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?

A bit of rewilding on the flanks of Cosdon Hill?

When I was out on the moor on Saturday I took this series of photographs from Belstone Common looking over towards the north western flanks of Cosdon Hill.

This photo appears to show Belstone Cleave creeping up the valley and it also shows a lot of scattered trees / scrub moving onto the moor. Anyone know how the scrub at the top of the picture managed to get a foothold or has this area always been like?

This is the little valley called Lady Brook and this appears to be an example of what Matthew Kelly describes as ‘soft rewilding’, see here. Scrub appears to have regenerated along the stream and has created a rather good enhanced habitat. I suspect cuckoos might like this area? Lots of perches to look for meadow pipit nests from.

As you move south further onto the Common the vegetation becomes more uniform and the scrub is restricted to the occasional bushes growing amongst the clitter.

Seems a bit counter-intuitive – I would have thought the most intense grazing would be nearest to the settlements, in this case Belstone and Skaigh.

 

Landscape conservation and nature conservation: uneasy bedfellows?

Two perspectives – one from Europe and the other from Dartmoor.
On the face, of it you would think that all those who want to protect the environment get along with each other working towards a common goal. This can happen especially if the nature conservation of species is dependent on traditional farming practices in culturally developed and ancient landscapes, but when conservation relies on process driven rewilding there are huge consequences for landscapes and the traditional cultures that sustain them.

I recently came across a couple of essays, an editorial and opinion piece about this very topic from a mainland southern European perspective. You can download the four pieces here. I was struck how the perspective essay by Mauro Agnoletti ‘Rural landscape, nature conservation and culture: some notes on research trends and management approaches from a (southern) European perspective’ shared many of the same concerns as those held by Tom Greeves who has written on the subject from a Dartmoor perspective. You can download Tom Greeves’ paper ‘Dartmoor and the displacement of culture: analysis and remedyhere.

This blog reviews the assertions of Agnoletti and Greeves and discusses the future for landscapes and local cultures in the face of the globally driven economic, social and environmental pressures and changes.

Rural landscape, nature conservation and culture: some notes on research trends and management approaches from a (southern) European perspective
Agnoletti says that landscapes are largely a cultural construct i.e. they have been created over time by the people who have inhabited and farmed the land. A cultural landscape is fashioned from a natural landscape by a cultural group: culture is the agent, the natural area the medium and the cultural landscape is the result.

He argues that whilst the importance of landscapes is acknowledged at an international and European scale the policies required to conserve them are largely lacking. He suggests that if a landscape scale approach was adopted across Europe a new paradigm for a development model could harmoniously integrate social, economic and environmental factors in time and space.

But as the globalisation of agriculture has occurred during the 20th century traditional farming practices have collapsed leading to cultivatable land being industrially intensified whilst the pastoral landscapes which are on poorer land, and therefore unimprovable from an agricultural perspective, are being abandoned.

These trends are therefore leading to a cultural globalisation (i.e. homogenisation). The idea of nature has been overlapped with landscape and this is leading to re-naturalisation (what in the UK we would call rewilding) and increasing forest cover which overlays the ancient landscapes patterns along with their associated long and rich cultural history that led to their creation.

Agnoletti argues that there is a growing tendency to see a scientific approach to the study of landscape as a natural resource opposed to a cultural phenomenon. The workstreams that flow from this are ecological in nature with little cultural focus. Academic journals see landscape as an ecological issue largely in the context of nature conservation and he suggests that scientific publications have a higher academic credibility than chapters and books in the Humanities which therefore establishes an ecological bias.

Agnoletti states that such an approach causes three problems:

a) Degradation of the rural landscape
Farming per se is considered damaging to nature: 20th and 21st century approaches to traditional pastoral farming methods are lumped in together with modern intensive agricultural methods. Pastoral landscapes do not receive the financial support they require to remain sustainable and are abandoned either to be re-naturalised or afforested. Cultivated land is intensified agriculturally – both phenomena lead to a loss of local knowledge, cultural landscapes and the rural population.

b) Abandonment and reforestation
The abandonment of European landscapes has also been encouraged by European Union set-aside policies. As a result of this and globalization it is estimated that 400-500k ha of forest advance occurs per annum – partly through abandonment and partly through active re-afforestation.

The dominant narrative of European ecologists is that the environment needs to be returned to the natural state, partly because Man has destroyed nature and partly because the EU Habitats Directive has an emphasis on natural habitats.

How can it be logical to want to return to the natural state in landscapes that haven’t been natural for 8000 years? Nevertheless, re-naturalisation has been aligned in Europe with nature policies and the promotion of rewilding and afforestation in the fight against climate change through increased carbon sequestration.

c) Rural landscapes, history and biodiversity
Whilst the re-naturalisation of closed forest landscapes provides new habitats for some wildlife this is at the expense of the wildlife which already lives in the historical and largely open landscapes. A greater diversity of wildlife will be conserved if many cultural landscapes are protected.

