The 9th Dartmoor Society Debate

Designer Wilderness? What Future for Dartmoor’s Vegetation?

Meldon Village Hall, Saturday 23rd September 2006

© The Dartmoor Society, 2006

Editor: Mike Hedges

The Dartmoor Society, PO Box 570, Torquay, Devon, TQ1 9JB      

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CONTENTS  

Click on the hyperlinks below to go to each section

Introduction

Subsidies, ESAs and Stocking Levels - The past 20 years, by Andy Guy

The Dartmoor Vision, by John Waldon

Nurturing Dartmoor’s natural assets, by Simon Bates

Morning Discussion 

Losing Dartmoor’s soul – cultural messages of recent vegetation change, by Tom Greeves

The Hill Farmer’s View – Working the Land, by Tracy May

Afternoon Discussion

The 9th Dartmoor Society Debate: Designer Wilderness? What Future for Dartmoor’s Vegetation?

77 people attended the 9th Dartmoor Society Debate, one of the most successful we have organised. Tom Greeves, chairman of the Society, welcomed delegates and speakers and handed the event over to our chairman for the day, Timothy Garratt FRICS FAAV.

Speakers and Chairman at the Debate, left to right: Simon Bates, John Waldon, Andy Guy, Tracy May, Timothy Garratt (Chairman) and Tom Greeves (photo: © Mike Hedges)

Subsidies, ESAs and Stocking Levels - The past 20 years, by Andy Guy

Andy Guy was introduced by Timothy Garratt. He has worked for the Rural Development Service of DEFRA, the Department for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, for 6 years, and has a DSc and a Masters Degree in Environmental Science

Andy explained that farming subsidies originated as a strategic imperative after World War 2, with a national desire for self sufficiency in food. The available subsidies were for:-  

        Beef

          Beef Special Premium

          Suckler Cow Premium

          Slaughter Premium

          Over Thirty Months Scheme

        Sheep

          Sheep Annual Premium

        General

          Hill Livestock Compensation Allowance

          Extensification Premium

Examples of the level of subsidies prevailing in 1999 were £250 per head for suckler beef and £4-£10 per ewe. The average income from subsidies for Less Favoured Area (LFA) farms (such as on Dartmoor) was £25,400 in that year. This was broadly equivalent to £100 - £150 per hectare of open moorland.

The traditional system of farming on Dartmoor was based on a least cost method of production. For cattle, this involved grazing on the hills, calving in spring and outwintering and feeding on the commons. Sheep were grazed on the hills, brought in as drafts (i.e. no longer suitable for breeding in a Less Favoured Area flock), were outwintered on the moor and were tupped (mated) and lambed on inbye (i.e. land near the farm).

As a result of concerns over damage to moorland from feeding of cattle and outwintering of sheep on the commons, Cross Compliance (CC) legislation was brought in between 1992 and 1994. Before then, grazing on the moor was effectively unlimited. The principle behind CC was that payments should not encourage damaging farming practices. Stocking rates were therefore restricted, for subsidy payment purposes, to a ‘sustainable’ carrying capacity. The subsidies were of course at a cost to the taxpayer.

Cross Compliance started to have an impact in 1999 on Dartmoor. It was used to bring stocking levels on Dartmoor down to very near what eventually became Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) Tier 1E levels.  It was a political decision to keep CC stocking level above the ESA stocking level.

The new agri-environment era had its origins in 1987 when ESA schemes were brought in on a voluntary basis. The Dartmoor ESA came into being in 1994; the primary concerns arose from the outwintering of cattle and declining heather condition. The Dartmoor ESA aimed to protect and enhance the area’s special landscape, wildlife and historic values through the maintenance and adoption of environmentally beneficial livestock farming systems and other land management practices.

