Dartmoor Review: yes, but where’s the urgency?

Photo copyright Tony WHitehead

Dartmoor Environmental campaigner Tony Whitehead looks at the Independent Review of Protected Site Management on Dartmoor published this week and asks whether it will help nature restoration in this precious landscape … 

When I first skimmed through the Independent Review of Protected Site Management on Dartmoor that was published this week, my initial reaction was “actually, this is OK”.  Such is the lot of nature conservationists: our expectations are ever low.  Wearied by disappointment after disappointment over the lack of leadership around nature conservation in England, I always brace for the worst. When the worst is not then realised, when a few crumbs of comfort are cast off the high table, a sense of “well, it’s not as bad as it could have been” feels like a step forward.

This review is “OK”. “OK-ish”.  In parts. It says some sensible things. It says a few really good things. But after a number of readings, I’m struggling to see how it will help drive positive change for nature with the urgency that’s needed in the climate and ecological emergency – an urgency the review itself acknowledges in its very first paragraph.

The can, I fear, is being kicked down the road.

Don’t get me wrong – the analysis of the situation is not half bad – a neat summary of a complex situation. However, it was disappointing to see much of the emphasis on the failings of Natural England (NE) rather than any particular considerations of the failing of others party to environmental agreements over the years. The latter is there, but not to the fore.

For instance, the review describes how, in Natural England’s view, they were initially constrained from setting lower stocking levels that might have led to change in the overgrazed parts of the moor due to “the need to secure take-up of agreements.”  It further describes the “insufficient resource” NE has had to deploy on Dartmoor. It also recognises that Dartmoor is a challenging environment to work in because of “its strong-minded and combative farming community.” 

Read one way it could be argued that NE were not originally allowed to do their jobs, were not then given funds (a two thirds cut in budget between 2008 and 2018), and put in a combative environment. Hardly a recipe for success. Have Natural England become the scapegoats for a much wider failing in this place? One that still goes unacknowledged?

These wider failings are there in the detail of the report. Commons Associations, who manage often multi-million pound agreements, failing to communicate well with graziers with “inevitable loss of detail and explanation along the way”.  Associations who are “over-stretched in meeting their existing obligations.”

Then the Commoners’ Council whose “current structure and operation should be reviewed to identify ways of reinforcing its effectiveness”. This is polite, but begs questions. The Commoners’ Council is the body responsible for managing grazing operations on Dartmoor. It was remarkable to read that the review panel had found it “ impossible to establish, with any degree of certainty, the total number and breakdown of livestock grazing on the moor at any time.”  That seems like such a basic piece of information the Commoners Council should have – and one that the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 legally requires them to keep.

It was also interesting to read an origin for many of the moor’s issues in the review’s consideration of grazing rights.  Back in the 1960s there was a rush to register rights and then claim headage payments (the subsidy payments per head of stock farmers used to be given).  In the review’s opinion, “the overall effect of this was the creation of more grazing rights than could reasonably be accommodated on Dartmoor’s commons, removing a potential constraint on stocking numbers”.  Simply put – it allowed grazing beyond the moor’s sustainable limits, with inevitable negative consequences for the protected sites. Too many animals, of the wrong sort, in the wrong places and the wrong times of year.

No, it is way too simplistic to lay Dartmoor’s problems almost uniquely at Natural England’s door, as convenient as this may be for many on the moor.  This is a collective failure and, tragically, a failure underpinned by millions of pounds of taxpayer cash… which continues to be paid out.

So what does the review propose to sort this failure – a failure that is fully acknowledged in the single line “Dartmoor is not in a good state?” 

Photo copyright Tony Whitehead

The review makes 42 recommendations. If only 42 was genuinely the answer to “life, the universe and everything.”

First, there are a number of recommendations on “vision and governance”. To be honest, my heart sinks when I hear the word “vision”.  Visions are the relatively easy part. Goodness knows how many visions Dartmoor has had over the years.  It’s making actual change that is the issue.  We already have one decent “Moorland Vision” from way back in 2005 – which is acknowledged in the review.  If only that had been delivered, I wouldn’t be writing this now.

Reshuffling governance, too, makes me slightly queasy. The report suggests setting up a new body to oversee land management on Dartmoor.  OK, fair enough – such approaches can work (check out the Moors for the Future Partnership in the Peak/South Pennines).  But it must be run by people of action and not just become another talking shop that leads to further delay and obfuscation. It must also walk a fine line – it must be invested with some power, but it also must also know its boundaries – it should not be able to compromise or undermine the statutory duties of other agencies, primarily Natural England with their duties to enforce legislation.

What was good to see though was a suggestion about reviewing the function of the Commoners’ Council – this in my opinion is way overdue. Its purposes could be redefined and, as both Guy Shrubsole and I have suggested, it could be made a more formal statutory body and therefore have a biodiversity duty as required under the Environment Act.  This, though, would mean opening up the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985, which would also be no bad thing.

Given that the whole point of the review was to look at protected site management, it naturally made several recommendations on the Site’s of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). These at first reading appeared sensible, but are actually a little tricksy and lead to a weakening of SSSI status

It calls for the “legal structure” of SSSIs to be “simplified, but without being diluted or made less rigorous”.  If this is genuine, then great. Make them better. But then it also says, “the concept of SSSIs should be revisited”. This is deeply troubling. First, to be fair, they have been recently reviewed. And their “concept” is simply to protect nature, as required by the Wildlife and Countryside Act.  This concept does not and should not include a whole host of other things – like delivering socio-economic benefits. This needs to be super clear.  But the report states they need to be “compatible with the concept of a landscape delivering a ‘mosaic’ of public benefits”.  Again, great – they can and already do this. But we need some sort of principle here that their primary concept – nature protection – outweighs other “benefits” when there is a conflict.  Which is basically a version of the oft forgotten Sandford Principle.