Agnoletti summarises his argument as follows:-

  • Landscapes need to be viewed for they are i.e. their cultural origins
  • Europe needs an adequate characterization of rural landscapes
  • Support for traditional agriculture is required to halt further losses
  • Nature narratives need to be combined with cultural ones to create biocultural diversity
  • Natural habitats need to be prevented in unnatural places
  • Achieving these things will help maintain rural communities

This is an interesting and informative perspective from Southern Europe however it contrasts markedly with the situation found in the UK for the following reasons:-

  1. The UK values its Cultural Landscapes and has categorized them in great detail under the Natural Area Profile assessment (see here).
  2. The abandonment of land seen on marginal land in Europe simply hasn’t happened on anything other than a minor scale in the UK
  3. Marginal land particularly those in protected areas have received considerable sums of subsidy through the agri-envionment schemes to ensure that traditional management practices are encouraged and continued so that the landscapes, the cultural groups that produced them and the biodiversity are protected.

On the face of it then, it would appear that in the UK, the conservation of landscapes and local farmers was working in harmony with the objectives of nature conservation. However, this is not the case in the uplands of Britain where their special landscapes are deeply contested today by various groups of interested parties. Tom Greeves, argues very strongly that culture and landscape on Dartmoor have been detrimentally out manoeuvred by advocates of the natural environment.

Dartmoor and the displacement of culture: analysis and remedy – conservation imbalance
Greeves points out that the post-war conservation movement has been dominated by the natural environment and is heavily skewed towards nature. He argues that nature and culture should be given equal balance. He says that even the name Natural England reinforces the belief that the environment is natural. The 25k ha of Sites of Special Scientific Interest on Dartmoor are all about animals and plants and no mention is made about culture.

In 2006 when the Dartmoor Vision was published, areas called ‘Premier Archaeological Landscapes’ were introduced – these were areas where the historic landscape would be given primacy over wildlife. Greeves dismisses this concession as he argues that no part of the moor is without cultural value. He goes on to argue that the era of ‘overgrazing’ (i.e. circa 1950-1980) was actually revolutionary for the historic environment as it revealed many archaeological features and sites which had become lost in the vegetation. Once the agri-environment schemes were introduced and the numbers of grazing animals were reduced gorse and unpalatable grasses took over in many areas and hid and in some cases damaged the cultural landscape. Greeves argues that Natural England have ‘clung on to the concept of overgrazing’ and as a result ‘awareness of the cultural riches of Dartmoor has not yet impinged on Establishment thinking.

Policies of Natural England and the destruction of neighbourliness
Not only does Greeves loathe the agri-environment schemes for their stocking reductions he also blames them for creating divisiveness amongst the hill-farming Commoners. The subsidy money was handed over to the local Common Associations who then had to decide how to allocate sums to individuals, this practice lead to arguments and squabbles where none had existed before. Without doubt Natural England’s policies in the latter parts of the last century and earlier parts of this one created great resentment as Commoners considered they were ‘fighting for their rights’ against the Natural England ‘dictatorship’.

The Mires Project
The Dartmoor Mires restoration project, a £1.1 million scheme which ran between 2010 and 2015 also comes in more considerable criticism from Greeves. He states that no evidence was ever presented to suggest that the moor was in fact actually damaged and therefore needed restoration. He was particularly incensed that large tracked machines were taken into the ‘wildest parts of the moor’ to carry out various works to impound water and rewet the peat. He calls it ‘one of the least prepared and worst pseudo-scientific projects’ that Dartmoor has ever seen.

Rewilding
With regards to calls to rewild Dartmoor as a result of ‘sheepwrecking’ he dismisses these ideas as they take no account of ‘the significance of the cultural landscape of Dartmoor and what it means in terms of the human story over the last eight millennia or so’.

Remedy
Greeves suggests that radical reform is needed underpinned by research. The stranglehold of Natural England must be challenged and removed as they have no right to upset the age old social fabric of hill-farming and they have no right to obscure the archaeology of the moor. With regard to how the moor should be managed he urges that Commoners be asked for their views and then allowed to enact them. He urges that culture, flora and fauna are respected in equal measure and that the existing designations such as SSSIs and Scheduled Ancients Monuments are replaced with a new overarching protective mechanism and that Dartmoor is viewed in the future as an ecocultural zone. Finally he recommends that the National Park Authority is replaced by a Dartmoor Assembly which consists of elected local people.

There is much passion throughout much of Tom Greeves paper and it is fair to say that it has not been well received in a number of places! But rather like the Agnoletti paper it does raise a number of important points. Amongst the displeasure of the status quo raised in both papers there is a plea that cultural landscapes are given equal consideration to biological landscapes.