The ESA stocking rates were derived from research by ADAS and some universities, carried out largely in Wales and northern England, not the South West uplands. The Tier 1 grazing rate was designed to halt decline, while the Tier 2 grazing rate was designed to promote recovery after a period of operating Tier 1 rates. Stocking rates on Dartmoor and other parts of the country in summer and winter are shown in the following table, where the term ‘LU’ means ‘livestock unit’, i.e. one cow or 6.6 sheep.On Dartmoor, supplements were also paid to put stock on the commons in summer and take it off in winter.  

 

 

LU/hectare

 

 

Dartmoor

 

 

Exmoor

 

 

West Penwith (Cornwall)

 

 

South West Peak (Staffs / Cheshire/Derbys)

 

 

Tier 1 winter

 

 

0.17 (0.235 on dry grass)

 

0.15

0.17

 

No cattle, 25% of sheep taken off

 

Tier 1 summer

 

 

0.225 (0.36 on dry grass)

 

 

0.225

 

 

0.25

 

0.225

 

Tier 2 winter

 

0.08

Nil

 

0.17

 

 

Nil

 

 

Tier 2 summer

 

 

0.17

 

 

0.1

 

 

0.25

 

 

0.1

 

Andy said that the Dartmoor ESA had been very problematical to introduce. The incidence of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) and later foot and mouth disease (2001) effectively created the conditions for many Dartmoor commons to come into the ESA. However, this had been a gradual process and the ESA scheme did not make major inroads on to the commons until the 3-year period 2000 – 2002.

The following graph shows that ESAs have broadly halved the rate of stocking on the commons. For technical reasons, e.g. the inclusion of some areas that were already subject to Cross Compliance in the ‘upper line’, the true number of livestock was probably 20,000 before Cross Compliance, and current numbers were now probably lower than depicted on the lower line. Thus the true reduction in livestock numbers was greater than 50%. 

Andy’s view was that economics were becoming the real driver of livestock numbers on the commons. After BSE and foot and mouth disease, the hill farming climate had become particularly grim. He explained that the Single Payment Scheme was currently a hybrid of the historic scheme and one based on payment by area of land. In due course, the area-based payment would be the only scheme and on the Dartmoor commons this would give a payment of £30/hectare compared with payments of up to £150/ha under the historic scheme. The adverse effect would be exacerbated by the higher costs associated with wintering cattle off the moor

Thus the present conditions for hill farming were very gloomy with declining farm incomes, a declining number of farmers and increasing costs. There was an increased need and desire for environmental management on the commons. ESA schemes were now being replaced by ES (environmental stewardship) schemes. 

However, more positively, the overall grazing pattern of the commons had been retained (as illustrated by the lines on the graph being of the same shape), feeding and outwintering of cattle had stopped, payments were being made for reducing stocking from Cross-Compliance levels, capital grants were being made available for management of land and burning (swaling) had been brought under control. In particular, Andy believed that the Dartmoor Vision (described by John Waldon below) was a major step forward.

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The Dartmoor Vision, by John Waldon

John Waldon formerly worked for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and was its SW Regional Director for 10 years. He now worked as a consultant and as such was brought in by Dartmoor National Park to produce a Dartmoor Vision.

John explained that work began on the Vision in 2002. It was designed to help hill farmers who provide the grazing animals on Dartmoor’s moorland and to provide farmers with a clear statement on what the public bodies (i.e. the statutory agencies) wanted the moorland to look like in the future (2030).

The Dartmoor National Park Authority launched the Moor Futures initiative in 2003. It began by talking to hill farmers to establish the issues. In addition to the continuing concern over the future financial viability of hill farming, the consultation identified three areas of concern to the farming community. These were:

1.      Many farmers complained that they received conflicting and confusing messages from the statutory agencies on what public goods they were expected to provide.

2.      Most farmers wanted to be part of the process of developing solutions and wanted an opportunity to contribute their experience and skills to the management of the moorland.

3.      The lack of a long term strategy resulted in there being little incentive for future investment in stock and infrastructure.

These findings were reported to the agencies and a Vision approach was proposed to address them. There was a clear need for consensus between agencies and clarity on the resulting public benefits.

