The mystery of Vancouver’s sheep figures on Dartmoor in 1808

Charles Vancouver’s General View of the Agriculture of the County of Devon [1] written in 1808 is a widely cited source with regards to grazing and potential agricultural improvements on the Dartmoor Commons.

Vancouver’s book is an amazing treatise on the state of agriculture across Devon in the early 19th century and while much of its focus was on agricultural improvement it contains several sections about the grazing potential of the Dartmoor Commons.

Vancouver described Dartmoor as follows

The whole surface of Dartmoor, including the rocks, consists of two characters, the one a wet peaty moor, or vegetable mould, but affording good sheep and bullock pasture, during the summer season. The other an inveterate swamp, absolutely inaccessible to the lightest and most active quadruped that may traverse the sounder parts of the forest. P281

He then goes on to recommend that the ‘inveterate swamp’ is drained and improved but defends the ‘wet peaty moor’ as follows:

The depasturable parts of the forest, consist of a black moory soil, from eighteen inches to two feet in thickness, generally forming peat below, always highly charged with moisture, and ultimately resting upon a reddish-coloured argillaceous loam, called fox-mould, and which is also retentive of water in a very high degree. The spontaneous vegetation of this part of the forest, among many other herbs and grasses, consisted of purple melic grass, mat grass, downy oat grass, bristle-leaved bent, eye-bright, bulbous rooted rush, common termentel, smooth heath-bed straw, common bone binder, cross-leaved heath, common heath or ling (dwarf), milk-wort, dwarf dock and agrostis vulgaris in very large quantities. The disturbing of this herbage, however inferior it may appear in the eye of the refined agriculturalist, is on no account whatever to be recommended to permitted.

Vancouver goes on to describe the importance of the ‘wet peaty moors’ for grazing by sheep and cattle.

“The importance of the first description of these wastes (referring to his earlier writing on the boggy character of Dartmoor), can in no way be so fully shewn as by stating the stock feeding upon them. The Commons belonging to the parish of Widdecombe [and Buckland in the Moor] will furnish a sufficient example, when in the month of October last, there were estimated by gentlemen residing in the neighbourhood, to be no less than 14,000 sheep, besides the usual proportion of horned cattle.” p228


Mercer (2009) comments on these high sheep numbers suggesting that the Commons of Widecombe and Buckland today amount to 1032 ha. and therefore in 1808 were subject to a grazing pressure of over 2 sheep per ha. My own research concludes that the two Commons amount to 1940ha., nearly twice the area Mercer states. With regard to the cattle we are left unclear on their stocking density but Mercer (p292) states that Vancouver described them as standing ‘shoulder to shoulder’. These two Commons account for around 5% of Dartmoor’s Commons, so if we take an estimate that there were 10,000 cattle on the Commons of Dartmoor in the early 19th century we could speculate that there were 500 (5%) on these two Commons.

By doing this we are then able to construct some grazing pressures, measured in Livestock Unit (LSU) where 0.15 sheep equates to 1 bovine, which we can then compare to those seen in the modern era.

14,000 sheep May to Oct       =          2100 LSU

500 cattle May – Oct              =          500 LSU

Total                                                       2600 LSU

over 1940 ha of Common       =          1.34 LSU / ha / year.

Many studies have been published which seek to recommend appropriate grazing levels on upland grasslands and heaths. The majority of these have been carried out either in Scotland, the Peak District and the Pennines.

In north-east Scotland a grazing pressure of 0.2 cattle and 2.7 sheep / ha (this equates to 0.605 LSU / ha [2]) caused damage to heather communities. Additionally, with cattle at 1.2 / ha (1.2 LSU / ha) there was a 32% decline in 4 years and a decline from 80% to 5% heather cover in 10 years. With 5 sheep / ha (0.75 LSU / ha) there was a 9% decline in heather cover over 4 years (Welch 1984).