However, the review also says some good things about SSSIs. It rightly asks why sites are given as “recovering” just because they are in an environmental stewardship scheme. It also talks a lot about more monitoring. For sure, this is vital. Decisions must be based on the very best science.

So it’s a bit of a mixed bag on SSSIs, with quite a few recommendations that could go either way in terms of a secure future for what should be our very best nature sites. This is of concern, not only for Dartmoor, but for all of England.

This review should not give anyone in Governmnet an excuse for overall  weakening SSSI protection or legislation – it should be used as a way to ensure the protection and appropriate management of these sites, which after all is the law. At a time when regulators such as the Environment Agency are being criticised for not stringently upholding environmental regulations, we should support and applaud Natural England in their efforts to protect England’s highest value nature sites – after all, they are only doing their job.

It’s also a bit of a mixed bag on agri-environment schemes and support for farming. The economic bits are fascinating – especially tentative figures that suggest commoners see an annual net loss of £348.90 per cow and £16.90 per ewe they put out on the moor. For every extra animal they put up there, they make a bigger net loss, that has to be picked up elsewhere.  This surely makes no sense from a purely economic perspective. 

But it could do, from an environmental perspective. At the heart of this review is the simple fact that Dartmoor’s unique environments are a product of grazing, and their future condition is therefore also inseparable from grazing. But the aim of this grazing is to produce nature, because it will never produce profit or make any significant contribution to “feeding the nation”.  It’s just not viable in that way. I was disappointed with the review’s dismissal of those (including myself) who suggested the role of farmers on Dartmoor needs to be reframed – that farming in this place is primarily about nature. This does not make farmers, in the dismissive tones of the review “park keepers” – it just makes it clear what their role is.

In respect of this I found this line fascinating:

“… society’s expectations are increasing and growing ever more complicated. Dartmoor’s farmers need to understand the social contract they are being offered.”

Another bottom line – without taxpayer support it is highly unlikely farming will continue on Dartmoor. The taxpayer – society – has growing expectations that nature will be restored. That’s worth paying for.  That’s a key element of the contract that’s on offer here.

Crucially, society must get value for our hard-earned money. There are numerous recommendations in the review that ostensibly set out to ensure this. In particular, there is an idea for a Dartmoor-wide scheme to ensure there is a holistic view of management across the protected sites.  This would be interesting, and may iron out the age-old problems of animals straying from one common to another, thus messing up carefully calculated grazing schedules (the sheep themselves have little knowledge of these and sort of go where they want – despite the much referenced “leers”!). But such a scheme would be huge and complex – which is fine, it’ll be doable with will and ambition – but it would also likely be very, very expensive.  The last agreement on just the Forest Common alone cost the taxpayer £13M over ten years.

At that level of expenditure, the taxpayer – you and I – are going to want some cast iron guarantees that: a) it will lead to positive change and quickly; and b) the people delivering it, the commoners, are actually up to the job.

Also – it is crucial that, like SSSIs, it is understood that agri-environmnet schemes are there to restore nature and nothing else. To do this they need to be managed by Natural England and not, as the review suggests, have bodies such as Historic England and the Rural Payments Agency given a higher profile “pro-active role” in their management. 

Without these guarantees then this is simply more money wasted and in five years’ time I’ll be writing this same article again.  And this is my fear here. Already we see confirmed that money will continue to flow to farmers and commoners in existing schemes without requirement for change while the Government reviews the review. Then, if recommendations are accepted, we’ll have time to set up the new Dartmoor-wide board. Then more deliberation. More “visioning” and so on and so forth. And all the while the money keeps flowing and nothing changes. Cynical?  Maybe.  But this is Dartmoor.

However – let’s not finish on such a gloomy note.  There was one thing in the report that gave rise to a small cheer, the acknowledgement that the “absolute top priority for Dartmoor is improving its hydrology and re-wetting its blanket bogs.”   Totally and 100 per cent. The current cash for restoration runs out in 2025; more is needed. I found the idea of the MoD chipping in fascinating, given the cost of checking for UXBs when working up on the high moor is a key reason why the work is so expensive (albeit the benefits outweigh the costs). The polluter must pay.

Given that so much of Dartmoor is blanket bog, this is a central element in Dartmoor’s future. This is an internationally important habitat with huge intrinsic value. And don’t forget – restoring the blanket bog will also reduce the Molinia dominance, reduce flood risk downstream, lead to cleaner water and reduce fire risk.   It should be an absolute “no-brainer”.  Get it restored, all of it!

It was also good to see reference to the potential for more woodlands and woodpasture in the valleys.  Extending the fragments of temperate rainforest would be amazing – and hugely welcomed by the public.

In conclusion then – the review is a useful summary of where we are at. It says some good things, but its lack of urgency is a real problem. If enacted, many of the recommendations could see years more delay and no change, while taxpayers money remains being spent on propping up marginal businesses and environmental damage.

There’s a lot of environmental ambition on Dartmoor: a lot of great farmers and nature conservationists with the right skills to deliver real change at speed. In some areas this is seen in the ambitious new Landscape Recovery Schemes in in East Dartmoor, Central Dartmoor and the Walkham Valley. We’d go a way to restoring nature on Dartmoor if we simply had a more of these schemes.

But our national network of precious SSSIs is enshrined and protected in law as the most basic building block of our nature conservation in England – it is essential that we get these right, before looking to how nature joins them up across the landscape.

There’s a real prize to be won here. We have a wider public who are desperate to see a wilder, nature-rich Dartmoor. And we can do this. If we properly resource Natural England. If we support ambitious farmers and others with a passion for Dartmoor. Backed up by the best science, coupled with strong regulation to ensure standards. Positive change is long overdue in this place. We need it now.