The process of capturing a “Vision” began by securing agreement between the ecologists from all the statutory agencies and a single map depicting the main habitats was drawn up. The next step was to address the moorland’s impressive historic environment.  Many of these sites required management if they were to be preserved and made available to be appreciated. Such land management had the potential to conflict with that agreed upon by the ecologists. There were clearly a number of conflicting messages for those managing the moor – the hill farmers.

To enable progress a new approach was devised. The adoption of Premier Archaeological Landscapes (PALs) enabled discrete areas to be drawn on to another map.  These PALS contained the archaeology that was considered important enough to require appreciation within the landscape and therefore needed a managed setting. Fourteen PALs were identified. It was not possible to include all archaeological sites, just the so-called ‘premier’ ones.

The two groups (ecologists and archaeologists) and the two maps were then brought together. The initial concern was that all the PALs would overlap sites designated for their natural environmental value, but this proved to be largely unfounded. John found that his independent status helped – people could see he had no axe to grind.

This agreement enabled the process to move to the next phase – engagement with the farming community. The draft “vision map” was made available to the commoners and farmers, who were asked to comment on its deliverability and accuracy. The map was well received and was seen by most farmers as a clear statement that the agencies’ vision of the future of Dartmoor’s moorland was of a grazed (farmed) landscape. Many farmers claimed that this was the first time they had received such an assurance. Their comments and suggestions enabled further improvements to be made to the map before it was published.

John explained that the Vision was not intended to replace existing management agreements (DNPA Management Plans and ESA agreements), but to guide both the agencies and farmers when a new agreement was negotiated or an existing agreement was renewed. It enabled both parties to understand the broad objectives for that particular area of land and gave a clear steer on what the agreed priorities were; the historic environment or the natural environment.

Following the launch of the Vision the alliance of agency staff and farmers had remained in place. The Vision project was now funded by all the agencies and the Dartmoor Commoners Council; it had established a group of farmers and agency staff to look at the barriers to delivering the Vision. This group had responded to Defra’s request for data to support the reinstatement of conservation grazing options within Environmental Stewardship and had provided a response to the Future Upland Reward Structure consultation. It was also assessing the role of uplands in mitigating the effects of climate change. 

The next steps would be:-

  • To produce individual management plans for each Premier Archaeological Landscape
  • To design an upland rewards scheme with improved environmental stewardship
  • To promote the role of hill farmers and the uplands in the delivery of public benefits, including access and mitigation of climate change (allowing for the large amounts of carbon stored in peat)

Climate change appeared to be promoting an increased growth of gorse and bracken even on areas that remained well stocked. Increasing of grazing numbers might not be sufficient to counter the effect of climate change.

The impact of CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) reform and the introduction of the Single Payment scheme continued to create further economic uncertainty for hill farmers. Incomes for hill farming were expected to fall by over 30%. The importance of agri-environment schemes had increased for most farmers but they were not without problems. Agri-environment schemes were not being renewed and the number of hill farmers exercising their grazing rights was set to fall, leading to fewer grazing animals. Many farmers were seeking assurances that there was a future for farming on the moor.

The Vision could not provide that assurance but it had clarified what the land managers (farmers) were expected to provide. It had also demonstrated the value of co-operative working.  The alliance approach had already been adopted by a network of the three SW England uplands. The Vision had also highlighted the differences between the uplands of the South West and those of Wales and northern England.

However without stock in the uplands, the agencies’ Vision would not be achieved especially as climate change would encourage the faster growth of vegetation including gorse and scrub. Other public benefits including access and the protection of natural resources such as water also needed to be protected and hill farming had a role. The next challenge would be to secure sufficient funding and long term viability for hill farming so it could continue to provide grazing in those parts of the landscape where it was required.

