An independent voice and a forum for debate for those who find Dartmoor a source of livelihood or inspiration

Shovel Down Double Stone Row obscured by Molinia in April 2015Dartmoor Society Debate 2016: Return of the Wildwood? – Is Rewilding the Future for Dartmoor?

29th October 2016

One hundred and fifteen members and non-members of the Society packed into Meldon village hall.

Chairman Matthew Kelly, Professor of History at Northumbria University, began by saying that ‘rewilding’ was contentious as a term and one that conjures many different assumptions, both reasonable and false, but that the core purpose of the day was to generate greater understanding and to share different points of view. Dartmoor is highly complex, with many different interests, and a rich and varied community. No single group has a moral monopoly.

He reminded the audience of the Meldon Reservoir and Okehampton Bypass issues which divided people. He considers that rewilding reignites the tension between national preservation as represented by national parks and the perceived needs of local people.

Dr Robert Cook, Lecturer in Education for Sustainability, University of Plymouth: ‘Just How Wild Should We Be?’

With a background in teaching environmental science, Robert has a PhD on Social Change & Sustainability in Ladakh.

He began by stating that we are in the midst of the Great Extinction. The biosphere is suffering enormously. We have got to restore the world to something that is sustainable. The State of Nature Report 2016 reveals the continuing reduction of biodiversity within the UK. Agriculture and climate change are the main factors.

Within the UK there is a proliferation of organisations motivated to conserve the environment and wildlife. Why are these not succeeding? Is the public really interested? Are the objectives of the organisations too narrow? In the media priority is generally given to economic growth rather than decline in natural diversity. Objectives tend to be short term.

Might megafauna be introduced back into the environment? The idea comes from the USA. Robert showed a film, introduced by George Monbiot, of wolves in Yellowstone National Park which were reintroduced in 1995. Deer moved away from the areas where they were predated. There was a massive increase in tree growth, the flow of rivers was changed, soil erosion was stabilised, and the diversity of vegetation increased.

Rewilding is a process to make the environment more robust and less vulnerable to change, facilitating ecosystems to work properly and be more diverse. Robert drew attention to projects described on the Rewilding Britain website and highlighted the restoration of a chalk stream in the Wandle Valley in south London, Wild Ennerdale in Cumbria; and the 3,500-acre Knepp Castle Estate in West Sussex.

It is vital to get the public on board. Shifting Baseline Syndrome raises questions of perception of what is normal for each generation. Dartmoor is a wasteland compared with what it could be ecologically.

Experiencing nature, which has a spiritual dimension – being part of something bigger than oneself – has great benefits. There is much to learn from Steward Community Woodland near Moretonhampstead, as a means to discuss sustainability, and as a transformative experience.

Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) said, ‘In wildness is the preservation of the world’.

In thanking him, Matthew Kelly singled out that, apparently, despite a huge investment nationally in conservation, there has been surprisingly minimal benefit. He also drew attention to Nature Deficit Disorder due to lack of connection with the natural world – which makes people unhappy or leads to behavioural problems.

Ann Willcocks, Dartmoor farmer and member of the Dartmoor Commoners’ Association: ‘Why Bother?’

From the age of 14 she worked on a dairy farm, as a shepherdess in various parts of the UK, and for the Royal Agricultural Society of England. She married into the ‘amazing’ Dartmoor Willcocks family who have links with Blackaton Manor, Widecombe.

She is passionate about common land and livestock on the commons. The Erme valley is a grazed and beautiful landscape, made by farming, and producing the best and highest quality grass-fed beef and lamb. There is an amazing mix of natural grassland. Every farmer farms differently. ‘We give you that diversity’.

Dartmoor used to be used for summer grazing. The Commons Act 1965 changed the face of Dartmoor. Excessive rights were registered, for 145,000 sheep, 33,000 cattle and 12,330 ponies. Out of 1,583 registrations there are probably only 120 active grazing commoners on Dartmoor.

In the UK cultivated land has decreased by 550,000 ha between 1998–2007. Pasture has increased by 295,000 ha. Broad-leaved mixed woodland has increased by 94,000 ha. Semi-natural grassland has increased by 155,000 ha. Pasture and semi-natural grassland is about 40% of UK. 11.6% of UK is urban. We forget how rural our landscape is.