A grazing pressure of 2 sheep / ha (0.3 LSU / ha) on heather moorland and 0.37 sheep / ha (0.055 LSU / ha) on blanket bog was considered to be compatible with nature conservation objectives. Whilst 0.5 sheep / ha (0.075 LSU / ha) on heather moorland and 0.1 sheep / ha (0.015 LSU / ha) on blanket bog was required for heather to regenerate (Evans & Felton 1987).

On the face of it the grazing pressure reported by Vancouver is in excess of that which modern research found that habitat damage would occur. However Vancouver reported both cross-leaved heather and ling as being notable in these pastures.

The situation is further complicated as Vancouver also reports the following.

“From the number of sheep annually summered upon Dartmoor and Exmoor forests, the ewes and lambs of which are always brought down into the country on the approach of winter, it will be readily supposed, that a large proportion of sheep stock is always found to occupy the surrounding districts during the winter season. The greater part of these flocks, however being wethers (castrated rams), and chiefly preserved for their wool are left upon the forests during winter.” P345

The sheep in question here are White-faced Dartmoors, these sheep were being raised to produce wool and mutton. The wethers were the principle producer of wool fleeces and may have been kept for up to 6 years. The key factor in the above text is that they were being overwintered on the moor. It is widely assumed that all-year round grazing on Dartmoor did not occur until the late 19th century and the early 20th century when Scotch Black-faced sheep and the Galloway cattle arrived. It would appear that the practices of transhumance (summer grazing and winter resting) along with levancy and couchancy – the rule that determined the number of grazing stock that could be summered on the Common by reference to the capacity of the land to which the rights were associated to feed stock over the winter months, i.e. all stock on the Common in the summer had to be accommodated and fed on the farm in the winter months were already breaking down.

If we assume that that the wethers accounted for 8000 of the 14,000 sheep (‘the greater part’) then we need to add an additional 1200 LSUs in to the calculation.

14,000 sheep May to Oct       =          2100 LSU

8000 wethers Nov to Apr       =          1200 LSU

500 cattle May – Oct              =          500 LSU

Total                                                        3800 LSU

over 1940 ha of Common       =          1.96 LSU / ha / year.

Grazing pressures at these levels, according to the recent research would cause serious problems of overgrazing and habitat degradation. However this would appear not to be the case in 1808 as Vancouver goes on to report:

“The number of sheep thus summered and kept the year round upon the forest of Dartmoor, the depasturable parts of which, in a dry summer, is one of the best sheep-walks in the kingdom, is not easy to ascertain; but if any inference can be drawn from the returns made from Widdicombe and Buckland in the Moor, their numbers must necessarily be very considerable indeed. A dry summer (as just observed), is always the most favourable for these sheep walk. These afforded in the months of August and September last, flocks were more numerous, and in much higher condition, than has ever been observed by the surveyor in any other part of England, when such have not been aided by access to the enclosures or artificial food. Yet the grass of the sheep-walks upon the forest of Dartmoor, in the beginning of November was scarcely half consumed.” P346-347

Additionally Mercer (p303) quotes Vancouver who reported seeing ‘knee high grass’ on the Widecombe Commons in May. Ample grazing at the beginning of the growing season and scarcely half consumed in November.

Vancouver’s 1808 account of sheep on Dartmoor contrasts markedly with that of Robert Frazer who in 1794 published a ‘General View of the county of Devon with observations on the means of its improvement’[3]. On page 53 he states

The south and east quarter are the driest and best for sheep, and from the most accurate information I could obtain, there are not five thousand sheep kept on both these quarters. Certainly not so many on the north and west. So that if we say 10,000 sheep for the whole of Dartmore, we shall be beyond the mark. I think there are not 8,000 in the whole forest in any summer.

However, Fogwill (1954) in his essay on Pastoralism on Dartmoor stated that in Annals of Agriculture there is a footnote stating that ‘this a great error’.

It is difficult to unravel this mystery and we may never be able to do so: perhaps the gentlemen of the parish miscalculated the number of sheep; perhaps the 14,000 sheep were not solely on the Commons or perhaps the breeds of animals involved i.e. the White-faced Dartmoor sheep and the Ruby Red Devon cattle impacted less severely on the vegetation than Scotch Blackfaces and Galloways.

