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.


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 By mpiet ( (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 de (, 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).


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].


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

[2] You Tube video of his presentation

[3] See here for example

[4] For example his talk at Exeter University entitled Rewilding Well on 14th January 2016 was packed with enthusiastic supporters

[5] Scorched Earth Conservation

[6] Bonfire of the Verities

[7] Burning peatland and the complexity of socio-ecological systems.

[8] A day with George Monbiot




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.

The battle for Hillyfield

Hillyfield is a 45 acre woodland on the southern edge of Dartmoor, it was bought in 2010 by Doug King-Smith who is in the process of bringing this semi-derelict woodland back to life. He and his family have begun the task of managing this woodland using eco-friendly sustainable principles, felling the Phytophthora infected larch trees, promoting native broadleaves and selling them for timber and firewood to organisations such as the National Trust. He has gone to long lengths to make this a community based project involving local people in the dying art of traditional woodland management and the ancient crafts associated with it.


In order to achieve these objectives there is a need for some infrastructure i.e. a few buildings to store equipment, a wood drying barn, a small kitchen to feed the volunteers in and a yurt to shelter them along with a couple of compost toilets. The Dartmoor National Park Authority have taken exception to this and have issued enforcement orders to remove them thus jeopardising the entire future of the project.

As a result Hillyfield has been forced to organise a crowd-funding campaign to pay for a barrister to fight the DNPA – see here. The irony is that the DNPA supports sustainable woodland management and therefore ought to be helping the Hillyfield project and not threatening its very existence. To add insult to injury the ‘contentious’ structures are only visible to those who are actually in the wood.

The campaign is supported by a number of influential people such as the Totnes visionary and founder of the Transition movement Rob Hopkins, Rob Penn the author of the excellent book “The man who made things out of trees” and Rupert Lane who is now an independent forestry consultant and was formerly the DNPA’s forest advisor.

2 primrose flowers


On Sunday this story was featured in the Observer – see here and previously my friend and fellow Dartmoor commentator Matthew Kelly (the author of Quartz and Feldspar) has written in support of the King-Smiths – see here.

This link gives advice for small woodland owners on planning issues – see here and to be honest what the King-Smiths want to do should be possible. If the DNPAs own internal guidance and policies won’t allow it then the DNPA need to re-visit their own policies because Hillyfield is the actual on the ground embodiment of what they actually want to see happen in the National Park.

I urge you to support the Hillyfield campaign and their crowd-funding appeal – follow this link.

The DNPA is in grave danger of creating a national park conserved in aspic celebrating an era of abandonment which I know is the opposite of what they really want. It is time for flexibility, some sensible interpretation of policies, compromise and shared goals and not a battle royal which will ruin reputations and waste everyone’s time and money.


My news

After working for the National Trust for 18 years, 11 on Dartmoor and 7 at Wicken Fen I have decided to leave and work for myself. I have thoroughly enjoyed working for the Trust – it is a fabulous organisation and one I love dearly but now it is time for a change.

I am very proud of a number of the things I had been involved with over the years, I was the architect of the Wicken Fen Vision, I led the team that raised the money and sorted out the governance for the Castle Drogo restoration project and I led the team that put the Fingle Woods partnership with the Woodland Trust together.

Yesterday many of my colleagues and friends both within the NT and from outside came to Parke for my leaving do. Thank you all for coming. I also received a number of leaving presents.

JW Oil beetles
This is a painting by the Dartmoor artist and naturalist John Walters of oil beetles – I absolutely love it

DNPA photoKevin Bishop, the Chief Executive of the DNPA very kindly presented me with this photograph of Pew Tor

MO bookAnd Matthew Oates sent me a signed copy of his book – In pursuit of butterflies

Thank you also to my colleagues Toby, Mick, Philip and James who said a few words summing up my time with the Trust – much appreciated. Thank you also to Philip Broadbent Yale – my old line manager from Wicken who travelled a long way to come and say goodbye.

I will be staying in Devon, I will continue to write this blog, I will become an NT volunteer (I will remain as the NT Team Manager for our 10 Tors team) and I will continue to work for Devon and Dartmoor’s wildlife and wild places.

I officially leave at the end of the month and after that I will set up a little consultancy which I hope will also help with conserving and protecting our special places and species for people and prosperity.



The Spending Review and Dartmoor

Earlier in the week the Chancellor George Osborne presented his spending review – a hugely important speech as it sets out how Government money will be spent over the next 5 years.

Our commitment to farming and the countryside is reflected in the protection of funding for our national parks and for our forests. We’re not making that mistake again….

A reference  to the backlash the last Government faced when it tried to sell of the Forest Estate. I think it also shows that the Government acknowledges the huge public support for the countryside and as a result has singled it out for special treatment.

