Hill-farming in a time of change. Stories from Dartmoor

Here is my paper from the Exmoor Society Conference in April recently published in the Exmoor Review – the text below is what I actually wrote …..

Hill-farming in a time of change. Stories from Dartmoor

Schemes, atmospheric pollution, climate change and Brexit

Adrian Colston PhD Researcher,

The Centre for Rural Policy Research, The University of Exeter

 I am a practitioner turned researcher – trying to understand why people disagree about upland management and grazing. I’ve had a 35-year career in conservation for the Wildlife Trusts and the National Trust – most recently 12 years as the General Manager for the NT on Dartmoor. I decided to undertake this research because I couldn’t understand what was happening on Dartmoor’s Commons – the reality didn’t seem to fit the narrative. Are the current problems on Dartmoor really caused by overgrazing?

I am now working as a rural social scientist and I’ve interviewed hill-farmers, conservationists, archaeologists, academics, landowners and representatives of relevant statutory bodies.

The quotes that follow are from various Dartmoor hill-farmers who were interviewed as part of this research.

During the headage payment era there is unanimous agreement that there was too much stock on Dartmoor’s Commons.

When were on headage payments it did get to the point where we were overgrazing, there is no doubt about it, but it wasn’t because we were bad farmers it was because we were following policy.  And it became stock or be stocked so you either stocked up to keep the other people’s animals out or you got swallowed up and your lear [1] was totally trashed.

The headage era was replaced with agri-environment schemes – the Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) scheme on Dartmoor was introduced in 1995. They resulted in the almost instant halving of sheep and cattle numbers and total removal of cattle in winter, under highly prescriptive management regimes with farmers being fined (or threatened with fines) for failure to comply.

Yes, there has been overgrazing, but I think when the environmentalists came in and said stop grazing, it should have been a managed withdrawal – not that we stopped overnight, because the Molinia [2] has taken over and it has drowned out more than we had lost, the environmentalists have lost more than we ever did.

 Whilst the agri-environment schemes paid farmers to reduce stock numbers it led to many acrimonious arguments amongst neighbours about how the monies were to be split.

 There are villages here that farmers won’t help when they used to calf a cow, because the environmental agreements have caused such a rift between the haves and the have-nots.  The ones that feel that some have received more money than they should have; there’s ones that have taken environmental scheme money and are not doing what they were asked to do because there isn’t the staff to police it.

 The prescriptive nature of the schemes also disempowered farmers.

 “.. they never gave us any credence that we had any knowledge whatsoever.  We felt, we were treated as second class citizens, basically unintelligent and had to be shown what we had to do at every whip and turn.”

 The prescriptions detailed by the ESA changed the behavior and hardiness of the cattle.

 All these animals (i.e. cattle) that are used to their lear, majority haven’t got a lear anymore because they are taken away from November until 15th April and then they’ve been indoors and they aren’t hill animals anymore, they’ve been brainwashed into being indoors and to expect them then to go out on Hangingstone [3] and live out there, well that’s not going to happen.

As a result, cattle and sheep often congregate in the lower parts of the moor in places where the sweeter grasses grow – these areas are then heavily grazed.

 I am going to tell you something from personal experience.  The quickest way to overgraze 30-40% of a Common, is to undergraze 60%

 The reduction in stock numbers saw a huge rise in the area of Molinia (which becomes tinder dry in the autumn, if ungrazed) and Western Gorse (Ulex gallii). The prescriptions saw restrictions on swaling [4]practices. Burning was prohibited from areas of blanket bog and the areas of dry heath which could be burnt were reduced in extent. As a result, in large parts of the moor there are huge areas of vegetation which are at risk from wild fires.

 It becomes almost impossible to burn on the Commons now there’s so much fuel load there, it is frightening, no-one wants to be responsible because we know we’ll be fined if we get it wrong.

 The huge rise in Molinia and gorse has impacted on access too, in order to walk on the Commons you frequently now need to follow the well-trodden tracks or the quad bike trails to get around.  The increase in vegetation has also impacted on the historic environment – smothering, for example stone rows and stone circles – 60% of all stone rows in England are on Dartmoor.

The overgrazing narrative however is hard to shift – it is still the dominant narrative for many conservationists. As a result, there are still calls to reduce stocking numbers.

In addition, atmospheric pollution from nitrogen causes acidification, fertilises Molinia, makes heather shoots more palatable to sheep and causes increasingly frequent and severe heather beetle attacks thus exacerbating the problems of Molinia dominant-heather depleted Commons. A problem that is poorly understood by conservationists and hill-farmers. Climate change is also reconfiguring habitats and species and the enhanced carbon dioxide levels are encouraging the growth of Molinia

However, the Molinia problem can be reduced, as has been shown at Molland Moor on Exmoor. Natural England have granted a derogation which permits all year round grazing by a herd of Galloway cattle which are supplementary fed in the winter. The Molinia has been dramatically reduced and the heather is returning. A similar trial at Gidleigh Common on Dartmoor is now underway.

However, increasing the number of cattle is not without its problems and will take time, if permitted.