Or maybe, just maybe, in the time before the Industrial Revolution began, before the era of atmospheric pollution and climate change, the hill-farmers of Dartmoor had perfected a system of pastoralism which allowed them to graze the Commons with great numbers of animals without damaging the vegetation.

A mystery indeed.

[1] The entire manuscript can be downloaded here free of charge

[2] LSU is known as a livestock unit Cattle = 1LSU, Ponies = 1 LSU & Sheep = 0.15 LSU

[3] Download free of charge here

Evans S. & Felton M. (1987) Hill livestock compensatory allowances and upland management. In Bell and Bunce (1987) pp66-72.

Fogwill E. (1954) Pastoralism on Dartmoor. Transactions of the Devonshire Association 86: 89-114.

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

Welch D. (1984) Studies in the grazing of heather moorland in North-East Scotland. II. Response of heather. Journal of Ecology 21: 197-207.

Marsh and Small Pearl- bordered Fritillaries on Dartmoor

It was a sunny morning when I left Exeter yesterday to go to Dartmoor but as the afternoon progressed it clouded over and eventually broke into heavy rain. I was therefore quite lucky to find what I went to Dartmoor to see.

A Marsh Fritillary sunning itself as the sun broke through the clouds momentarily

In total I saw 6 Marsh Fritillaries in the rhos pastures at Challacombe

If you look carefully individual butterflies are all subtly different in their markings

Marsh Fritillaries are now a very rare species but do flourish in a few selected locations on Dartmoor (and elsewhere)

I also found a couple of Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries – another rare and declining species for which Dartmoor is another stronghold

Just before the heavy rain arrived I found this individual

Amazing details and colours in the wings

Here is a shot of a Pearl-bordered Fritillary I photographed a few years ago at Hembury Woods


The problem with Heather Beetles

The Heather Beetle (Lochmaea suturalis) is a native Chrysomelid leaf beetle which feeds almost exclusively on heather (Calluna vulgaris). It is common in areas whether heather grows from the south of England to Orkney in the north (Duff 2016).

Heather beetle populations are well known to fluctuate greatly from low numbers which have little over impact on heather plants to very high numbers which can lead to the widespread defoliation of heather and can cause its death.

Heather Beetle damage on Ryders Hill March 2016

Heather beetle outbreaks have historically been problematic for grouse moor owners and the issue of heather beetle and its control has been championed by the Heather Trust who have produced a short document on the species (Heather Trust undated).

In addition the Heather Trust commissioned a literature review of the species (Rosenburgh & Marrs 2010) which summarises the ecology of the beetle, its impact as a pest and strategies for control. This work has been updated (Gillingham et al 2015a and 2015b) and published as Natural England Evidence Reviews on its ecology and its management.

These reviews state the following regarding heather beetle outbreaks:-

  • ‘Considerable damage to heather can occur with complete death in the worst cases’.
  • ‘Large scale vegetation change can follow’ (heather outcompeted by invasive grass species).
  • ‘The occurrence and severity of heather beetle attacks appears to be made worse by increased levels of nitrogen in the soil and plant tissues, which has been blamed on high nitrogen pollutant inputs from the atmosphere in recent years’.
  • ‘The high nitrogen in the leaves provides the beetles with more high quality food to consume’
  • ‘Climate change is expected to lead to increased winter survival of heather beetles’

On Exmoor heather beetle is considered a major problem, and the National Park Authority report that outbreaks are common and are spreading from the south to the north of Park. They also suggest that in areas where Purple Moor Grass (Molinia caerulea) is absent the heather plants recover fully and rapidly but where Molinia is present this quickly swamps the heather and replaces it (ENPA 2015).