Agri-environment schemes and ESAs (Environmentally Sensitive Areas) in the past 20 years have changed everything. The schemes restrict what we do, and split the community apart. Deals were done behind closed doors. Common rights were never meant to have a monetary value. The income is welcome but damages social cohesion and the landscape. Stocking levels are 10-15% of what they could be.

£3.5 million comes into Dartmoor through subsidy but it filters out into the community – tractor engineer, the man who trims the feet of cows, the fencing contractor, the vet, etc.

At a Molinia Conference in Huddersfield 96 people attended, of whom 3 were farmers, 5 were gamekeepers and all the rest were ‘land managers’. We have ‘too many Chiefs and are running out of Indians’.

What do we want from rewilding? We can have our wild places but not quite as wild as some would like.

A sense of place is vital. Farming is the web across Dartmoor that pulls people together, the glue that makes a place. ‘The people around you make it home. We have that on Dartmoor.’ A commoner interviewed as part of her recent Master’s degree, said, ‘We have been in this place for 20 years. Only on the next door farm before that. My father was born on the next door farm from that. My great-great-great grandfather lived here before that, and they were here for 200 years before that. So it came up for sale 20 years ago and we had to buy it back. We were only one farm away’.

Medieval and other Dartmoor farmers made it work in the past. ‘If it goes pear-shaped we’ll adapt’.

It is important that others respect the perspective of an amazing social history of common land and commoning. Indigenous people and the knowledge that they have must be safeguarded. Too often we hear, ‘We need to educate farmers’. Knowledge needs to be shared.

There could be some rewilding. John Lawton’s report of 2010, Making Space for Nature – a review of England’s wildlife sites and ecological networks, suggested that rewilding was part of a suite of options, and stated that reintroducing charismatic ‘flagship’ species was a possibility. Go along steady. It is a dynamic landscape. It changes if you put trees on it. Golden plovers don’t like molinia. Don’t spoil it. Look after it. Moderation is best, bringing the community with you. ‘We do not want to be the ones that break the spell, the precious link we have inherited with the Dartmoor soil.’

Discussion (summaries)

John Green, District Councillor in South Hams: Rewilding is great for tourism on a small-scale. How best to engage with commoners?

AW: it comes down to respect and appreciation of what we do and what we have delivered. Hill farmers have been talked over, and left out of negotiations and discussions. We need a shared vision and dialogue, not dictatorship. Farmers need to be listened to, tapping into their extensive knowledge, so that there is understanding of why we do things, and of the learing of sheep and the movement of livestock.

MK: The Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 was ‘an extremely difficult political trick to pull off’, which the late Ian Mercer achieved.

Graham Palmer, Sheepstor farmer: what do commoners think of rewilding? And where did rewilding originate from?

MK: power, where does it lie, how is it exercised, who has it? Who pays the piper? Farmers by and large implement government policy.

Graham Burton (Director, Moor Trees): Moor Trees is a voluntary organisation with no power. People invite us to plant trees and 6,000–8,000 trees are planted each year. Have produced a vision for Dartmoor. Perhaps manage stock in a slightly different way. Not one solution for all of Dartmoor. Perhaps just 10% could be set aside for rewilding.

Kirsten Peake, animal behaviourist, and wolf expert: Studies wolf behaviour in America. Cannot possibly think of wolves on Dartmoor or the UK, all of which is unsuitable – it is ‘totally unfair on the wolf’. All the wolves in Robert Cook’s video of Yellowstone are now dead, and it takes more than 20 years for forests to regenerate. Wolves need huge areas. The 2.2 million acres of Yellowstone National Park contain just over 100 wolves.