Interviewer:   A lot of people tell me now that it’s not so easy upping the numbers of cattle back to what it was?

 Hill-farmer: No of course you can’t.  Because we have to breed our own, keep our own heifers and our own new lambs, because you can’t go Exeter (Market) on a Friday when you live here and buy your replacements because they won’t last here 2 minutes

In the uplands 91% of income comes from the basic payment scheme and 131% from subsidies as a whole.  Brexit means that we may need to re-design subsidies intelligently, and we may only have 7 years to do it.

Brexit could mean that agriculture becomes unsustainable, if the support isn’t there. So, if Brexit kicks in like they say it is going to kick in and there is no support then agriculture could be decimated for livestock producers, which will have a big effect up here. 

Initiatives like Dartmoor Farming Futures are attempting to give power and responsibility back to the hill-farmer but to date progress and uptake has been limited.

So, after listening to that for 30 years there are many farmers who will not make decisions on their own now. We’ve had this, since the 90s, that is a whole generation.  So, the new generation have lost some of the old ways because were not allowed to do it, so the next generation hasn’t really got the knowledge unfortunately, even under the Farming Futures in the Forest because for so many years we have been stopped doing things, people just aren’t coming out with what they want to do.  They can’t seem to grasp that we can come forward with things it’s been so long. They just haven’t grasped that there is some empowerment there for the farmer

If you get the narratives wrong you will get the solutions wrong too. This is really important as we head towards a new era of public money for public goods, payment by results and an outcomes approach. Particularly at a time when hill-farm incomes are hard pressed and the future agricultural support schemes are unclear.

The new Schemes need to resolve how to undo the undergrazing of extensive areas of the Dartmoor’s Commons – cattle grazing needs to be encouraged and made financially viable.

If we need and want a pastoral landscape we have to re-empower farmers to take responsibility for managing their land to produce the outcomes society wants and nature needs.  We need to rediscover local knowledge and find solutions that work locally, not those that are imposed

[1] A lear (or heft) is an area where a flock or herd of animals is shepherded – it becomes home to those animals and they remain in that place.

[2] Molinia is the scientific name of Purple Moor Grass and is the word used by hill-farmers to describe the species.

[3] Hangingstone Hill is on the high North moor in the Forest of Dartmoor Common.

[4] Swaling is the traditional Dartmoor practice of managing vegetation by controlled burning.

Heather beetle damage on Dartmoor 2019

I have been very surprised how much Heather Beetle damage there is on Dartmoor this year. The Heather Beetle larvae hatch in June and then feed on the young leaves and shoots. As a result the affected parts of the heather plant turn orange brown.

Heather Beetle damage. It is very characteristic and eye catching.

Last week I walked from Rowtor on Okehampton Common up the military road to Observation Post 15 and then down to Ockerton Court. All the way along the track there are signs of extensive damage to the heather plants – I would estimate that over 90% of plants are affected.

Work carried out in the north of England and in Scotland suggest that the larvae are active until the end of August when they drop down into the litter and pupate into adult beetles. Despite three separate searches on Okehampton Common, the Forest of Dartmoor and Headland Warren Common I only managed to find three larvae and one adult beetle.

Here is a Heather Beetle larvae on Okehampton Common eating the few remaining green leaves of the plant.

I suspect that the absence of larvae and adults during my searches in the first week of August means that the larvae have already dropped into the litter and are beginning to pupate – as a result larvae and adults are not visible. However the very extensive areas of damaged heather indicates that they have been very active in June and July.

It is possible for the heather to recover from this attack and I will be monitoring it to see if it does. However parts or all of the heather plant can be killed. When this happens the shoots turn from orange brown to grey.

This is mature heather at Ockerton Court which has been killed by Heather Beetle

In this image the areas of dead heather (darker brown bits) are being over run by Purple Moor Grass (Molinia caerulea) – the bright green shoots of this year’s growth and the light brown leaves from last year. Molinia is unable to replace heather whilst the heather is alive but can and does do so when it is dead.

Heather Beetle is a seriously under-recorded species on Dartmoor – the National Biodiversity Network database has just one record and the is from Fingle Woods and not from the high moor!

There is clearly a need to gather more records ….

There is anecdotal evidence nationally that Heather Beetle attacks are getting worse and it has been suggested (based on research from the Netherlands) that the severity and frequency of Heather Beetle outbreaks is linked to the levels of atmospheric pollution – particularly nitrogen levels.

Dartmoor receives high levels of nitrogen deposition as a result of its high rainfall – Natural England have reported that Dartmoor receives 24kg / ha / annum of nitrogen (as NOx) which is damaging the blanket bog and mires. This high level of nitrogen deposition may also be responsible for the high levels of Heather Beetle damage.

Heather Beetles are a natural part of the moorland wildlife community and historically damage to heather was limited except in the ‘outbreak’ years. Last year when I was walking the Commons in July I also noticed extensive areas of affected heather – at this point in time heavy attacks appear to be frequent – maybe even annual.

There are implications for wildlife, conservation and hill-farming as a result of these serious Heather Beetle attacks.