I have written before about the loss of heather that had occurred on the National Trust’s land in the Upper Plym valley on Dartmoor (see here). In 1995 there was a serious outbreak of heather beetle which killed off the heather in the area known as Hen Tor Fields. At the time it was assumed that overgrazing was the cause although no increase in stocking levels had taken place for a number of years.  In this specific instance the heathland communities (H12 Calluna vulgaris-Vaccinium myrtillus) were replaced by upland grass communities (U4 Festuca ovina-Agrostis capillaris-Galium saxatile) which do not naturally contain Molinia. On the wet heaths of the Upper Plym Estate there were numerous other outbreaks on heather beetle during the 1990s and 2000s (Helen Radmore NT tenant pers comm) and in these habitats Molinia now dominates (my observations).

There has been no systematic survey of heather beetle on Dartmoor and Goodfellow et al (1997) only briefly mention it “Outbreaks of heather beetle cause local declines in heather”, however my recent observations on the moor suggest that heather beetle damage is very widespread and extensive.

Heather Beetle damage on Ryders Hill – March 2016

I would be very interested to hear from anyone with information about heather beetles on Dartmoor in recent years – it is an issue which is begging for more research.

Duff A.G. (2016) Beetles of Britain and Ireland. Volume 4 Cerambycidae to Curculionidae. A.G. Duff (Publishing) West Runton.
ENPA (2015) Exmoor Swaling Review 2014/15. Seminar Notes ENPA. Dulverton.
Gillingham P., Diaz A., Stillman R. & Pinder A.C. (2015a) A desk review of the ecology of the heather beetle. Natural England Evidence Review, Number 008.
Gillingham P., Diaz A., Stillman R. & Pinder A.C. (2015b) Desk review of burning and other management options for the control for heather beetle. Natural England Evidence Review, Number 009.
Goodfellow S., Wolton R. & Baldock N. (1997) The Nature of Dartmoor: a biodiversity profile. English Nature / Dartmoor National Park Authority publication.
Heather Trust (undated) Heather Beetle. Download from Heather Trust Website
Rosenburgh A. & Marrs R. (2010) The Heather Beetle: a review. Report to the Heather Trust.

The problem with Purple Moor Grass…. Molinia

Purple Moor Grass (Molinia caerulea) – here after called Molinia – has increased rather dramatically in recent times on Dartmoor and elsewhere in the British uplands. This blog attempts to answer why this has happened.

Looking at Dartmoor (and indeed all the UK’s Uplands) today it is easy to forget that the rise to dominance of Molinia on the mires and blanket bogs is a recent phenomenon. Wolton et al (1994) in their report on heather condition on Dartmoor based on fieldwork carried out in 1989/90 concluded that ‘Purple Moor Grass’ consisted of less than 1% of Dartmoor’s Commons i.e. less than 2,800 ha.


Figure 1a p18 from Wolton et al (1994)

Although comparative figures are not available for Dartmoor today it is widely agreed that this figure has increased dramatically but an increase of 20x does not seem inappropriate in my view.

Chambers et al (1999) showed from paleoecological research that the rise of Molinia is a recent phenomenon, this work also showed that the rise of Molinia was at the expense of heather communities.

The spread of Molinia concerns farmers as this grass is relatively unpalatable to stock and it is of concern to conservationists as the ‘rafia’ fields of the grass produce monotonous species-poor landscapes which suppress other moorland species such as heather.


The spread of Molinia was originally thought to be caused as a result of overgrazing and excessive burning. Averis et al (2004) suggest the following changes to National Vegetation Classification communities which can all lead to an increase in Molinia communities. The communities described below e.g. M25 Molinia caerulea-Potentilla erecta mire follow the NVC (Rodwell 1991).