Lisa Schneidau: An ecologist by training, she has been working in conservation for 20 years and now works for the Devon Wildlife Trust on the Northern Devon Nature Improvement Area. A lowland context and a 3-year programme. Working with farmers, landowners and communities to try to get more nature back on the land in the context of profitable farming businesses. ‘My god we have all learnt a lot’. Advice has been given to 300 landowners (21% of landowners in the catchment), and 1,500 ha of wildlife habitat have been restored. Doesn’t agree with the notion that nature conservation is failing us. If nature conservation hadn’t been around for 40 years we’d have a much worse scenario. It’s better to ask, ‘Why is our current land management system failing nature?’ Takes issue with AW’s comment about chiefs and Indians. Landowners are very, very privileged and are the real chiefs. Many people have no say and would like to have some. Potential for open dialogue and shared vision.

MK: There is an acute sense of envy towards landowners. Farmers may be cash poor but are capital rich. Land is in the control of a very small number of people.

Derek Gow: involved with rewilding for 10-15 years, he farms near Broadwoodwidger. Worked for 20 years with Eurasian beavers. We could live with them v. easily and they bring a much richer ecology to riparian landscapes which are relatively dead without them. Lots of water voles, frogs and insects are good. He mentioned successful beaver management in Franconia (Germany). Without any doubt beavers filter out pesticides etc, and prevent silting.

Charlie Radcliffe: how do beavers relate to salmon and trout?

Derek Gow: there’s a perception that beavers are detrimental to these fish, but this is probably wrong. Giraldus Cambrensis mentioned their coexistence as long ago as the 12th century, on the River Teifi.

Roselle Angwin : as a writer and workshop leader, she explores how to immerse oneself in the natural world. Our major problem is that we think the planet has been put here for our benefit, and forget that we are part of an enormous community, a web of interdependence. We need to think ecocentrically not anthropocentrically.

Inga Page, Dartmoor walking guide: Beauty issue comes up a lot. Very much in eye of beholder. Personally doesn’t care for stretches of molinia + bog cotton. Always goes somewhere where there are trees with insects and birdsong. What is best for the planet? Trees bring diversity and abundance.

Rob Macklin: worked for RSPB for 30 years. What if funding is cut? Scrub is a very important habitat. RSPB has prevented ring ouzels becoming extinct on Dartmoor.

MK: burning hasn’t been mentioned. Contentious. Conservationists seem to have changed attitudes. DNPA seems less keen than it was.

Lot Sutcliffe, retired farmer, landowner, forester: Lives at Hexworthy. Is the increase in world population matched by the decrease in species? No one wants to address this.

Janet Cotter (Moor Trees): Is there scope for a more mixed landscape?

AW: Very impressed with N. Devon Nature Improvement Area – amazing. On her own common – 1,600 ha, 50 commoners, 7 active graziers, 5 landowners – all want a little bit and have different visions. Land managers also have a different vision. All have a duty of care. We commoners deliver the landscape. It took 2 years to get an agreement at a cost of £15,000 for a facilitator. If one person who has a majority of rights says no, the scheme doesn’t go ahead, and money doesn’t come into the community.

We’ve planted trees in three ‘exclosures’ as commoners – holly, hawthorn, hazel, oaks etc. Corvids sit on the trees and pick off ground nesting chicks!

Measurable achievable objectives are needed, not looseness. Her farm has 200 ha with rights for 317 livestock units. Belted Galloways suit the conditions. Sheep numbers have been cut right back. We’d do whatever government policy requires. None of us know the future. Farming has turned around and changed. Common rights are bigger than us – amazing, unbelievable, historic rights. SSSIs are the control.

Robert Cook: too much isolated opinion. Trophic cascade effect of the introduction of one animal is far greater than people anticipate. Complexity. Not much time. Correct about population. Ehrlich’s formula of Environmental Impact = Population × Affluence × Technology. It’s how we live – the world can’t maintain it. 

MK: NB the law of unintended consequences. There are relics on Dartmoor of earlier attempts to ‘improve’ the moor. Change involves risk.

Peter Taylor, Wildland Research Institute, University of Leeds and Ethos Consultancy: ‘The Ethos of Wildland’

An environmental activist/thinker/writer since the 1970s. A genuinely pioneering figure and a trained zoologist.