This of course sounds entirely reasonable but in practice achieving this has historically proven to be extremely difficult. A heavily grazing and swaled Dartmoor landscape (the over grazing over burning narrative) is good for the cultural landscape but bad for the biological one and of course was the exact scenario that led to the introduction of the agri-environment schemes.

Conversely a less grazed and less burnt Dartmoor landscape, even one which contains Premier Archaeological Landscapes, currently pleases no one completely as the effects of climate change and atmospheric pollution are reconfiguring the moors in ways that satisfy very few. However, the search for a better consensus must continue in the brave new world of Brexit and the ‘public money for public goods debate’, for most agree (with the exception of the rewilders) that a world without hill-farmers will create a new Dartmoor landscape that the majority don’t want.

The Lake District – World Heritage Site

On Sunday 9th July 2017 UNESCO announced that the Lake District had been awarded the ‘inscription’ as a World Heritage Site (WHS) on account of its cultural landscape. I suspect that the vast majority of the 17 million visitors to the Lake District last year will not be surprised by the new designation and will welcome it. It is the culmination of 31 years of hard work by a consortium of people and organisations led by the National Park Authority.

The Lake District is loved and visited by so many people because it is spectacular and beautiful – a mix of lakes, mountains, fells, small walled fields and woodlands. A landscape moulded by thousands of years of man’s grazing animals – thus its designation as a ‘cultural landscape’. A landscape is the interface where nature and people meet, the people in this case are the hill-farmers of the Lake District.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the Lake District but I do know another cultural landscape pretty well – Dartmoor and the two places have much in common.

A Herdwick on Dartmoor!

I imagine that hill-farmers across the whole country will be celebrating the Lake District’s designation as a cultural landscape WHS as it officially recognises their role along with their forebears in creating what is now considered so special. Dartmoor may not have the ‘designation’ but hill-farmers on the moor will rightly make the connection that they and those that went before them are responsible for another National Park which is treasured by the public at large.

The WHS designation therefore cements in place the notion that the Lake District is an open grazed landscape managed by hill-farmers to produce a wide range of public goods such as public access, biodiversity, conservation of key archaeological features, water and carbon management and high quality food production.

It is perhaps strange that it appears to have taken a decision by UNESCO to arrive at this point – the 1995 Environment Act re-defined the role of National Park Authorities and charged them with the conservation and enhancement of the cultural heritage in addition to their other duties. National Parks’ cultural heritage includes for example their archaeology and buildings but also includes the distinctive customs and traditions of the people who have created the landscape.

For decades though hill-farmers have felt an endangered species as they perceived that the statutory bodies cared more about nature than them and their traditions, customs and livelihoods. The 1995 Act, despite much effort has only made modest progress in making hill-farmers believe that people are as important as nature. The WHS designation embodies this notion further.

This is not the end of the story, rather the opening of a new chapter as there is still much to do and resolve. Perhaps, two of the central issues at stake in the Lake District and our other upland areas are how do we support hill-farmers who are unprofitable without subsidies (especially now as we are leaving the European Union) and how do we restore ecological habitats following decades of unsustainable, but highly contested, sheep grazing practices.

However, the celebrations of the Lake District’s new status have not been universal. George Monbiot, the environmental campaigner and journalist has campaigned against the WHS designation (see here), reacted furiously to the news (see here), calling it ‘a betrayal to the living world’ and he lambasted the conservation organisations which had supported the bid. Monbiot believes that sheep are the root cause of the problems in the Lake District (and elsewhere), that they should be removed and that the hills be allowed to re-wild. He considers that now the Lake District has been designated as a cultural landscape any prospect of improving habitats for nature have been lost.

Is he right and should the conservation bodies such as the National Trust, RSPB and Cumbria Wildlife Trust have campaigned against the designation?

I don’t think Monbiot is right and I do think that the conservation bodies were right to support the bid.

I don’t think that the designation of the Lake District as a cultural landscape is an impediment to ecological restoration. The upland habitats which existed before the Second World War which are so cherished by conservationists were of course created in the first place by extensive upland grazing. Yes of course following the War UK / EU Agricultural Policy encouraged increased stocking densities to unsustainable levels and the subsequent agri-environmental schemes are attempting to redress the balance but the traditional narrative that overgrazing by sheep is the reason for the ‘unfavourable condition’ of our upland habitats is over simplistic and misleading.

Ecologists and conservationists have consistently failed to take into account the role played atmospheric pollution particularly nitrogen deposition (see here and here) and ozone concentrations (see here) along with the consequences of rising carbon dioxide levels and climate change.

Atmospheric pollution and climate change are not simply obstacles to be navigated around as part of the restoration process they are instead responsible for driving the changes in upland habitats and help to explain why the detailed ecological prescriptions put forward, in good faith by English Nature and then Natural England, failed to deliver ‘favourable condition’. As a result, upland habitats have changed and will continue to change.