On the face of it it looks like the environment has done a great deal better than we had all been fearing. At one point it looked like DEFRA was going to receive a 32% cut in its budget up to 2020. It turned out to be a ‘mere’ 15%. In addition the budget settlements for National Parks, AONBs and the Forestry Commission have been ring fenced for 5 years i.e. there will be no cuts to their funding. This is very welcome and is good news. In addition the Environment Agency’s flood defence budget is also protected – let’s hope that flood defence also includes ‘up stream’ solutions such as holding water higher up in catchments rather than only relying on dredging and new infrastructure.


However the future of Natural England is less certain – they are a hugely important organisation overseeing our protected places and species. They will be subject to cuts on top of the savage ones they have already seen. Natural England is a shadow of its former self and predecessor organisations (e.g. The Nature Conservancy Council). Without a strong NE conserving special places on Dartmoor will be much more difficult for everyone else such as the Dartmoor National Park Authority and the National Trust.

Much of this is positive but often with announcements such as this, the devil is in the detail and the detail tends to emerge in drips and splashes over an extended period of time. Yesterday I was at the Dartmoor Forum organised by the DNPA and during the questions session I asked Kevin Bishop their Chief Executive what he thought the Spending Review meant for Dartmoor. He was clearly very relieved with the news as he had been preparing for deep cuts of up to 40%. He also said that the settlement gave stability for 5 years which meant the Authority could forward plan. He did comment that the announcement didn’t say that the DNPA was protected only that National Park budgets were. A couple of National Parks have been extended in size so maybe they might get a bit more money at the expense of those that have remained as they are. Kevin also commented that DEFRA had suggested that all National Parks would know their budgets before Christmas. Lets see what happens next!

Dartmoor during the First World War

A new exhibition has started at the DNPA’s Princetown Visitor Centre entitled ‘Dartmoor life in the the First World War’. The exhibition has been put together by the Dartmoor Trust – rather than talking about the battles in France and Belgium the exhibition describes what impact the war had on Dartmoor – how farming changed, where hospitals were set up, conscientious objectors etc.

Princetown 1Princetown’s Visitor Centre

Princetown 5Kitchener calling you in

Princetown 2A number of panels make up the exhibition

Princetown 4 There is a panel on the impact of the War on the building of Castle Drogo

Princetown 3A bit  also on the role people in Widecombe played collecting moss to treat wounds – the shell is outside the NT’s Church House


The exhibition also makes a plea for more information or photographs to help fill some of the gaps in our knowledge about Dartmoor in WW1. We are still trying to find out more about Major Hole of Parke  in World War 1 – see here for further details – can you help?

You might also be interested to know that there are a couple of WW1 exhibition rooms at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter – one of recruiting posters and the other on facial reconstructive surgery.

A visit to Fingle Woods with the National Park Authority

Yesterday Dave Rickwood from the Woodland Trust and I spent the morning at Fingle Woods with the Dartmoor National Park Authority explaining how we jointly manage the woods for wildlife and people.

Fingle 1A bit of mist in the Gorge

Fingle 2So many different colours

Fingle 3Dave Rickwood – in the centre (Woodland Trust) with Peter Harper on the left (Chair of the Dartmoor National Park Authority) and Kevin Bishop on the right (Chief Executive of the DNPA) in Cod Wood

It was a good opportunity for us to show the DNPA what we have been up to since we bought Fingle Woods and well as explaining what our plans for the future are.

It is also interesting to note that between the Woodland Trust and the National Trust we have invested around £17m into the local economy at Fingle Woods and Castle Drogo over the past couple of years! That’s a lot of work for lots of people as well as a boost for a lot of existing local businesses.

Fingle 5Management work has started this winter – the conifer stands are being thinned

Fingle 4Amongst the conifers there are a lot of old broadleaved trees waiting to see the sun again

Fingle 6Weir on the River Teign in Fingle Woods

Great photo of the 10 commandments stone

Back in July this year I did a post about the 10 commandments stone at Buckland Beacon – see here. Despite the stone having been restored in recent years the writing was still quite hard to read. The other day I was in the office of the Dartmoor National Park Authority when I saw a photograph of the stones taken in 1928 by WA Clements after he had finished the sculpting. The quality of the picture is fantastic and if you zoom in on the photo you can read all the words including Clement’s 11th commandment.

10 commandmentsTaken by WA Clements, the sculptor, on completion of the works in 1928
– provided by kind permission of the Dartmoor National Park Authority

10 commandments-backHere is the back of the photo – stating it was donated to the DNPA in 2006 by Mrs Daisy Allen – a friend of WA Clements

A special photograph!