Fifteen years ago Peter mapped areas that might be rewilded in UK national parks, including 15,000 hectares of southern Dartmoor (Beyond Conservationa wildland strategy, Earthscan, 2005, Plate 4). Dartmoor is rich culturally and archaeologically, and has key activities such as forestry and commoning. Got to get everybody on board. Rewilding is now a kind of campaign and has become contentious. Many tried to avoid this by talking to people on the ground. It should be a social movement, a cultural movement, a change of consciousness, and different to the media presentation of it.

The British Association of Nature Conservationists has been working on rewilding since the 1990s and has published extensively (see its journal ECOS and their book Rewilding (ed. Peter Taylor, Ethos 2011).

Rewilding involves

Why would we want to rewild? What are we missing? Spirituality is important. Indigenous people have something to teach us. Consciousness is key. Rewilding must come from local communities upwards. Need to get to know the community and their culture and how old it is. If people are not receptive, go away. ‘Nobody has got through the barrier of commoners’.

Alan Watson Featherstone, founder of Trees for Life, and much else, is responsible for the ethos of rewilding. Trees for Life have bought 10,000 acres of the Dundreggan Estate and aim to restore the Caledonian Forest. Fencing against deer not sheep.

Three National Wildland Areas are being promoted – in Scotland (Glen Affric), Wales (Rhinog, Snowdonia) and England (Ennerdale, Cumbria). Peter drew attention to several other projects from Scotland to the Cambridge Fens where a wildlife corridor into the city is being created. Essex Wildlife Trust is exploring managed retreat in coastal areas; elsewhere rivers are being rewilded through sustainable catchment management (e.g. River Kilburn), and Sussex Wildlife Trust is developing Weald woodland networks.

Belted Galloways thrive in woodland. At Neroche near Taunton there are now longhorn cattle in the forest. Heather and rowan come back if you exclude sheep. The Exmoor Pony is a national treasure.

In Holland aurochs have been back bred, but there are issues re winter feeding, starvation, bull fighting etc. Wolves are recolonising parts of Europe. Slovenian bears have been translocated. Wild boar are tolerated. The Iberian lynx (10kg) is ideal – it eats rabbits and fox cubs and small deer – but was never indigenous to Britain.

‘You couldn’t find a less harmful creature than the beaver.’

Successful reintroductions in UK include sea eagles, red kite, and great bustard. But beware rhododendron and Japanese knotweed. Also note we are in the ‘Monbiotic Era’, which argues that we should get rid of farms, communities, and rewild. Renewable energy is a potential threat to wild landscapes.

Shifts in consciousness are needed, and a ‘wilder education’ with storytelling, music, poetry, dance, rites of passage and shamanism (see The Spirit of Rewilding – steps towards a shamanic ecology by Peter Taylor, 2016).

Tom Greeves, cultural environmentalist: ‘8,000 Years of Human Presence on Dartmoor – the Elephant in the Room’

Those of you who have experienced Dartmoor in all seasons and a wide range of meteorological conditions will recognise its essential quality of ‘wildness’, sharing with John Hooker, writing more than 400 years ago, the view that the tinners on the high moor go ‘so nere the weather’ that nobody can live ‘nerer’ than they do. Thanks to recent high quality work by Dr Ralph Fyfe and colleagues analysing peat cores which contain the vegetational and climatic story of Dartmoor stretching over 10,000 years, i.e. since the end of the last Ice Age, the emerging picture is an oxymoron of constant change. As temperatures rose, woodland slowly spread almost to the highest points of Dartmoor. This woodland was then modified by anthropogenic interventions, by burning and clearing, first for creating hunting zones of grassland and then for domesticated grazing animals and ultimately cultivation. By about 2500 BC (4500 years ago) the landscape was already highly complex in cultural terms and dotted with numerous man-made features (cairns and stone rows for example, some of which were already 1,000 years old) with some areas seemingly set aside for sacred/religious purposes. But it may be that the whole landscape was considered ‘sacred’ in some sense i.e. a place where ancestors had a presence and which perhaps guided you to other worlds, or other ways of behaving.