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Nurturing Dartmoor’s natural assets, by Simon Bates

Simon was introduced by Timothy Garratt as a Conservation Officer for English Nature. Simon was born on the outskirts of Manchester, but took many holidays at Bridford and in fact married a Devon girl. He gained a degree in agriculture at Nottingham University and a Masters degree in resource management at Newcastle University. Simon mentioned that on 1st October 2006, English Nature, the environment activities of the Rural Development Service and the Countryside Agency’s Landscape, Access and Recreation division would be united in a single body called Natural England 

Simon began his presentation by looking at the origins of Dartmoor when, 290 - 270 million years ago, magma welled up, distorting and baking the surrounding rocks forming a wealth of minerals including tin and china clay. This cooled to become granite – the birth of Dartmoor. About half a million years ago, the glaciers and ice-sheets of the Ice Age reached only as far south as the Bristol Channel. In cold spells, Dartmoor was similar to northern Europe or Canada in winter – tundra. During interglacial periods, Dartmoor was warmer than today's climate. As tundra, the land alternately froze and then thawed. Soil and decomposed granite gradually moved downhill by gravity. The tundra landscape features, e.g. mounds and stone stripes, could be seen at Merrivale today.

By about 7,700 years ago, after the Ice Age, all the major tree species were established; hazel, oak, birch, elm, alder. A landscape could be imagined with isolated pockets of heath on the exposed summits, a tree line characterised by hazel with some oak and birch, and a dominant woodland cover of oak with hazel and alder, the latter especially in river valleys.

Between 7,700 & 6,300 years ago, there was a continuous record of microscopic charcoal paralleled by a gradual reduction in tree pollen and the expansion of peat-forming plants. This had been interpreted as the use of fire by Mesolithic man at the woodland edge as a strategy for hunting game, gradually reducing the tree line. Woodland regeneration was prevented by browsing, but more improved retention of rainfall was the principal driver of blanket bog expansion.

Moving ahead to the changes that had occurred in the 20th century, Simon showed aerial photos of Belstone Cleave and Rowtor, Okehampton Common, taken at each location in 1947 and 2000. The Belstone Cleave photographs showed new woodland developing in a period when, for example, sheep numbers for Okehampton Hamlets increased 94% from 12,201 in 1969 to 23,626 in 1988. Simon attributed the new growth to climate change and said that, in SW England, it was predicted that summers would be 2oC warmer and winters 2.50C warmer.  Winter rainfall would increase by at least 8%, and summer rainfall would remain the same. Gorse, scrub and new woodland would increase, and this should be welcomed. Simon believed that the enhanced growth of scrub on Dartmoor was due more to climate change than reduction in grazing numbers.

The 1947 image of Rowtor showed a dark area on the east side of the hill. This was bilberry heath, where his late mother-in-law used to pick ‘worts’ and take them to Okehampton market. This was an internationally important habitat, but was an instance where a livelihood and a culture had been destroyed by livestock grazing.

Simon explained the aims of the new body, Natural England:-

To protect natural resources such as:-

          Air quality – our mosses & lichens were very sensitive to changes in pollutants & acidity. The very rare Bryoria smithii lichen found on Dartmoor is a good indicator of clean air.

          Water quantity & quality

          Soils/peat

          Habitats

          Species

          Tranquillity

          Dark skies

          Deep re-connection with nature through access and enjoyment

To help develop human resources

          Breeds: English Nature set up the ‘Traditional Breeds Scheme’ and lobbied hard for expansion to the whole country. There were now supplements for rare breeds and mixed grazing in the Higher Level Stewardship scheme.

          Skills: Livestock husbandry, walling etc. Natural England would be active partners in the Moor Skills project.

          Knowledge: Moorland Management Forum – exchange of best practice

          Culture

Simon then went on to examine what constituted good blanket bog & mire:-

          Characteristic plants; common ling, cross-leaved heath, bell heather, cotton grasses, deer grass, bogbean, bog asphodel, bog mosses, sundews, whortleberry.

          At least 50% of the vegetation cover should consist of at least three of these plants.

          Less than one third of the shoots of heathers should be grazed off each year.

          There should be no burning into the moss, liverwort or lichen layer or exposure of the peat surface due to burning.