  1. The heather plants themselves are either killed or remain stunted
  2. The species of wildlife which feed on heather shoots are also impacted – this includes moth species such as the Emperor Moth and the Fox Moth, whose hairy caterpillars are important prey items for one of Dartmoor’s iconic and successful birds – the cuckoo.
  3. Heather has long been a conservation indicator for the condition of Dartmoor’s Commons and historically grazing levels were reduced significantly to reduce overgrazing pressures to conserve heather.
  4. Heather is also a winter food for sheep on the Commons, if the amount of heather generally is significantly reduced as a result of Heather Beetle attacks it put pressure of the remaining plants that have survived.

Ironically it is thought that the severity and frequency of Heather Beetle attacks has increased because the nitrogen has made the young shoots and leaves more nutritious, it is also reported that sheep preferentially graze the new shoots too for the same reason.

There is a dearth of information on Heather Beetle issues on Dartmoor but from my own observations this year and last it is a potentially serious and widespread problem. However it would also appear that the problem is not universal across the moor. I searched for it in the heather stands around the Warren House Inn  and found Heather Beetle attacks to be minor – perhaps this level of damage is the natural level – whereas the levels seen on Okehampton Common, the north part of the Forest and on Headland Warren Common are the outbreak levels.

It seems to me that there is a clear need to better understand the Heather Beetle situation on Dartmoor, this would be in the interests of Natural England, the Dartmoor National Park Authority and the Dartmoor Commoners Council. The time to survey for the impacts of Heather Beetle is July and August. Maybe a bit of ‘Citizen Science’ could come to the rescue?

I would also be interested to hear from people who have found the characteristic orange brown stands of heather this year on Dartmoor.

I’ve written before about Heather Beetles and this link takes you to my blog which contains further information and some references you can download.

The web of life – badgers, bees and bee-flies

So here is a badger foraging in my garden

It digs holes and scrapes in its search for food

And then …. a Tawny Mining Bee (Andrena fulva) excavates her nest in one of the badger scrapes – the entrance looks like a little volcano.

And this is the female Tawny Mining Bee who excavated this nest

And here she is emerging from her nest

Lurking nearby is the Dark Bordered Bee-fly (Bombylious major) which is a parasitoid i.e. it lays it egg in the burrow of the Tawny Mining Bee (and other species) – its larvae then eat the larvae of the bee

Also lurking in the nearby flower bed is Gooden’s Nomad Bee (Nomada goodeniana) – another parasitoid species, but this a bee not a fly and fortunately for the Tawny Mining Bee it lays its eggs in the nests of other Mining Bee species

And all of this happening in my back garden in Exeter over the past couple of weeks …..

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

 

 

Gidleigh in the sunshine

Had a great 12 mile walk today  on Dartmoor today – Fernworthy Forest – Sittaford – Quinton’s Man, Watern Tor, Scorhill, Chagford Common and back to Fernworthy. By accident bumped into John Jordan herding his cattle. Love the tradition and culture of hill-farming – this time John is on a quad bike crossing the Teign at Scorhill on Gidleigh Common…. it’s a hard core life – riding quad bikes on Commons dominated by purple moor grass (Molinia) is simply dangerous… respect ..

The day the Commons came alive

Over night the Commons on Dartmoor turned green. I was at this exact spot on Thursday and the landscape was brown – a bit of rain and sunshine and the grass starts growing. A late spring but nevertheless a natural miracle. Magical Challacombe, magical Dartmoor.

When there is grass – the sheep come – I could have been standing here 900 years ago and seen the same sight. The sheep leave their in-bye (enclosed fields) and head for their summer grazing on the Commons.

Hundreds of sheep passed – Welsh Mountains and Scotch Black faces

Chivied along by two Dartmoor horse riding shepherdesses

Nearly there

Job done for another year (well, at least getting the sheep to the Common).

And right beside the drove are the rhos pastures – Dartmoor’s very, very special wet meadows – the Shire without the Ringwraithes – heaven on earth if you don’t mind wet feet. This is my favourite place on the  moor. I have spent hours and hours here over the years – it is truely magical and it never disappoints.

Marsh fritillary – one of our rarest species – I saw 20 today

And small pearl bordered fritillary – also very rare and threatened

A spider on a cotton grass flower head

The exquisite flower of the Bog Bean

What a day – epic – never let anyone tell you Dartmoor is wrecked – it is fabulous and has a history, which you can see today, going back thousands of years.

A trip to Bryher – landscapes and birds

Went to Bryher yesterday – it is such a beautiful and rugged island – here are a few pictures.

This is Shipman Head at the north end of the island

And this is Hell Bay – it takes the full unimpeded force of a westerly gale

Thift flowering beside Popplestone Bay

A maze beside Popplestone Bay

Rock sculture

Steve enjoying the view and snapping a few shots

There was a flock of four Dunlin on the Pool

They were very tame which implies they hadn’t seen people before

Birds from the wilderness

Smart bird in summer plumage

A whimbrel amongst the thrift

On its way to breed in the far north on the tundra

A stonechat

A smart male

Wrens are perhaps the commonest bird on the Islands

Bryher is well worth a visit – you won’t be disappointed.