And that is why the conservation bodies needed to be involved in the WHS consortium. Hill-farmers, conservationists and the statutory bodies need to work much more closely together to understand where they now find themselves and how to devise solutions to move forwards. That is not a comment aimed solely at the Lake District it applies to the uplands everywhere.

Then comes the massively important matter of the economics of hill-farming post Brexit. The Government by supporting the WHS bid have signalled that they want to see farming in the hills. Again hill-farmers, conservationists and the statutory bodies need to work together to enable the best deal for hill-farmers and other land managers to be struck in the ‘public money for public goods’ debate. For without that settlement being financially viable there will be no hill-farmers in the future.

Monbiot may argue that is desirable but I disagree. I have been re-reading James Rebanks’ book ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ which details beautifully the culture and traditions of the Lake District hill-farmer. To me these cultures and traditions along with the Herdwick sheep, the intricacies of their breeding regimes and the agricultural shows where successes are valued and celebrated are as important a part of our history as heather, peregrines and stone circles and as such it would be a tragedy if any of them were lost.

So, what of re-wilding? I have spent much of my former careers involved with re-wilding projects but they have been conducted where there has been consent, nothing I have been involved with has been imposed on unwilling landowners or occupiers. I wrote the following in October 2016 about re-wilding on Dartmoor

So how does this debate on rewilding fit into the Dartmoor landscape? There are of course some who specifically advocate a full blown rewilding approach with re-introduced herbivores and carnivores.

I, however, do not support such an approach here as it would lead to the loss of Dartmoor’s historic landscapes (its reeves, hut circles, standing stones, stone circles, pillow mounds, tin mining artefacts, medieval farms etc etc), it would lead to the loss of Dartmoor’s cultural landscapes (the Commoners, the Commons and the tenements etc etc), it would lead to the loss of Dartmoor’s existing and ecologically important habitats and species and it would lead to the loss of Dartmoor’s landscape  with its ‘long views for which Dartmoor is renowned‘ (Ian Mercer’s words in his 2009 Dartmoor Collins New Naturalist, page 27).

That is not to say that everything should remain as it is. Matthew Kelly writing in the updated paperback edition of Quartz and Feldspar (2016) perhaps makes the best case for what could happen in the future. This is where he introduces his phrase ‘soft rewilding’.

Those awakened to the issues by winter flooding should need little persuading of the pragmatic reasons for one what might call soft rewilding. Uplands denuded of trees and shrub absorb less water, particularly if soils are compacted by sheep hooves, which leads to faster run-off and more flooding in lowlands. Monbiot, Colston and others argue—with varying degrees of emphasis—that the water storage capacity of the uplands should be increased by creating hydraulic roughness through more trees, more scrub and gully reforestation, as well as less dredging of rivers and, most excitingly, the re-introduction of beavers, water engineers par excellence. All of which would produce richer wildlife habitats. The government should be lobbying the EU, seeking changes to rules which makes agricultural land eligible for financial support only when ‘permanent ineligible features’ like trees, scrub and ponds are removed in order to create land in ‘agricultural condition’; farmers will need to be compensated, but that would be much cheaper than the huge clean-up operations and insurance costs currently faced by lowland communities.

I agree with Matthew – I would like to see a bit of soft re-wilding in the uplands.

Gaining consensus in the uplands, especially in National Parks will always be challenging as there are so many different groups all wanting  different things. As the century unfolds it will become more difficult as the climate changes and reconfigures the landscape.

Globally peatlands and blanket bogs are threatened by climate change and Dartmoor is one of the most vulnerable peatlands in the northern hemisphere on account of it latitude and relatively low altitude. The climate on Dartmoor may have already shifted enough so that the bioclimatic envelope required for the formation of peat is no longer available, except at the highest altitudes, as the peat formation process requires a cool and wet climate. By the end of the century the bioclimatic envelope in the Lake District will also be unsuitable.  (Gellego-Sala et al 2010).

By 2100 there is the potential for much change in the uplands, many of the bird species which are today considered to be iconic of National Parks are predicted to disappear, for the moors these are dunlin, golden plover, ring ouzel, curlew, raven, peregrine, hen harrier, red grouse, black grouse and whinchat (Huntley et al 2007).

These challenges all need to be addressed, for example whither ‘favourable condition’?,  but progress will only be made if everyone works together. This includes fighting atmospheric pollution – the scourge of our cities as well as our countryside along with climate change. Of course atmospheric pollution and climate change are different sides of the same coin and are the biggest challenges we now face.

By a fortunate co-incidence this week marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Northamptonshire ‘peasant poet’ John Clare – I’ll leave the last word to James Rebanks @herdyshepherd1

References

Gallego-Sala A.V., Clark J.M., House J.I., Orr H.G., Prentice I.C., Smith P., Farewell T. & Chapman S.J. (2010) Bioclimatic envelope model of climate change impacts on blanket peat distribution in Great Britain. Climate Research 45: 151-162. (Open Access)

Huntley B., Green R.E., Collingham Y.C. & Willis S.G. (2007) A Climatic Atlas of European Breeding Birds. Durham University, The RSPB & Lynx Edicions. Barcelona.