There was more carbon stored in British peatlands than in British and French forests combined. They were also a major aquifer, as the peat holds water in the manner of a sponge. The optimal management for peat was to have extensive cattle and/or pony grazing, but no burning. At Moor House National Nature Reserve (Cumbria), peat growth was most pronounced in grazed and unburnt plots (established since 1954). Fires could lead to loss of peat and humus, increased run-off and erosion, reduced peat accumulation (even under well controlled burns) and emission of greenhouse gases.

Simon said that drier, hotter summers were a real threat, and could lead to the oxidation of the peat. Local channel blocking to increase the water table might help and strategic firebreaks would be essential.

The typical status of good wet heath was:-    

          At least 25% of the vegetation cover should be made of sedges, sundews, bog mosses or deer grass and 25% should be common ling, cross-leaved heath, bell heather, or whortleberry.

          Neither heathers, gorse nor grasses should make up more than 75% of the vegetation.

          Less than one third of the shoots of heathers should be grazed off each year.

          There should be no burning into the moss, liverwort or lichen layer or exposure of the peat surface due to burning.

The boundary between blanket bog and wet heath was often blurred. Wet heath occurred on peat depths of less than 50cm and seasonally waterlogged, acidic mineral soils. If the worst predicted effects of climate change were realised, much of our blanket bog could revert to wet heath.

Good dry heath comprised:-

          Characteristic plants comprising at least 60% of the vegetation; common ling, cross-leaved heath, bell heather, whortleberry, & western gorse.

          Burning should not take place on thin soils, slopes greater than 1 in 2, gullies, on ground with carpets of bog mosses, liverworts and/or lichens, very old heather stands, in pools, wet hollows, hags and erosion gullies, or within 10 metres of watercourses.

          Less than one third of the shoots of heathers should be grazed off each year.

For Scrub, Simon said: Please give it a break! It absorbed carbon dioxide and would help to ameliorate global warming. A New Zealand company was presently selling carbon credits on behalf of landowners. Examples of land ‘wanted’ included marginal pastures that were reverting to scrub. Studies had indicated that, by slowing deforestation and increasing the rate of afforestation, the global potential for enhancing carbon storage in forests may be as much as 60-90 Giga tonnes of Carbon (GtC) over the next 50 years compared with current emissions from fossil fuels of 6.5 GtC/yr. Scrub had the benefits of:-

 

          Increased capture of water, better filtration, gradual release, and hence conservation of water.

          Provided edge habitat, and therefore greater variety of species. Two of the top four ‘trees’ favoured by insects were actually shrubs – hawthorn and sallow. Even blackthorn supported twice as many insects as ash.

          Return of extinct species e.g. merlin.

          Landscape diversity – colour of flowers and berries.

          Possible source of fuel in future when the oil and gas ran out!

Simon said we should ask ourselves which was the more pressing – ameliorating climate change or providing easy walking through gorse? Which was the easier one to solve?     

In summary, Simon’s view was that, as there was only one planet Earth, Man should nurture her natural resources. Climate had always been the biggest driver of change on Dartmoor and that change was about to get a whole lot bigger and faster. Higher priority needed to be given to rebuilding robust ecosystems, allowing natural processes fuller expression, particularly where the protection of air, water and soils would secure our survival.

This did not mean we neglect our human resources e.g. the skills and knowledge of farmers. Nor did it mean people will be prevented from walking or riding anywhere. Natural England wanted people to have more contact with nature.

His concluding message was: Designer wilderness? Why not, we’ve been shaping the moor for 10,000 years!

