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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A day on St Agnes

Spent the day on St Agnes yesterday

On the tripper boat …

Gugh Bar joins At Agnes with Gugh – the most famous tombolo in the world!

Pleased to see a small colony of kittiwakes surviving on Gugh – Britain’s most endangered seabird as a result of climate change and rising ocean temperatures.

Looking over to Gugh

The Devil’s Punchbowl on Wingletang Down

Cuckoo on Wingletang Down

The Nag’s Head

Male wheatear –  a passage migrant on Scilly

A colony of fulmar

An unnamed granite outcrop on Castella Down

Male Stonechat

The Troytown maze

A rock pipit

Pretty much my favourite island

St Mary’s birds and landscapes

Spent the day yesterday wandering around St Mary’s, lovely sunny day and lots of swallows and martins migrating through the Islands.

A swallow on the wire in Old Town

House martin at Kitty Down

And in amongst a flock of a 100 plus swallows, house martins and sand martins was this red-rumped swallow – a spring overshoot from southern Europe. Also saw my first swift of the year today.

Looking from Kitty Down back to High Moors and Porthellick

And then this at at Higher Moors ….. the Wildlife Trust have coppiced all the willows next to the hide and as a result there is absolutely no cover when approaching the hide, so no birds at all at the southern end of the pool. Surely this could have been planned and executed differently? It will now take several years before the cover regrows and hide becomes usable again. I really hope next autumn doesn’t see the same treatment up to the next hide……

The beach at Porthloo

Which hosted this 1st winter Iceland Gull – note the bird is all white and has no black tips to the wing. A rare visitor to the UK, but this year has seen quite and influx.

From Porthloo back to the harbour at Hugh Town

The sun setting over the Atlantic (pub and ocean)

 

What will happen to farming in Devon post Brexit?

Yesterday I attended the Devon Local Nature Partnership conference ‘New Horizons for Devon’s Natural Capital’. Great speakers, well attended and well organised. Whilst there are many exciting initiatives happening right now in Devon and the ‘Green Brexit’ mission of Michael Gove gives environmentalists much to be optimistic about with the mantra of ‘public money for pubic goods’, I nevertheless left the conference with a sick feeling in my stomach. What does the future hold for Devon’s multitude of small family farms?

Most of my friends are not rural policy wonks and therefore they are unaware of the situation that farming in Devon (and elsewhere) finds itself. Read on.

Here is Professor Matt Lobley from the Centre for Rural Policy Research (where I work) at the University of Exeter talking about  Farm Business Income. Matt told the audience that the bottom 42% of small farms in England contribute just 2% of agricultural output…. There will be those who say these farmers are inefficient and a widespread re-structuring of the industry is required, I say be careful what you wish for. The consequences for the natural character, landscapes, biodiversity and social fabric of counties like Devon in losing 42% of its small family farms would be immense and would led to outcomes which would fly in the face of the Green Brexit objectives.

The rest of this blog attempts to explain the predicament that farmers in Devon now find themselves and gives a small insight into what has to be done over the coming 5 years. The following data comes from various Defra Farm Income reports.

This graph shows the average Farm Business income in England for the various different types of farming. It shows that across England cereals, grazing livestock (lowlands), grazing livestock LFA (Less Favoured Areas) and  mixed farming all lose money on the agricultural side of their businesses.

This table gives the actual figures included in the above graph. So if we look at Grazing Livestock (lowland) i.e. much of Devon that isn’t on Dartmoor or Exmoor, the figures show that the agricultural business lost £8,700 but agri-environment payments (money for looking after wildlife) generated £3000, diversified income (e.g. running a B & B on the farm) produced £6500, the Basic Payment Scheme (subsidy for owning land) provided £15,300 giving an overall Farm Business Income of £16,100. So £24,800 comes from grants, diversified non agricultural businesses and the Basic Payment Scheme to offset the £8700 agricultural loss giving the family farm an income of £16,100. That is not a living wage, i.e. the income provided is unable to pay the farmer, spouse and other working family members a rate of pay equal to the minimum agricultural wage.

The above figures are the 2016/17 figures for England but if you look at the regional numbers other trends emerge.

These are the 2015/16 figures: the average England FBI figure for grazing livestock is £14,400 but in the south west this drops to £10,300. The dairy sector on the other hand is stronger in the south west.

Here are the summary forecasts for 2017/18.

And here are the detailed forecast figures for 2017/18 along with the trends since 2012/13, an 8% decline for upland hill-farmers (LFA) and a standstill position for lowland grazing livestock. A major increase for dairy and a substantial one for cereals. A volatile market but a very precarious one for livestock farmers.

There are some pretty stark numbers in these datasets. Many farms, particularly small farms make small margins and many others are very reliant on agri-environment grants and the Basic Payment Scheme. After we leave the EU the Basic Payment Scheme will be phased out and public money for farmers will be provided in return for the provision of public goods (e.g. wildlife, access, looking after the historic environment, carbon storage, flood prevention, provision of drinking water etc). The following table shows the scale of the shift in policy and the implications of what might happen if it can’t be achieved.

The column titled CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) Subsidy is the sum of the agri-environment grants and the BPS subsidy. This is the amount of money therefore that farmers will have to earn via the provision of pubic goods if they are to maintain their current income levels. The final column shows what the impact would be on their Farm Business Income if they are unable to do this.

And here’s the rub – some farms on account of their location are much better placed than others to provide a suite of public goods and therefore receive public money. So for example hill-farmers in National Parks have made a very strong case that they can provide these public goods as these areas are rich in natural capital and this has been acknowledged by Government. On the other hand lowland graziers perhaps will find it much more difficult to provide public goods as they are not situated in National Parks with Bronze Age landscapes and Special Areas of Conservation where millions of people go for access and recreation.

The stated aim of these changes is to leave the environment in a better condition than it is in now, this means changes to the way things are done. Judging by the conversations that I’ve heard hill-farmers might be able to provide £22,800 worth of public goods to make up for the loss of their Basic Payment Scheme subsidy, the question is whether for example lowland graziers can provide £15,300 and dairy farmers £25,300 worth of public goods in return for the money.

I had a conversation with Robin Milton, Chair of Exmoor National Park, hill-farmer and NFU Uplands chair about this very topic yesterday and that was why I left the conference with a sick feeling in my stomach.

A Black Fox Running

I was passing Waterstones in Exeter on Saturday and saw a window display for this book.

If you love Dartmoor and wildlife I suspect that this book is for you. I’m halfway through it and am spell bound.

Here is what Waterstones have to say about it – it will give you an idea of what to expect .

A beautiful lost classic of nature writing which sits alongside Tarka the Otter, Watership Down, War Horse and The Story of a Red Deer

This is the story of Wulfgar, the dark-furred fox of Dartmoor, and of his nemesis, Scoble the trapper, in the seasons leading up to the pitiless winter of 1947.

As breathtaking in its descriptions of the natural world as it is perceptive its portrayal of damaged humanity, it is both a portrait of place and a gripping story of survival.

Uniquely straddling the worlds of animals and men, Brian Carter’s A Black Fox Running is a masterpiece: lyrical, unforgiving and unforgettable.