We can be more confident about how it might have appeared vegetationally – the highest zone, perhaps above 500m, was dominated by heather moorland. Below that, between about 500m and 400m seems to have been a zone of primarily hazel and oak woodland, with some alder, probably more like wood pasture than thick impenetrable forest, and so suitable for grazing animals. Below 400m (1,200 ft), roughly corresponding to the moor edge of today was, in the drier parts, the upper limit of enclosed land i.e. fields used for growing crops (rye and beans, for example) and defined by what we now called reaves. Within this zone were numerous settlements of circular buildings used as dwellings, storehouses or specialist functions such as dairying or weaving. Elsewhere, in areas less suitable for crops, were large circular enclosures which we know as pounds, often containing house sites, but also presumably a safe space for livestock which might be threatened by wolf, lynx or bear. In the valley bottoms was woodland, full of life-sustaining resources, as were the major rivers themselves. Latest research suggests that it was not until the last few centuries BC that there was a final phase of woodland clearance, when the open moorland and landscape, with which we are so familiar, became established and maintained by a system of common grazing. So, Dartmoor as we know it, has existed roughly for 2,500 years or 100 generations, but probably with 200 generations of continuous human presence before that and 100 generations of at least occasional occupation before that, as is evidenced from microlithic flint tools used by Mesolithic hunters (see image) maybe as much as 10,000 years ago. Most of Britain could reveal a similar story in terms of the length of human presence, but Dartmoor, as we shall see, has special cultural qualities.

Within this prehistoric landscape there were undoubtedly bears and wolves. A bearskin dating to 1700 BC was recently recovered from a cist grave at Whitehorse Hill. In the early 8th century AD a wolfpit is mentioned not far from the northern edge of Dartmoor as a boundmark in a Saxon charter. Another boundmark is ‘wolf coomb head’ somewhere near Bow, and a ‘wolf spring head’, is mentioned near West Alvington in the South Hams. J C Bellamy writing in 1839 believed the wolf became extinct on Dartmoor in the 16th century; and the bear in the 11th century. Others will dispute these dates, but there is no doubt that these creatures once existed symbiotically with humans, and Baring-Gould included a tame wolf in his medieval tale of Guavas the Tinner.

I don’t think we have any evidence that at some time in the past the populations of most wild creatures were less abundant than they are now. In other words, there seems to have been a progressive decline in the abundance of creatures. But we can’t assume this has been continuous through time and do not know when the decline began. Even in the early 19th century, writers were drawing attention to what they perceived as a decline.

Dr Edward Moore, writing of south Devon in 1830, said, ‘....many birds, which formerly existed in great numbers here, are now seldom to be met with, or have entirely disappeared; the Egret and the Crane are become almost unknown...the Kite forty years ago was very common, but now I cannot find a specimen in any collection in the county...our rivers formerly abounded in Wild Duck and Teal; but these are considerably diminished in number; – the causes may doubtless be ascribed to the increased population, drainage of marshes, or the systematic pursuit of wild fowl for the table, and probably most of all to the usual mildness of our winters’. Of the ring ouzel or Michaelmas bird (p.300) he writes: ‘they build on the borders of Dartmoor, where they have been seen to enter holes in the rocks...I am informed by George Leach, esq. that he has shot great numbers of them on the moor, during the summer’.

 I myself knew someone, born in 1883, who shot a Blackcock in the Postbridge area around 1900, and Donald Smith, lodging at Soussons in the late 1920s, told me of the regular winter shooting of Golden Plovers then.

In 1860 there was a Parliamentary Inquiry into Salmon Fisheries. On the Dart, a ‘very great decline’ in salmon was attributed to ‘the enormous extent of poaching in the higher branches of the river’, primarily by spearing, ‘principally in the evening with lights’. ‘I have been informed that fish thus caught are offered to the governor of Dartmoor prison, and every day they are offered openly for sale on the Moor’. Totnes Weir was also blamed.

On the Erme ‘salmon were taken much more frequently many years since than they are now’. The paper mills releasing gas-tar and bleach at Ivybridge and constant poaching were blamed.

The rivers Tavy and Walkham were affected by effluent from copper mines. ‘Poaching by spears is universal on the Plym, the Walkham, and all those rivers’. Another witness commented, ‘I remember when the little Torey brook was full of sea-fish, more especially salmon, peal and truff’ – clayworks were the cause of decline.