  • If blanket bog (M17 Trichophorum cepitosus-Eriophorum vaginatum blanket mire) is overgrazed or burnt it changes into poor quality wet heath (M15 Trichophorum cespitosus, Erica tetralix wet heath) and then Molinia grassland (M25 Molinia caerulea-Potentilla erecta mire)
  • If wet heath (M15) is overgrazed or burnt it changes into Molinia grassland (M25)
  • If heathland (H12 Calluna vulgaris-Vaccinium myrtillus heath / H8 Calluna vulgaris-Ulex gallii heath) is overgrazed or burnt it changes into poor quality wet heath (M15) or  Molinia grassland (M25)

The original restoration management prescriptions from English Nature and Nature England focused on reducing the grazing pressure and reducing burning on the mires and forbidding it on the blanket bog.  Whilst such prescriptions aided the blanket bog it was very much less successful at reducing the incidence of Molinia on the mires.

Research was therefore conducted from the late 1990s onwards to determine how Molinia could be controlled. The seminal paper on this work is Marrs et al (2004) which concluded if Molinia was to be controlled in situations where it had become dominant (the so called ‘white moors’) then a combination of herbicide application, raking off the litter, soil disturbance and re-seeding with heather was required. This experimental approach was carried out in the Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales.

Attempts have been made to mimic these experimental restoration prescriptions on moorlands in the north of England but they are expensive and have been carried out on a relatively small scale by conservation bodies using their own resources (Meade 2015). Such trials have yet to take place on Dartmoor.

On Dartmoor the approach to managing Molinia has involved local swaling techniques which if followed up by intensive spring / summer cattle grazing can reduce the dominant of Molinia. However, if the burning is followed up by sheep grazing opposed to cattle grazing the Molinia tends to increase. Molinia is a fire adapted species which benefits from burning unless the initial spring growth is reduced via cattle grazing. Such a prescription has been hard to deliver on Dartmoor as there are either insufficient numbers of cattle available or they graze in areas which haven’t been burnt and ignore the new burnt areas.

The role of aerial pollutants are also known to have impacts on vegetation in the uplands. The deleterious effect of sulphur dioxide emissions has been known for a long time in places such as the Peak District as a result of smokestack emissions which began with the Industrial Revolution. Action has been taken to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions and these have dropped dramatically since the 1970s (Caporn & Emmett 2009).

More recently attention has been turned to the role that nitrogen and its compounds might have on upland plant communities.

Brown & Farmer (1996) showed that between 1989-92 total (oxidised and reduced) nitrogen deposition exceeded critical loads on Dartmoor in 841km2 out of a total of 901.77 km2 i.e. 93.3% of the total – making it the second worst performing Natural Area in England.

Payne (2014) states that nitrogen pollution from industry and intensive agriculture is one of the greatest threats to peatland ecosystems. Whilst nitrogen deposition to peatlands is currently falling and is projected to continue to fall until 2030, the accumulation of nitrogen will continue to increase and is a ‘serious threat to British peatlands and is likely to remain so for some time.’

Caporn and Field (2015) report  on research from the Netherlands where high levels of nitrogen were linked  to the increasing cover of the competitive grasses Molinia and Deschampsia at the expense of heather Calluna vulgaris and Sphagnum species. They conclude their review by stating that ‘if nitrogen deposition has been a major factor  in the spread of Molinia, this will be difficult to reverse since the deposited nitrogen accumulates in the soil-plant system’.

Heal (2002) states that increased nitrogen deposition has led to heather growth being less vigorous and competitive when compared to grasses such as Molinia which tend to flourish better.

Worryingly Des Thompson one of the UK most respected upland ecologists said ‘Some of us are beginning to form the view that some of the grass-dominated vegetation types of the southern uplands may be the product of nitrogen deposition and heavy grazing pressures. Hence, a reduction in grazing pressures alone may not necessarily result in an improvement in habitats’ (Thompson 2002).

These problems may not just be associated with nitrogen levels. Caporn and Field (2015) state that whilst the evidence of increased nitrogen deposition supports the recent rise to dominance of Molinia both carbon dioxide (CO2) and ozone concentrations in the atmosphere are continuing to rise. CO2 levels have risen from around 320 ppm in 1960 to over 400 ppm in 2016 and show no signs of slowing down. Such an increase would be consistent ‘an immediate and significant stimulation of photosynthesis. There is very little knowledge to how Molinia responds to CO2 , but it is reasonable to speculate that the long term growth response will be increased when nitrogen availability is enhanced’.

