alford clean the boundary stone – even the horse is paying attention

A marsh fritillary at Challacombe – a special butterfly at a very special place

Russell Ashford ‘gathering’ his sheep from Buckfastleigh West Common

This quote from James Rebanks – the Lake District hill-farmer and author of the Shepherd’s Life is very appropriate to Dartmoor as well

“Our farming way of life has roots deeper than five thousand years into the soil of this landscape. Taking my sheep down those lanes is what people have done here since the land was first settled. That is what these lanes are for, to let the little farmsteads access the mountain grazing. I am walking in the footsteps of my ancestors, and living a life they lived.”

The Reddaways ‘gathering’ their Galloways from South Tawton Common in Belstone

One man and his dog
John Jordan crossing the Teign on Gidleigh Common whilst herding his Galloways – hardcore

A little bit of soft wilding on Lydford Common

Our National Trust 10 Tors Team complete their challenge

Arms Tor across to Bray Tor

A cuckoo at Emsworthy

My friends from the Devon and Exeter Squash and Racketball Club at High Willhays

Sunset at Scorhill on the Solstice with my friend Steph

Kes Tor during the heatwave

The Tolman Stone on the Teign on Gidleigh Common with Dizzy, Nicolas and Annabelle – inappropriate footwear but all was well ….

A Highland cow near Headland Warren

A walk to Wistman’s Wood with friends

Leather Tor from Sheep’s Tor

Stand and Deliver
Widecombe Fair – The Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Ponies: the Dartmoor Hillies Warriors

Swaling on Haytor and Bagtor Common

Lunch during 10 Tors training in the rain in the Forest of Dartmoor

‘Iconic people looking after Iconic places’
Julia Aglionby Director of the Foundation for Common Land

The Gidleigh Commoners – proud people worried about their future and the condition of their Common – too much Western Gorse and Purple Moor Grass (Molinia)

Crispin Alford – a Dartmoor Commoner  who still tends his flocks and herds on horseback

Sheep gathering near Wotter – the quad bike boys

Black a Tor Copse

One of John Cooper’s Herdwicks on Okehampton Common

 

 

Beating the Bounds of Gidleigh Common

Every 7 years the boundary of Gidleigh Common is walked and the marked boundary stones are re-found and cleaned. 150 people attended and had a pasty and a pint under Wild Tor. The traditional ‘races’ were then held before everyone continued on to Throwleigh. We started at 10am and finished at 6pm. A celebration of Commons at a time when they have never been under greater threat. Here are some of my photographs and thoughts from yesterday.

Apparently Gidleigh has one of the the smallest areas of in-bye on Dartmoor but has one of the largest Commons. Today there are just four active Commoning families left – the largest on the Common being the Jordans. Here are John and Robert Jordan at the Kes Tor moorgate.

Cleaning the boundary stone

An important social event for the Commoners and the Parish

Up to the Stone Rows – almost enveloped in Purple Moor Grass …. (Molinia)

Onto the Standing Stone – with Chagford Common beyond and Fernworthy Forest in the distance

Some cattle and Robert Jordan

Crispin Alford – to quote Julia Aglionby from the Foundation for Common Land ‘iconic people looking after iconic places’.

Crossing the North Teign

And up towards Watern Tor – note the two most common plants in the picture Purple Moor Grass and Western Gorse!

Robert Jordan cleaning a boundary stone

I’ve been to Watern Tor many times before but never seen it like this!

The gap in Watern Tor is called Thirlestone – to mark the bounds a pony is lead through

Crispin Alford at Watern

The Jordans

Coming down from Watern

The picnic under Wild Tor – the walkers being joined by 4 trailer loads of non walkers

After the pasty and the pint we were treated to dog racing – Emma Cunis and Marylou North

Various people racing events – not everybody made it!

2018 or 1960 or ……  Tradition runs deeps.

And a three-legged race

After lunch – onwards back to Throwleigh

Quite a scene!

Riding through the Western Gorse

The ‘key’ Gidleigh Commoners – proud people worried about their future and the condition of their Common – something we should all be worried about too – is it time we again trusted ‘local knowledge’ and facilitated the hill-farmers to help sort the Molinia and gorse mess out which the English Nature and Natural England prescriptions created?

John Jordan

Crispin Alford

Crispin Alford and Penny Warren cleaning a marker on Kennon Hill – history in the making. I love the fact that the horse paying attention too!

