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].

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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

Return to the Wildwood?

This year’s annual Dartmoor Society public debate is entitled ‘Return to the Wildwood? Is rewilding the future for Dartmoor?’ It will be held  on Saturday 29 October 2016 10am­-5pm at Melton Village Hall. Unfortunately I will be on the Isles of Scilly so am unable to attend. Nevertheless I would urge anyone interested in this topic to attend. I suspect that the debate at times will be rather heated as for some of the players there is a great deal at stake.

Wistman's 1

Matthew Kelly, Professor of History at Northumbria University, and author of Quartz and Feldspar: Dartmoor ­ A British Landscape in Modern Times will chair the day and he has written about the topic here where he coined the phrase that I use a lot ‘soft rewilding’.

Other speakers include Robert Cook; Lecturer in Education for Sustainability, Plymouth University ‘Just How Wild Should We Be?’; Ann Willcocks; Dartmoor Farmer and Commoner ‘Why Bother?’; Miles King; Environmentalist “Rewilding: scary monsters and fairy tales? Or nature and people.” and Tom Greeves; Cultural Environmentalist ‘8000 years of culture in an upland environment ­ the elephant in the room?’.

You can download the flyer here and book for the event which costs £20 here.

In our post Brexit world the fate of subsidies for Upland farmers is a huge topic for debate and a massive concern for many. I am attending a meeting of the Upland Alliance on this on Thursday and it will undoubtedly feature a great deal in my PhD research. There are huge opportunities and huge threats depending on where you are standing and this conference will no doubt unpick some of this.

Rewilding means many things to many different people and it is a very loaded expression. The conference on the 29th October is therefore an important contribution to the debate.

 

More, bigger, better, joined up – John Lawton comes to Exeter

Professor Sir John Lawton is a cult hero in conservation circles on account of his report ‘Making Space for Nature’ which is often simply referred to as the Lawton Report. In essence the report states that we need more wildlife sites, existing sites need to be bigger, they need to be better managed and we need to join sites together via habitat creation initiatives. This simple formula is summarised as more, bigger, better and joined up. You can download the full Lawton Report here.

Dartmoor and Devon owe a great deal to John Lawton – the acquisition of Fingle Woods by the National Trust and the Woodland Trust back in 2013 may well not have happened without his report. At the time I was the General Manager for the NT on Dartmoor and negotiated the WT partnership and the acquisition – one part of this involved getting approval from the NT’s Executive Team which included Helen Ghosh, the Director General, Simon Murray, then Director of Operations and Peter Nixon, the Director of Conservation for the £4m project. Fortunately they had read the Lawton report, had had a meeting with John and were very enthusiastic about what it meant for the National Trust. When I arrived at Heelis for the Projects and Acquisitions meeting it could not have been easier – they had, I think approved it before I even began to speak…. if only the process of getting the funding for the project to restore Castle Drogo had been so easy!

Last night I went to a lecture at the University in Exeter given by John Lawton on his vision for nature and the tactics needed to achieve it. It was well attended and very entertaining.

John Lawton 1
Lawton is a distinguished academic ecologist and is politically very savvy.

In addition to his report he is responsible for England’s 12 Nature Improvement Areas and the network of Local Nature Partnerships. His vision however goes way beyond what Government has permitted and funded to date and that was the subject of his talk.

He talked about his version and vision for a ‘re-wilded’ Britain. He compared and contrasted his ideas with those of George Monbiot. In essence he suggested Monbiot wanted to remove the people and let nature do its thing assisted by re-introduced herbivores and carnivores. His brand of re-wilding involved a ‘coalition of the willing’ who worked together skilfully using agricultural subsidies and economic benefits to achieve change at scale.

He quoted two English examples – Wild Ennerdale in the Lake District and the Knepp Estate in Sussex and he went on to compare and contrast these with the truly wild landscapes of the Okavango Delta in Botswana and Yellowstone National Park in the US, the semi wild reserve at Polessie in Belorus (created following the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster and evacuation) and Oostervardersplassen the created reserve in the Netherlands.

Wild Ennerdale is a partnership between the National Trust, the Forestry Commission and United Utilities (a water company). By reducing intensity of management by lower stocking levels peaty water no longer rushes from the fells into Ennerdale reservoir and therefore there is no need for a water purification plant. United Utilities spend 60x less funding the re-wilding project than they would have spent running a water purification plant. Nature, the economy and people all benefit.