‘The Yealm many years ago abounded in splendid salmon’ – the paper mill at Leigh was blamed for decline. ‘Our population is increasing, and our food in this neighbourhood has certainly diminished of late years’. On the R. Teign ‘about 25 years ago there used to be a great deal of salmon caught between Teignmouth and Chudleigh – now ‘very little caught’ due to poaching, hutches at mill leats and discharge from Wheal Exmouth lead mine. One witness who had known the river for more than half a century, said, ‘Fifty years ago [c.1810] ten or eleven times I went out and caught 360 common trout in a day by the rod and line; I tried up the Teign last year, and I hooked seven trout in the same water’. He blamed mine effluent.

In contrast, the R. Avon was said to be ‘full of salmon in the greatest abundance’ especially in November ‘On Sunday at this time of year [December] in the course of three or four miles, you may meet with 10 or 20 fellows spearing salmon’. On ‘the Bovey water the salmon are abundant still...at all times you are sure of taking a dish of fish in the Bovey water’.

The first and only (?) zoological maps of Dartmoor were prepared by J C Bellamy in 1839 in his Natural History of South Devon. He was not a skilled cartographer but his maps are of interest nonetheless. 

In the Dartmoor region we have a wonderful diversity of trees, much of it ancient woodland. What is striking is that in the 21st century we appear to have many more trees than existed 100 years ago or 150 years ago, in valleys and on hedges (stonewalled or others). Old photographs show this quite dramatically. Interestingly, this contrasts with messages about the loss of woodland applied to the UK as a whole. But the important thing for Dartmoor is to sustain our existing woodlands, but this of course requires cultural management. This accords with the fact that our woodlands are not just natural repositories – they are the product of centuries of management in a symbiotic relationship between wild creatures and humans. There are those striving to achieve similar balances today such as the Steward Community Woodland near Moretonhampstead or Hillyfield Wood near South Brent.

As it happens, Dartmoor has undergone a process of partial rewilding in the past 20 years or so, as a result of the policies of English Nature and their successor Natural England. On many of the commons up to 80% of the grazing livestock have already been required to be removed. But this has not been a happy tale – the outcome was intended to be the reappearance of heather, itself an attractive but ecologically doubtful plant according to the late Ian Mercer. Instead we have mostly gorse and kneehigh or higher grasses (especially molinia), and, in many areas, the first stages towards the reappearance of woodland (both deciduous and coniferous). Besides causing serious difficulties for graziers, walkers, horseriders, researchers, and parish boundbeaters, this growth has obscured vast areas of archaeologically sensitive features. One of the most disheartening aspects of the conservation movement since the Second World War has been its failure to promote a balance between the natural and cultural environment. Philosophy and policy has been strongly and irrationally weighted towards the natural environment. This has strongly influenced attitudes towards the countryside, with many people seemingly seeing it as an attractive ‘natural’ backdrop to a motorway drive. Until the Environment Act of 1995 National Parks did not even have a primary purpose that included conservation and enhancement of cultural heritage and, despite this legislation, cultural heritage remains very much a minor player – how else could a body have been created called Natural England which excluded English Heritage?

For Dartmoor the imbalance is perhaps best exemplified through Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) created for North and South Dartmoor in 1952 and East Dartmoor in 1976 and designated for nature conservation reasons alone. Even after 65 years these SSSIs are in poor condition according to Natural England’s own criteria, with only 16% favourable and 83% in ‘unfavourable recovering’ state. Had these been designated Sites of Special Cultural Interest, which they equally deserved, their condition in the mid-1970s and 1980s would have been generally registered as very favourable, thanks to the grazing pressure of those times which revealed so much of our archaeological heritage. Dartmoor was then a wondrously varied mosaic of different ecozones and climates. That part of it which is moorland is now precariously managed by just 175 families – a rare species occupying a special ecological niche. These are the hill farmers.

We must look beyond Dartmoor to find the causes of any decline of species. For migratory birds (such as cuckoos) we need to know what is happening in their winter habitats and along their flight paths. It is surely due to disturbance and loss, or pollution of, habitat for breeding or food source.?