Ozone concentrations are normally higher in rural areas when compared to nearby urban areas. Wedlich et al (2012) showed than in upland meadows in the Pennines increased ozone concentrations did not affect grasses but did significantly reduce the flower (forb) community, thus favouring the grass species.

The rise in the dominance of Molinia has had profound impacts on the biological diversity of Dartmoor,  it also has a detrimental impact on the historic environment.

Whilst the impact of aerial pollution has been well researched and whilst there is a good deal of circumstantial evidence to its role in promoting grasses such as Molinia to the detriment of heather, it would appear that basic moorland management prescriptions  and the quest for ‘favourable condition’ (Natural England’s measure of success for the management of Sites of Special Scientific Interest)  appear unmodified despite the increasing evidence to suggest that upland ecosystems may have been irreversibly modified.

With almost any given topic there is a call for more research to clarify the complexities of a situation, in this instance the role of nitrogen deposition has been known for over a decade without an appropriate policy / management response.

There is a great deal of evidence now available to suggest that a tipping point has been passed. The current management prescriptions involving reduced grazing pressures on the Commons to improve and encourage the condition for species such as heather may no longer be effective as a result of the increased levels of nitrogen, CO2 and ozone  Is a fundamental new approach is needed and is ‘favourable condition’ any longer achievable? Unless this topic is tackled farmers and conservationists are likely to fail to improve the conditions of the Commons which both groups are so desperately trying to achieve.

Averis A., Averis B., Birks J., Horsefield D., Thompson D. & Yeo M
. (2004) An Illustrated Guide to British Upland Vegetation. Joint Nature Conservation Committee. Peterborough.
Bonn A., Allott T., Hubacek K. & Stewart J. (2009) Drivers of Environmental Change in Uplands. Routledge. London.
Brown M. & Farmer A. (1996) Excess sulphur and nitrogen deposition in England’s Natural Areas. English Nature Research Reports No. 201.
Burt T.P., Thompson D.B.A. & Warburton J. (2002) The British Uplands: Dynamics of Change. Joint Nature Conservation Committee Report No. 319.
Caporn S.J.M. & Emmett B.A. (2009) Threats from air pollution and climate change to upland systems. In Bonn et al (2009) pp34-58
Caporn S. J. M., Rosenburg A. E. & Field C.D. (2015) The importance of atmospheric quality in determining upland vegetation. In Meade R. (ed) (2015) Managing Molinia. Proceedings of a 3-day conference 14-16 September 2015, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, UK. National Trust.
Chambers F.M. Mauquoy D. & Todd P. (1999) Recent rise to dominance of Molinia caerulea in environmentally sensitive areas: new perspectives from paleo ecological data. Journal of Applied Ecology 36: 719-733.
Marrs R.H., Phillips J.D.P., Todd P.A., Ghorbani J. & Le Duc M.G. (2004) Control of Molinia caerulea on upland moors. Journal of Applied Ecology 41:398-411.
Meade R. (ed) (2015) Managing Molinia. Proceedings of a 3-day conference 14-16 September 2015, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, UK. National Trust.
Payne R. J. (2014) The exposure of British Peatlands to nitrogen deposition 1900-2030. Mires and Peat volume 14, Article 04 pp1-9.
Rodwell J.S. (ed) (1991) British Plant Communities. Volume 2. Mires and heaths. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Thompson D.B.A. (2002) The importance of nature conservation in the British uplands: nature conservation and land-use changes. In Burt et al (2002) p37.
Wedlich K.V., Rintoul N., Peacock S. Cape J.N., Coyle M. Toet S, Barnes J. & Ashmore M. (2012) Effects of ozone on species composition in an upland grassland. Oecologia 168: 1137-1146
Wolton R.J., Edge S., Keddle R.M., Kendall S. & Archer R. (1994) Vegetation and Heather Condition Maps for the Commons of Dartmoor. A practical aid to their sensitive management. English Nature Report (unpublished).