Knepp (which I visited and written about before – see here and here) is a project set up on a 3500 acre lowland Estate in Sussex by Charlie Burrell. Formerly an uneconomic arable farm it has been allowed to re-wild over the past 15 years and is extensively grazed  by herds of long horn cattle, Exmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs and deer. The resulting ‘savannah’ of grassland, scrub and woodland has become a rare lowland haven for declining species such as the turtle dove, cuckoo, nightingale and purple emperor butterfly.

John Lawton 2
In this slide Lawton demonstrated how management intensity (by people) decreases with scale, it also shows where UK nature reserves sit and why ‘more, bigger, better, joined up’ is needed.

John Lawton 5The direction of travel that is needed in Britain along with politics of achieving that change

John Lawton 4Lawton also made the case for re-introducing the lynx in the Lake District and challenged the audience by saying ‘why not Devon too?’  He suggested that lynx would be able to control the burgeoning population of deer.

He also re-emphasised the role of conservationists in winning hearts, minds and politics.

John Lawton 3Finally he concluded that special places needed permeable boundaries so wildlife could come and go.

An inspiring evening by a great champion of wildlife. Thanks to the Devon Local Nature Partnership, Devon County Council, Devon Wildlife Trust and the University of Exeter for organising it.

It is now up to the Devon Local Nature Partnership, local NGOs, conservationists, land managers, farmers and the residents of Devon to come up with some ideas and projects to create more spaces for nature, which are bigger, better managed and more joined up in Devon for the benefit of wildlife, people and the economy.

A trip to Holne Moor – cuckoos, scrub and flood prevention

I spent the afternoon yesterday with Kevin Cox, who lives in the Mardle Valley, is an RSPB Council member and heavily involved with Devon Birds. We talked about Devon birds, Devon Birds and the management of Dartmoor’s commons. Kevin has recently purchased part of Holne Moor from South West Water.

Holne 1
Holne Moor overlooking Venford Reservoir.

We went up to Holne Moor to have a look around. A very interesting visit for me. This is the key bird research area I have written about recently – the place where Exeter University’s Professor Charles Tyler, his team of research students and nest finders have been working (The Dartmoor Upland Bird Nest Group) – see here and here. This is the area where some of the key cuckoo research is taking place as well as being an area which supports high population densities of whinchat and meadow pipit.

Holne 4
The moor is grazed and has a swaling programme but does have quite a lot of small trees dotted around the landscape – cuckoos need these small trees so that they can survey the landscape and see where the meadow pipit nests are. On many commons now these dotted isolated trees are absent and new regeneration is now difficult due to the grazing and burning pressure.

The area is also very interesting as it gives a clue as to how natural flood management measures might work on Dartmoor in the future and play a part in ‘slowing in the flow’. South West Water have retained a belt of land around their reservoir at Venford. This area has been fenced off.

Holne 2

In this photograph you can clearly see the fence line – with grazed moorland to the right and the lightly grazed enclosure to the left. You can see that patches of light scrub have developed in the closure.

Holne 3
Here is another view of that enclosure.

These two photographs tell me a couple of things.

Firstly, if Dartmoor was not grazed, scrub and eventually woodland would quickly develop – the George Monbiot re-wilding scenario. Dartmoor is of course as I have said many times before an important historical and cultural landscape and therefore if the re-wilding scenario were to happen across the Dartmoor landscape then most of that would be lost. The landscape of Holne Moor is a good example of this as it has been ‘designated’ as a Premier Archaeological Landscape – see here for further details.

Atlas of Antiquities 1Jeremy Butler in his 5 volume Dartmoor Atlas of Antiquities sets out a detailed catalogue of the archaeological interest.

Atlas of Antiquities 2
The map and accompanying text details the importance of the area from the Bronze Age, through the Mediaeval period to the present.

The challenge for all those involved with the management of such places therefore is getting the balance right between archaeological interests and biodiversity – both of which are of European Importance. I have written about this challenge before and it seems to prove intractably difficult to solve even though all parties are in fact pretty much in the same place – i.e. everyone wants a grazed landscape.

As Kevin Cox said to me on site yesterday (I paraphrase) – the archaeology has survived on here on Holne Moor for thousands of years through the ebb and flow of vegetation and farming cycles, however at the moment there is a biodiversity crisis and we may only have 30 years to save some species such as the cuckoo. Surely there is enough flexibility and goodwill within the system to tweak a few management techniques and thereby work out how to enable the cuckoo (and whinchats, meadow pipits etc) to flourish (e.g. ensure there are perching places and enough food for cuckoos) – the work that the Dartmoor Upland Bird Nest Group are currently researching.