Kelly M. (2016) Quartz and Feldspar. Revised edition. Vintage. London.

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

A curious row about trees in Scotland

A story appeared in the Guardian (here) and on the BBC website (here) about a joint campaign/press release by Mountaineering Scottish and the Scottish Gamekeepers Association regarding the Scottish government’s plans to increase forest cover in Scotland from 17% today to 25% by 2050.

The joint press release (here) contained the following:-

The Scottish Gamekeepers Association and Mountaineering Scotland have written a joint letter to Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham MSP, concerned at the potential impacts fragmented policy may have on Scotland’s rare open landscapes.

Both organisations fear a lack of joined up thinking could see the loss of internationally rare landscapes as Scottish Government pursues a policy of large scale afforestation without a blueprint to preserve its celebrated vistas.

In my view the reporting both by the Guardian and the BBC didn’t do the story justice. It led to many people interested in the environment wondering what on the earth Mountaineering Scottish were up to and what were they doing teaming up with the Scottish Gamekeepers Association?

The respected Guardian correspondent tweeted this:-

screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-15-37-44

(no it doesn’t)

and the CEO of the Scottish Wildlife Trust said this.

screen-shot-2017-02-16-at-15-16-57

However nearly everyone got the wrong end of the stick.

Mountaineering Scottish and the Scottish Gamekeepers Association were talking about the afforestation of the hills with commercial conifer plantations, they were not talking about allowing the Caledonian Pine Forest to re-wild or be replanted.

As a result Mountaineering Scottish issued a clarification – see here. It includes the following:-

In calling for an upland landscape vision and policy, we have highlighted one aspect of land use that we feel needs consideration at a strategic or policy level – the growth of commercial forestry. This does not mean we are against new planting, and we are in favour of native species. This reflects the views of our members as 94% who responded to a survey said we should campaign for the growth of native woodland and conservation of Scotland’s iconic Caledonian pine forests. 

OK that was in Scotland, but here in England we are awaiting Defra’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment – I will bet you that has something on ‘tree planting’ in it as well.

In a Dartmoor context increasing the cover of broadleaved trees in places where it doesn’t impact on the historic environment and helps reduce flooding will be largely welcomed but any plans for extensive afforestation with conifers will cause uproar (again).

More conifers will undoubtedly be planted but the debate is where and where not – that is what MS and the SGA were actually saying their campaign.

 

 

The politics of rewilding on Dartmoor

Mention the word ‘wild’ or any of its derivatives in connection with Dartmoor and conflict and argument will swiftly follow.  An oft – used phrase ‘Dartmoor – the last Wilderness’ is such an example as the farming community will quickly remind you that Dartmoor is not a wilderness or wild – it is in fact a man created landscape. The use the term ‘rewilding’ is currently entirely divisive, almost entirely as a result of the environmental journalist George Monbiot.

The first modern initiative to rewild Dartmoor began in the early 1990s by a small community group called Moor Trees [1] who wanted to see more deciduous woodland on Dartmoor. Their approach was generally inclusive, participatory and non-confrontational.

The next proposal came from Taylor (2005) where in his book Beyond Conservation he proposed that the south west corner of Dartmoor would make an ideal area where rewilding could take place.

beyond-conservation

He suggested that as the land was in part owned by the National Trust this would help get the project going. He also suggested that this ‘rewilded’ corner of Dartmoor would be able to support a viable population of lynx. This proposal remained solely as an idea in a book, the practical complexities, obstacles and social implications were never explored or discussed with any local stakeholders including the National Trust. Indeed at the recent Dartmoor Society conference on rewilding Taylor said that the Dartmoor proposal had been abandoned  due to the complexity of the Commons legislation (Kevin Cox pers comm).

lynx_lynx2
Lynx By mpiet (http://www.mindbox.at/gallery/) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

These two examples of rewilding perhaps indicate why the term is so misunderstood and so contentious. On one hand rewilding can be small scale, participatory and non-threatening whilst on the other it can be seen as imposed, far reaching and threatening. As a result many definitions of rewilding exist and the concept means many different things to different audiences.

Monbiot (2013) in his book Feral provided his definition ‘The rewilding of natural ecosystems which fascinates me is not an attempt to restore them to any prior state, but to permit ecological processes to resume. ….. Over the past few decades, ecologists have discovered  the existence of widespread trophic cascades. These are processes caused by animals at the top of the food chain, which tumble all the way to the bottom. Predators and large herbivores can transform the places in which they live. …. They make a powerful case for the re-introduction of large predators and other missing species.’ (Pages 8-9).

feral2

As POSTnote (2016) points out there is no single definition of rewilding ‘but it generally refers to reinstating natural processes that would have occurred in the absence of human processes. With this definition it is clear to see why the Hill Farming community on Dartmoor has been so outraged and opposed to the idea of rewilding on the moor.