But much bigger issues loom – especially population pressures combined with consumption. In 1951, the year of Dartmoor National Park designation, world population was about 2.5 billion; it is now 7.5 billion. In 1951 England’s population was 41.2m; it is now 54.5m. Devon’s current and rising population is 1.1m. These are inescapable facts which, combined with consumption of food and resources, put ecosystems at risk. If you also factor in climate change and desertification, is it any wonder that some of our once familiar creatures are struggling? Every new conventional house, new road and new infrastructure, threatens habitat and potential food resources.

We have the power to create whatever Dartmoor we want. But first we should understand what the Dartmoor landscape contains – probably the finest cultural landscape in Britain and maybe one of the best in the world – not for spectacular remains but for the completeness of the survival of visible structures, their chronological range from about 3500 BC to the present day, their diversity (prehistoric, medieval, tinworking, stonecutting, turfcutting, chinaclay, charcoal burning, military, warrening, farming etc), their ubiquity, the remarkable extent of historical documentation, their accessibility.

As human beings, we too are animals and are part of Nature, but we are capable of deep and imaginative thought, and have felt responses, and surely cannot ignore people who have used and loved this land before us, when evidence of their presence is so ubiquitous, stretching back thousands of years. It would be a denial of our humanity if we failed to recognise this extraordinary quality and character of Dartmoor.

It seems to me a false argument as used by Monbiot and others, to focus on grazing as a scapegoat when clearly wildlife coexisted with human beings and their domestic animals in the past, when moorland and woodland Dartmoor were far busier with human activity than they are now.

Like the Fall of the Berlin Wall, if sufficient numbers of people begin to think only a little bit differently about Dartmoor, moving away from perceptions of it as some sort of natural ‘reserve’, then only a relatively small shift in perception will lead to new ways of describing and interacting with our landscape. Above all, it will be a place for humans compared with the ultimate absurd logic of rewilding which must ultimately remove all humans from an area such as Dartmoor, and prevent access to it.

All land needs to be treated wisely and lovingly. Indeed, love is probably the best starting point for the future, not in the cosy and squirm-inducing ‘love your National Parks’ mode, but in terms of understanding the land and then treating it with respect and sensitivity. 

On Dartmoor we have unequalled opportunities to learn from the past, and maybe seek out times when the land seemed most in harmony between people and creatures.

Extensively grazed moorland must surely be recognised as one of the wonders of south-west England, not only providing some of the best animal products, but also enabling us to marvel at past lives in an unparalleled environment.

In such a scenario I believe wildlife will flourish. But the real efforts of those who try to improve opportunities for our fellow creatures should, in my view, be focussed beyond Dartmoor – in and around our towns and cities, creating wondrous green ecozones. Ultimately each of us has responsibilities – not to have more than two children, for example, and to cut down on consumption by using local resources wisely.

Mark Beeson has shown me some of his writing about Dartmoor at the time of the Foot & Mouth outbreak in 2001. He experienced a ‘profound emptiness’ rather than a sense of return to wildness. He wrote that moorland has ‘a human fascination mediated by human consciousness perceiving and interpreting the terrain’ and that ‘Dartmoor without people, without a human consciousness to interpret and in a sense actually to create it, is not really Dartmoor... Is it not human interaction with animals and wild places that make them valuable to us?...Memories give resonance to a place and imbue it with its full dimensions... Ultimately the two great human qualities, work and love, are the most important things on Dartmoor as elsewhere. They drive back the emptiness, they involve human beings and they must go on.’

These are inspirational words and need to be heeded. We don’t need rewilding but we do need reconnecting as human beings. The landscape speaks to us. It reaches to our souls as human beings. Are we not moved by this?