And back down to Throwleigh – look at all that gorse – oh my goodness.

A celebration of culture and tradition…..

The big question for me is when the Bounds of Gidleigh Common are walked in 7 years time what will the Common be like? It will have had to deal with Brexit, prescriptions and rules from Natural England, atmospheric pollution and more climate change … I worry. Will it still be dominated by Purple Moor Grass and extensive areas of gorse?  Will John, Robert, Crispin, Penny, Marylou, David and Steven still be there?

Think about it.

Without Commoners the Commons can’t be managed for their ‘public goods’.

It is time to get our collective act together – time is running out.

It is time for some real leadership but from who?

Natural England? Dartmoor Commoners Council? Dartmoor National Park Authority?

Why not all of you …..

Please …. someone…..

Finally found the secret waterfall

Been on Holme Moor today doing a ‘reccy’ and finally found the secret waterfall below Venford Dam. Here are a few pictures. The waterfall is down from the dam but be careful it is a 300m plus walk down the river – the ‘path’ is tricky and there is no phone reception. Unlike me – go with a friend – you could easily end up in the river or twist your ankle or worse. Do as I say, not as I do …

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Up to Great Links Tor

The weather on Dartmoor yesterday was fantastic – much too good to not go for a walk. I started from the hidden car park behind the Dartmoor Inn in Lydford.

Down to the stepping stones across the River Lyd – with Bray Tor in the background. Bray Tor is also known as Brat Tor but I prefer the former.

I then headed up to Arms Tor which is definitely a ‘red zone’ climb.

But once the puffing and blowing is over the views become amazing. This is Bray Tor from Arms Tor.

And this is Great Links Tor from Arms Tor.

The walk up to Great Links is much easier. The trig point on Great Links.

Looking over to High Wilhays and Yes Tor from Great Links Tor. High Wilhays is the highest point on Dartmoor but as ever Yes Tor (to the left) looks higher.

Down from Great Links is Dick’s Well – a huge area of tin workings. It is also a great place for wild camping – secluded and sheltered.

On to Bray Tor with the Widgery Cross.

From Bray Tor you can see Chat Tor to the left and then Hare Tor with Doe Tor in the middle distance on the right.

Down in the valley by the River Lyd is an area of in bye land that is gradually rewilding – lots of trees and shrubs regenerating. I listened to a cuckoo here for over an hour.

Highly recommended area to explore.

Two days on Dartmoor

I’ve just spent two days up on Dartmoor helping to train our 10 Tors teams (Torquay Boys Grammar School and National Trust’s Wild Tribe). You could hardly have picked two more contrasting days weather wise! Saturday was cold, very misty and drizzly / rainy. Sunday was much warmer and the sun came out. Here are a few pictures from the weekend. This was our penultimate training walk before the event in May so the purpose was to get lots of miles into our teams’ legs, as a result we have been all over the place. No pictures from Saturday morning ….. too foggy.

Still plenty of snow around even at relatively low levels

And here is Hare Tor behind the Willsworthy Range – looks almost like a scene from the Highlands

Still raining but clearing up – Kings Tor from Four Winds

 

And then to our wild camping site behind Foggintor Quarry – Great Staple Tor in the background (middle) with Roos Tor to the right and Cox Tor to the left. Not a bad spot – very wet ground though – had to pick a camping spot carefully.

Sunday by contrast was glorious – here is the East Dart Valley from Postbridge

The clapper bridge a Postbridge – had to wait a while for it to be people free.

Looking across to Fox Tor with the infamous mire in the middle distance

The Devonport Leat near Whiteworks

Another view across to Fox Tor and its mire with Whiteworks in the foreground

Despite the Saturday weather a brilliant weekend, well organised, a big thank you to all the volunteers for checkpointing and congratulations to the young people for putting in the miles.

Ben Goldsmith joins the Defra Board – look out Dartmoor!

Ben Goldsmith is a well known environmentalist, he is the son of James and Annabel Goldsmith and brother of Zac Goldsmith, the Tory MP for Richmond Park. He has recently been appointed to the Defra Board. He is also a financial supporter of the Tory group of modernisers known as the Notting Hill set, which includes Michael Gove MP and Secretary of State for the Environment as a member.

This series of tweets about Dartmoor may give us an insight into some of the thinking currently taking place within Defra.

 So is this what ‘public money for public goods’ looks like or we might be going to see some rewilding too?