It was therefore surprising when in October 2015, the Dartmoor National Park Authority invited Monbiot to come and speak on rewilding to the biennial National Parks Conference [2]. His used of words such as ‘sheepwrecked’ and ‘the white plague’ to describe his views of the sheep grazing regimes on Dartmoor caused widespread offence amongst the farming community [3] but won him many supporters from elsewhere [4].

Monbiot has back on Dartmoor (and Exmoor) in January 2016 and this time he was lambasting conservationists for permitting, encouraging and engaging in swaling activities on the Moor [5]. As mentioned in section 3.3 swaling is the deliberate burning of gorse, heather and grasses (particularly Molinia) on a rotational basis to produce new palatable grazing for stock. Monbiot considered this activity to be entirely inappropriate as it encouraged additional ‘sheepwrecking’ and stopped the natural process of grass developing into scrub and finally onto woodland.

Perhaps more remarkably, Monbiot ended up being quoted in a Royal Society review paper on fire management for his remarks on Dartmoor swaling (Davies et al 2016a) which provoked a furious response from Monbiot in an article entitled ‘Bonfire of the Verities’ [6]. This in turn led the authors of the Royal Society paper to publish a further paper (Davies et al 2016b) where they specifically address Monbiot’s concerns. I have critiqued this rather extraordinary situation and the original Royal Society paper as it focuses almost  exclusively on burning to manage heather and ignores Molinia which as we have seen earlier (section 6.3.) is encouraged under some circumstances by burning [7].

screen-shot-2016-12-20-at-14-37-53

I have concluded previously [8] that Monbiot deliberately provokes controversy to make his point and by doing so creates a space where more measured debate can occur. Prior to his interventions this space did not exist.

On the surface of this controversy it would appear that nothing is going to change, the occupiers of the land on Dartmoor have no intention of vacating it and Monbiot and his followers have no mechanism to enforce what they wish to see. To be fair to Monbiot he does suggest that the farming community could be retrained as ‘rewilders’ and therefore skill remain active on the Moor (Kelly 2015). However the arguments in favour of some form of rewilding are perhaps more nuanced. Monbiot has often talked about ‘ineligible features’ [9] (and see his DNPA presentation for example), these are ponds, clumps of scrub and small groves of trees which if present on land where Basic Payment Scheme subsidy is being claimed means that the land in question has to be removed from the claim as the features in question are ineligible for subsidy payments. This has led to the wholescale removal of such features from large tracts of farmland. To many including some Hill Farmers this has been a step too far, an unnecessary removal of interesting and important habitat and landscape features. Kelly (2016) for example acknowledges that whilst a full blown form of rewilding may be undesirable and unimplementable perhaps something which he terms ‘soft rewilding’ might be possible. He suggests ‘Uplands denuded of trees and shrub absorb less water, particularly if soils are compacted by sheep hooves, which leads to faster run-off and more flooding in lowlands.’ I have written about the differences between ‘hard rewilding’ and ‘soft rewilding’ and have argued that the latter has a role to play  in future management scenarios in the uplands by providing additional wildlife habitat and reducing the threat of flooding[10].

Quartz and Feldspar 2

These ideas have grown in attractiveness since the winter floods of 2015 and 2016 when the research in such places as Pontbren (Keenleyside 2013) demonstrated that uplands with tree cover absorbed 60x the amount of water than the adjacent pasture land. Natural Flood Management is being seen now as a useful option to deploy in the fight against flooding (EFRA 2016) and the uplands are seen as a key place where measures need to be taken.

The ‘ineligible features’ regulations make it difficult to enact Natural Flood Management Schemes unless farmers are willing to forego some subsidy payments. It is possible to get a derogation to allow scrub to grow but this is a complex and time consuming process as Sir Charles Burrell explained to the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC 2016 p31) when describing his own experiences on his Knepp Estate.

Now that Government Funding is becoming available for Natural Flood Management via the new Countryside Stewardship options the resolution of these issues become more necessary from the farmer’s perspective. Indeed Andrea Leadsom, the Defra Secretary of State made reference to ‘ineligible features’ in her key note speech to the Oxford Farming Conference on the 4th January 2017 when talking about cutting EU ‘red tape’, ‘No more existential debates to determine what counts as a bush, a hedge, or a tree’ [11].