Discussion (summaries)

Courtney Heard, hill farmer: ‘I live here. We built this village hall. The best way in life is to get on with people. We go out over and we gather the sheep and cattle and all that there. I’m a hill farmer. I’m proud of it. There have been a lot of changes – people coming in from outside and trying to alter things. We used to run 1,200 ewes; we run 300 now. If they cut any more, it won’t be worth it. A lot of bracken and gorse has grown. We won’t be able to ride horses over the hills. We’re not allowed to feed cattle on the hills, and have had to build a lot of sheds for 600–700 cattle. There’s a lot more muck, and the cattle are not so healthy. When they were on the moor, we only had to worm them. In the sheds they get pneumonia etc – you have got to treat them. It costs twice as much to produce beef with cattle in sheds compared to before. When we used to feed cattle on the hills feeding hay, there’d be any amount of birds there feeding off seeds from hay and droppings of cattle. Now cattle aren’t there and birds aren’t there. We’re not poor people, but there’s not as much profit as 30 years ago. Every farmer maintains 26 other families. It costs £45,000 to change a tractor. If we come out of Europe we shall still survive – don’t you worry about that.’

Comment:If you put tailings out the birds will come – foraging flocks are moving around the whole of the county. Used to have flocks of 20,000–30,000 birds in fields when a teenager (now in 60s).

Kevin Cox, chairman of Devon Birds, commoner and common owner: he wishes policies were weighted to the natural environment as claimed by TG. 60 species of bird across Devon have declined significantly in the past 30 years. Most of wildlife has been eradicated from most of UK. TG wants Dartmoor as an intensively grazed system, and looks at it solely as a cultural landscape – yet nature means a lot to people. People are feeling alienated. A complete change is needed to the current system which has depleted the landscape. The natural landscape is itself a cultural landscape.

TG: – there is nothing in my arguments about wanting intensive grazing. I am looking for that symbiotic relationship between humans and nature. Dartmoor had dominant grassland in the past when wildlife was presumably rich. Major problems are outside Dartmoor rather than on Dartmoor itself.

26-year-old: works with urban young people. How to engage a 13 year old? Care, inspiration and passion. Is scared that opinions of someone who hasn’t lived all their life on Dartmoor are sidelined.

Joanna, writer and home-schooler: moved from a wooded estate to another wooded estate used as a sheep farm. Where are the young trees and wildlife? She is very inspired by the amount of vision today.

Robin Bowman: – teaches wilderness theory. Has a one-acre farm. Upper Dart valley between Newbridge and Dartmeet is woodland but has little groundcover. Any chance of fencing?

John Barkham: – studied Dartmoor woodland in 1965. The Dart woodland is common land which is why it is grazed. On the boundary against National Trust land in the Dart Valley above Newbridge there is a huge difference in vegetation either side of the wall. A good example of the potential effect of rewilding is the water intake enclosure, full of trees, on the West Okement below Black Tor Copse.

PT: – when young I could catch lizards, and saw clouds of butterflies, flocks of buntings and finches birds etc. Abundance has gone. Our food habits are driving this. With organic standards, pollution drops, wildlife increases, employment on land increases. Macho industrial culture prevents this being adopted. Food prices would go up by 20% if organic. Farmers are caught by the system. Primary schools are doing a good job. Youth is lost in teens. What they need is guidance. Need to be in trans-dance culture. Shamanic dance and festival scene is good.

Teenager: – only person under 20? It is hypocritical to judge other, developing, countries. We must focus on ourselves.

Jeremy Sabel: – works for Plymouth City Council which has a very successful and popular (especially with young people) wildflower meadows scheme. On Facebook 84% of people who like the project are female. DNPA and farmers are preserving cultural heritage and biodiversity to some degree.

Richard Stone: – not sure we’re any clearer as to what rewilding might mean in a Dartmoor context. DNPA, SWW, FC should be here.

MK: – do the two members of DNPA wish to make a comment?

Andrew Cooper, DNPA member: – received an email inviting comment two days ago. If asked, I would have given a full presentation. ‘The day has been fascinating, absolutely fascinating. Most illuminating.’

MK: thanked officers of Dartmoor Society for a brilliant job. ‘We understand each other and our different positions a little better.’

TG: Chairman of the Dartmoor Society: thanked Original Pasty House, bookstall, merchandise stall, kitchen, coffee and tea helpers, Chris Chapman for audio recording, Tanya Welch (Hon. Sec.) for handling bookings, Caya Edwards for organising the Debate, and Matthew Kelly for his ‘amazing aplomb’ as chairman – ‘I don’t think we’ve ever had a better chairman’.

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