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

What does Brexit mean for Dartmoor?

Yesterday in my blog I wrote about what I thought leaving the EU might mean for Cornwall – see here. Today I will have a go at discussing what Brexit might mean for Dartmoor. This is pretty complex and bewildering – you have been warned.

One might think that being adjacent to each other the Dartmoor and Cornwall stories are similar. They are not though – Cornwall is a special case. The economy of Cornwall (measured by GDP) is 62% of the national average. This means that it is one of the poorest places in Europe and as a result Cornwall was given ‘Objective 1’ status by the EU and was able to access the ‘Structural Funds’. These funds provided the millions of euros for such projects as the setting up of the University at Penryn and funding for the dualling of the A30. The Isles of Scilly are also subject to Objective 1 designation and they too have received significant Structural Fund monies for projects such as the airport expansion and the quay redevelopment.

Whilst Dartmoor’s economy is below that national average it is not so low as to warrant Objective 1 designation and as a result none of the EU Structural Fund money has come to Dartmoor. Various other EU grants have come to projects on Dartmoor, for example the Castle Drogo project received a couple of hundred thousand pounds from the Interreg scheme. There are other examples no doubt as well but none are in the same league as the Structural Fund projects.

The main source of EU funding for Dartmoor comes from the Common Agricultural Policy. This is not unique to Dartmoor it is how farming is subsidised across the UK and Europe. There are two funds – Pillar 1 funds pay farmers via the Single Payment Scheme now known as the Basic Payment Scheme based upon the area of land they look after and Pillar 2 funds are provided through schemes such as Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) now known as Countryside Stewardship – here farmers are encouraged to carry out positive management to encourage biodiversity and other environmental features.


This funding stream for Dartmoor’s farmings, landowners and environment is substantial and vital – it amounts to around £7m per annum. It is a complex and controversial process.

The Pillar 1 money – the Basic Payment Scheme is administered by the Rural Payments Agency (part of DEFRA) and this year there have been huge delays in making the payments, there are still some who haven’t received their money which was promised at Christmas. There have been Parliamentary Inquiries and it is still a mess. This has put huge and unnecessary pressure on beleaguered upland farmers. This muddle is of the UK Government’s making not the EU.

The Pillar 2 money in the Countryside Stewardship (CS), formerly known as Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) schemes is finite and has to be competed for. Priority is given to farmers who look after sites of European importance for their wildlife. On Dartmoor this means the two huge Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) – see the map below. These two large SACs are made up of many Commons and are farmed via grazing with sheep, cattle and ponies by the Commoners who have ancestral rights associated with their farms off the high moor. These Commoners and the landowners of the high moor have to come together and agree with Natural England how the moor is to be managed i.e. what will the grazing levels and swaling regimes be and then they have to haggle amongst themselves as to how the money will be split amongst them. This has proved to be very divise, it has split Dartmoor communities and led to feuds and much unhappiness.

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 21.42.47SACs on Dartmoor

There are around 120 active Commoners on Dartmoor along with a greater number of Commoners who do not exercise their rights. The stakes are very high – I know of Commoners who receive over £50k per annum from their HLS/CS schemes. There are others who receive much less or indeed nothing at all.

The process behind this has been drawn up by DEFRA / Natural England and not by the EU. It would have been much better for Dartmoor and its Commoners if a system of HLS/CS allocation had been devised which had not pitted farmer against farmer in squabbles for the money.

So the key question for the future is – will there be £7m per annum for Dartmoor’s farmers to keep them on the hills and to manage the moor’s special habitats, wildlife and archaeology?

Arms Tor and Brat Tor

The Leave campaigners have said yes, of course there will be funding for farmers once we have left – we will just have to wait and see and hope for the best. But many of these people are opposed to the green movement calling it the green blob and George Eustice has said the following “The UK could develop a more flexible approach to environmental protection free of spirit-crushing Brussels directives if it votes to leave the EU …”

I suspect one of the ‘spirit-crushing’ Directives he is referring to is the Habitats Directive. This is the very Directive which formed the network of Special Areas of Conservation to protect the habitats and species of Dartmoor (and elsewhere).