The decision to leave the EU is likely to have profound effects on Dartmoor and the uplands elsewhere. As mentioned in section 5, the economics of farming in the uplands (and elsewhere) are entirely dependent on the subsidies from the Basic Payment Scheme and the agri-environment funds. After 2020 future funding is not guaranteed. It has generally been signalled by Defra Ministers that in future public funding will  be for the provision of ‘public goods’. Indeed George Eustice said on the 4th January 2017 at the Oxford Farming Conference that ‘UK farmers should expect support payments post 2020 for providing ecosystem services, but not subsidies’.

There will have been few people who would have thought that it might become Government policy to rewild large parts of the uplands, however this is not impossible – the Western Morning News and the BBC on the 4th January 2017 both ran a story which suggested that a leaked draft of the Defra 25 Year Nature Plan which they had seen included the idea that large parts of Dartmoor, Exmoor and Bodmin Moor could be allowed to rewild. Defra did not deny these reports and said they would be consulting in due course on proposals for the future of the uplands in the southwest.

It is difficult to imagine how such a programme might be enacted without causing serious damage to local farming communities, issues of access, landscape characteristics, existing wildlife habitats and the historic landscape of Dartmoor which initiatives such as Premium Archaeological Landscapes  aim to protect. There will be those who support such a move irrespective of the human and environmental costs as they will perceive that the wider gains outweigh the losses.

Rewilding on Dartmoor which started off an abstract concept with no implementation mechanism has become a spectre which now can’t be ignored. Hill Farmers and others will now have to wait until Defra publishes its consultation Green Paper on the future of farming later in the year which will hopefully cover rewilding and Dartmoor.

[1] see http://www.moortrees.org

[2] You Tube video of his presentation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYdm6k1tg3Y

[3] See here for example https://thefarmingforum.co.uk/index.php?threads/anton-coaker-george-monbiot-again.90582/

[4] For example his talk at Exeter University entitled Rewilding Well on 14th January 2016 was packed with enthusiastic supporters https://echo360.exeter.ac.uk:8443/ess/echo/presentation/c0868e98-0601-4f3a-a94c-3a9ad24d51f3

[5] Scorched Earth Conservation http://www.monbiot.com/2016/01/14/scorched-earth-conservation/

[6] Bonfire of the Verities http://www.monbiot.com/2016/03/10/bonfire-of-the-verities/

[7] Burning peatland and the complexity of socio-ecological systems. https://adriancolston.wordpress.com/2016/12/20/burning-peatland-and-the-complexity-socio-ecological-systems/

[8] A day with George Monbiot https://adriancolston.wordpress.com/2016/01/15/a-day-of-george-monbiot/

[9] https://adriancolston.wordpress.com/2016/02/04/george-monbiot-at-the-commons-environmental-audit-committee/

[10] https://adriancolston.wordpress.com/2016/10/05/rewilding-and-soft-rewilding/

[11] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/environment-secretary-sets-out-ambition-for-food-and-farming-industry

Davies G.M., Kettridge N., Stoof C.R., Gray A., Ascoli D., Fernandes, Marrs R., Allen K. A., Doerr S. H.,Clay G., McMorrow J. & Vandvik V. (2016a) The role of fire in UK Upland peatland and moorland management; the need for informed, unbiased debate. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 371: 1-17. See

Davies G.M., Kettridge N., Stoof C.R., Gray A., Marrs R., Ascoli D., Fernandes, Allen K. A., Doerr S. H.,Clay G., McMorrow J. & Vandvik V. (2016b) Informed debate on the use of fire for peatland management means acknowledging the complexity of socio-ecological systems. Nature Conservation 16: 59-77.

EFRA (2016) Environment Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee. Future Flood Prevention. House of Commons.

EAC (2016) Environmental Audit Committee. The Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum. House of Commons.

Keenleyside C. (2013) The Pontbren Project – a farmer led approach to sustainable land management in the Uplands.  Woodland Trust and Coed Cymru.

Kelly M. (2015) The Future of Britain’s Uplands: Thinking through History. Solutions July-August 2015.

Kelly M. (2016) Quartz and Feldspar. Revised edition. Vintage. London.

Monbiot G. (2013) Feral – searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding. Allen Lane. London.

POSTnote (2016) Rewilding and ecosystem services. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. No 537. Houses of Parliament

Taylor P. (2005) Beyond Conservation – a wildland strategy. Earthscan. London.

Rewilding and ‘soft’ rewilding

The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology  which in its own words ‘produces independent, balanced and accessible briefings on public policy issues related to science and technology‘has produced a briefing on rewilding. The POSTnoteexplores the consequences of increasing the role of natural processes within landscapes. Evidence from the UK and abroad suggests that rewilding can benefit both wildlife and local people, but animal reintroductions could adversely affect some land-users‘.

Its summary states:-

There is no single definition of rewilding, but it generally refers to reinstating natural processes that would have occurred in the absence of human activity. In the long term, self regulating natural processes may reduce the need for human management, but in some circumstances human interventions may be needed to kick-start natural processes, such as tree planting, drainage blocking and reintroducing “keystone species” like beavers.