The second thing that the two photos above tell me is how quick and easy theoretically it will be to naturally add regenerating trees and scrub to the landscape in very small but strategic places so that natural flood management schemes can help slow the flow. If enclosures were erected around specific stream valleys the developing scrub would quickly emerge and add ‘hydraulic roughness’. The areas of grazing land lost would be tiny and as long as the Commoners were compensated and not penalised as the current ‘ineligible feature’ nonsense currently would do then surely this too is a win-win for everyone.

I thought yesterday was going to be dominated by Storm Imogen – it certainly seems to have around our coasts but inland it was pretty windy but in my experience was mostly dry and allowed me instead to make a new friend, see a new place and think more about Dartmoor and its management.Holne 5

 

A day of George Monbiot

Yesterday was a day which had a lot of George Monbiot in it for me! I started my day drinking  coffee and scanning various websites and news items – nothing new there then. I then clicked on an article by George in the Guardian (again nothing new there) entitled ‘Scorched Earth Conservation’ – see here. The previous  evening I had watched his piece on the BBC Inside Out programme about sheep and swaling on Exmoor – see here -11 minutes 15 seconds in.

His Scorched Earth piece is all about swaling and over grazing particularly on Dartmoor and Exmoor. Half way through the piece I read my name and see a series of maps I produced last December when I worked for the National Trust – see here for the link.

“Adrian Colston, the National Trust’s General Manager on Dartmoor, has published a series of maps showing the astonishing deterioration over the past 25 years of the habitats the park claims to be protecting. As he reports: “These maps do not tell a happy tale. Our land is now in far worse condition than it was in 1990 as a result of overgrazing and burning (known as swaling on Dartmoor).”

I’ve got to say although I didn’t know George was going to use my work I’m really pleased that he did – this was a piece of work that was very important to me and the National Trust and something that the NT wants to sort out. I don’t work for the NT any more (as of the 31st December) – I am now a freelance ecologist and campaigner. I worked for the NT for 18 years – it is a brilliant organisation, we didn’t fall out in the slightest but it was just time for a change for me.

I’m currently working on a Report for the NT on the ecological changes on their Plym Valley estate over the past 25 years (updating the maps that George used) and recommending what needs to be done to turn things around. I hope to report back on this work in due course once I have completed it.

In the evening I attended a talk at the University of Exeter (where I was an undergraduate) by George Monbiot and  Alan Featherstone Watson on rewilding. If you are unfamiliar with the rewilding idea – it basically suggests that our uplands particularly, are completely over managed by sheep grazing (sheep wrecked) which George calls the white plague. It would be much better for wildlife and the ecosystem generally if the sheep were removed and natural processes were allowed to occur so that the hills could again be covered with trees and shrubs. The final part advocates that  extinct mammals such as beaver, boar, lynx and wolves should re-introduced so that they once again could play their part in managing the ecosystem. For a fuller account of the rewilding ideas of George Monbiot you can watch him speak to the UK National Parks conference last year about his ideas – see here or you can read his book Feral which sets out the entire argument.

Monbiot

The argument goes on to suggest that as well as providing habitats much richer in wildlife these rewilded areas would also be much better at protecting and locking up carbon, would provide better supplies of drinking water and would protect areas downstream from flooding.

The logic is perfect but the ideas deeply challenge the current status quo and what conservationists have been trying to achieve for over half a century. George Monbiot is pretty rude about what the National Parks and large conservation organisations (such as the National Trust, the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB) are up to in the uplands. Much of the UK’s wildlife now lives in what are called ‘sub climax’ communities. This means habitats that are managed  by people to ensure they don’t develop into the ‘climax’ communities, that is woodland. We are talking here about the uplands, heathlands, chalk grassland, meadows, fens etc etc. I suspect over the coming months and years this topic will be fiercely debated and a new paradigm will emerge as we re-frame the UK’s attitude to nature. You can watch the two presentations from last night here.

I am not sure that my report for the National Trust on their land in the Upper Plym will be advocating a rewilding approach because there is an awful lot of politics involved, the Commoners’ livelihoods are at stake and the rich Bronze Age archaeology of the area could be threatened. There are indeed an awful lot of vested interests and legal constraints at play in the uplands. George’s intervention however has created a space for discussion where a much better future environment in the uplands can now be discussed and more radical solutions can be debated.

George finished his piece in the Guardian thus – “There is, I discovered, a widespread sense that we cannot go on like this, that we cannot keep destroying in the name of protection. Something has gone badly wrong here, and there is an urgent need for change.” I suspect most conservation  professionals agree, most farmers fundamentally disagree and most of the general public  are oblivious.

Interesting times ahead.