It should be noted that the selection of SACs in the UK was the responsibility of our Government and the task was carried out by Natural England with the assistance of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. The selection criteria for Dartmoor’s SACs can be viewed here.

In essence the habitats that are a primary reason for selection of Dartmoor as an SAC are:-

Northern Atlantic wet heaths with Erica tetralix
European dry heaths
Blanket bogs
Old sessile oak woods with Ilex and Blechnum

On the surface this seems straight forwards even if it is rather technically written. The Government have tasked Natural England to ensure that the country’s SACs are in favourable condition by 2020. Thus the HLS/CS funding schemes are targeted at the SACs to ensure their management is for the benefit of the wildlife.

The dismantling of the SACs / Habitats Directive following Brexit could detrimentally impact on the conservation of Dartmoor’s special places. However all is not lost as the SAC network on Dartmoor based upon the Sites of Special Scientific Interest network which is based on the UK Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 – see the map below and compare to the SAC map.

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 21.43.28SSSIs on Dartmoor

Currently the Dartmoor moorland SACs are not in favourable condition. I have written extensively about this in the past making specific mention of the National Trust’s Estate in the Upper Plym and heather – see here (the bit after George Monbiot).

However Natural England have further interpreted the SAC designation for Dartmoor, the eagle eyed of you, might have spotted in the JNCC citation that beside the Blanket bog description it also says ‘* Priority feature‘. In order to get the SAC into favourable condition it is only the priority feature which needs to be in favourable condition and not the other habitats. I have heard senior Natural England and DNPA repeat this which explains why there is now less concern from the statutory bodies regarding the state of heather on the moor.

Heathers 1

So the woes surrounding the distribution of existing monies and the arguments concerning the condition of the moor are matters controlled now by the UK Government and their agencies. If they chose so to do the funding allocation procedures could be simplified for farmers tomorrow. Additionally if Natural England chose to include all habitats that are the ‘primary reason’ for SAC selection then the circular debates that are currently taking place might also be resolved.

So the real outstanding questions are:-

1 Will the post Brexit Government allocate £7m per annum to Dartmoor farmers or will they get less?

2 What strings will be attached to these monies? Will they be their solely to support farmers or will they also be there to incentivise protecting the precious landscape, its habitats, wildlife and archaeology for others to enjoy?

Upland farmers are iconic beings and as James Rebanks has demonstrated in his book ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ they are hugely popular and respected by the public.

The Shepherd's life


In a similar vein Dartmoor as a place is loved too and any attempts to water down its protection will be met with outrage and uproar.

Nevertheless the future is very uncertain and in the overall scheme of things Dartmoor, its farmers and its natural environment may not get the attention they need when they need it.






A view from Dartmoor into Cornwall

Whitchurch Common is on the western edge of Dartmoor – it is on the top of the hill before the land plunges down to Tavistock and beyond. There is a large car park on the Common below Cox Tor and it contains a plaque which details the panorama in front of you.

Plaque - west Devon-CornwallYou can zoom in on the plaque to read the writing (i.e. double click on the image)

To help you I will transcribe the words / locations. From left to right (or if you prefer from south to north) it reads:-

Staddon Heights, Plymouth Hoe, Mount Edgecumbe, Roborough Down, Plaster Down, Tamar Bridge, Saltash, Whitchurch Common, Tamar Valley, Whitchurch Down, (Lands End 80 miles), Gunnislake, (Tamar Valley), Kit Hill, Caradon Hill, Kilmar Tor, Tavistock, Brown Willy, Launceston, Ramsdown, Brent Tor.

Panorama - west Devon-Cornwall
Here is a panorama of the view – you can double click the image to enlarge it – it includes all the places on the plaque and also includes Cox Tor on the extreme right.

Quite a view and worth a visit if your are in the area