Key points in this POSTnote include:

  • Rewilding aims to restore natural processes that are self-regulating, reducing the need for human management of land.
  • Few rewilding projects are underway, and there is limited evidence on their impacts.
  • Rewilding may provide ecosystem services such as flood prevention, carbon storage and recreation. It often has low input costs, but can still benefit biodiversity.
  • Some valued and protected priority habitats such as chalk grassland currently depend on agricultural practices like grazing. Rewilding may not result in such habitats.
  • No government policy refers explicitly to rewilding, but it has the potential to complement existing approaches to meet commitments on habitat restoration.

You can download the full POST report on rewilding here. It is a good independent, well referenced account which includes a number of mini cases studies (e.g. Knepp in Sussex and beavers in Devon). It also makes reference to the Great Fen project which I helped initiate in the 1990s and to the National Trust’s Wild Ennerdale Project in the Lake District.

The report doesn’t specifically mention the Wicken Fen Vision which I set up in 1999 but you can read about that project here in Decolonising Nature: Beyond preservation – the challenge of ecological restoration  see pages 247-267. This project shows how rewilding or ecological restoration if you prefer can enhance and protect a core area of high nature conservation value (and landscape and cultural value) as well as creating new wetland habitats along with a range of other social benefits such as access, flood protection, carbon storage and recreation.

Wicken Fen Highland Cattle 3

One of the key principles behind the Wicken Fen Vision and other rewilding projects is allowing natural processes to determine the outcomes. This means setting some parameters (the kick-starting referred to in the POST review), at Wicken these were water table levels and a low level grazing regime using konik ponies and Highland cattle and then letting nature determine the resulting habitats and species. This is a different approach to say the bittern recovery work which RSPB led on in the 1990s where habitats were specifically manipulated to be attractive to bitterns. The latter technique  is the one that nature conservation organisations have traditionally followed in the past. The former approach is more novel and as the outcomes are unknown is perhaps less attractive to those who want to ‘control’ habitats and species.

You can read more about this approach in Restoring Riparian Ecosystems: The Challenge of Accommodating Variability and Designing Restoration Trajectories, work carried out at Wicken Fen and led by Dr Francine Hughes and Dr Owen Mountford.

So how does this debate on rewilding fit into the Dartmoor landscape? There are of course some (for example George Monbiot – see here and Peter Taylor in Beyond Conservation) who specifically advocate a full blown rewilding approach with re-introduced herbivores and carnivores.

I, however, do not support such an approach here as it would lead to the loss of Dartmoor’s historic landscapes (its reeves, hut circles, standing stones, stone circles, pillow mounds, tin mining artefacts, medieval farms etc etc), it would lead to the loss of Dartmoor’s cultural landscapes (the Commoners, the Commons and the tenements etc etc), it would lead to the loss of Dartmoor’s existing and ecologically important habitats and species and it would lead to the loss of Dartmoor’s landscape  with its ‘long views for which Dartmoor is renowned‘ (Ian Mercer’s words in his Collins New Naturalist page 27).

That is not to say that everything should remain as it is. Matthew Kelly writing in the updated paperback edition of Quartz and Feldspar perhaps makes the best case for what could happen in the future. This is where he introduces his phrase ‘soft rewilding’.

Those awakened to the issues by winter flooding should need little persuading of the pragmatic reasons for one what might call soft rewilding. Uplands denuded of trees and shrub absorb less water, particularly if soils are compacted by sheep hooves, which leads to faster run-off and more flooding in lowlands. Monbiot, Colston and others argue—with varying degrees of emphasis—that the water storage capacity of the uplands should be increased by creating hydraulic roughness through more trees, more scrub and gully reforestation, as well as less dredging of rivers and, most excitingly, the re-introduction of beavers, water engineers par excellence. All of which would produce richer wildlife habitats. The government should be lobbying the EU, seeking changes to rules which makes agricultural land eligible for financial support only when ‘permanent ineligible features’ like trees, scrub and ponds are removed in order to create land in ‘agricultural condition’; farmers will need to be compensated, but that would be much cheaper than the huge clean-up operations and insurance costs currently faced by lowland communities.

O Brook 3

Such ideas are ‘of the moment’ as they chime well with the current debate about what should happen to agricultural subsides following our vote to leave the European Union – the ‘public money for public goods’ expression. The recent report from the National Trust ‘New Markets for Land and Nature’ (see here) shows how ‘soft re-wilding’ could provide a series of public and environmental benefits and improvements whilst still offering the opportunity to look after the existing historic, cultural, ecological and visual landscapes of Dartmoor.

Of course if Government fail to come up with a timely new settlement to replace the Common Agricultural Policy subsidies which is sufficiently funded and attractive to the various stakeholders then a much harder rewilding of the moor may take place by default.

O Brook 2