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Morning Discussion 

Following the three presentations, the discussion was thrown open to delegates. Among the key points raised were:-

Marion Saunders (Peter Tavy) said she believed bracken to be more of a concern than gorse, as it harboured ticks, which were a threat to sheep.  Helen Rowett (Dousland) thought that the recent spread of bracken up slopes was an indicator of climate change, and suggested it could be cut. Simon Bates responded that cutting could be a solution and wondered if it had any uses when cut. John Waldon said that one Exmoor farmer was using cut bracken for animal bedding, while Dawn Hatton (Throwleigh) reported that Cumberland farmers made a very good compost from a mixture of bracken and sheep’s wool, and Michael Matthews (Totnes,) said that he had made a bracken compost when living in Scotland. However, Gail Fursdon (farmer, Poundsgate) said that composting of bracken would contradict new legal controls on waste that were due to come into force in 2007. Simon Bates agreed that it was very frustrating when measures like this were introduced. Michael French (DNPA member, Holne) said that the rolling of bracken was a quite successful means of control, at least in reducing its height.    

Andrew Terry (Belstone) asked how well the Dartmoor Vision would feed back to Defra’s Rural Development Service, and how the views of the Dartmoor Commoners’ Council were being obtained. John Waldon said that the merging of English Nature and the RDS due on 1st October 2006 would help give a unified view. Liaison took place with commoners from each quarter of the Forest.

Veronica Laurie (Bovey Tracey) said that the maps presented in the Vision were impossible to relate to features on the ground and should have been related to the Ordnance Survey grid, placenames and roads. John Waldon said that the maps would have been too cluttered with this information, but in hindsight he agreed that grid lines and some placenames might have helped. The commoners themselves were content that their own boundaries were used.

Gail Fursdon (farmer, Poundsgate) welcomed the co-ordination between agencies, but said that farmers wanted their children to carry on farming. How would the Vision enable successive generations to carry on farming in the future? John Waldon said that the Vision was linked to the aim of keeping farmers and their families in farming in the future, but did not have all the answers. Nick Atkinson (Chief Executive, Dartmoor National Park) said that the new Local Development Frameworks (LDF) being developed by planning authorities like the DNP would hopefully make more affordable housing available, and he urged everyone to get involved in the LDF process. There would never be enough affordable housing, but the picture was not as gloomy as perceived.

Joe Stone (Defence Estates) perceived that social and economic needs appeared to be of lower priority than environmental needs. Timothy Garratt (Chairman of the debate) believed that a guiding principle behind all plans was that these needs should be placed on an equal footing, if success was to be achieved. Simon Bates thought that, as farming declined, other jobs would be created to look after the Dartmoor landscape and tourism. Jenny Sanders (Tavistock) said that when her husband came to the area as a vet in 1962 he covered 600 working farms. This number had declined to 180 in 2002. Michael French (DNPA member, Holne) said that in Holne the number of farmers had declined by 75% within a generation. Bob Hodgson (botanist, Yelverton) supported the continuation of farming to safeguard the variety of plants on Dartmoor. For example the chamomile, largely found only in the New Forest and on Dartmoor, thrived on well-grazed ground. 

Tom Greeves, in response to Simon Bates’ suggestion that Dartmoor could be a carbon ‘sink’, asked if this could not be done off the moor. Simon Bates said that it could, and trees would grow better in lowland areas, but the moor had an important water conservation role and plentiful growth would help this by slowing run-off. Tony Clark (South Zeal, and Army Training Estate) wondered if the public would accept footpaths and firebreaks through the vegetation. Andy Guy said that Defra wanted to facilitate access and all the other benefits of Dartmoor, but was unsure if the public would accept man-made linear paths on a wild landscape.

Courtney Heard (farmer, Meldon) said that he had farmed all his life on Dartmoor. His sons farmed and hopefully his grandson would too. Hill farming had always been subsidised, but wool from upland sheep was now useless and shearing was now a net cost. There was no point in sheep farming on the moor without a subsidy, and the situation for cattle was similar. ESA schemes would only last for 10 years, but it took much more time to develop a prime herd of cattle, so longer schemes were required.

Mary Alford (farmer, Whitchurch) said that heather suffered much more from heather beetle than from trampling by animals. Simon Bates agreed that heather beetle was a problem in some areas, but believed that heavy grazing had damaged heather in the past.

Mel Stride (Ashburton) asked whether the regulation of farming originated in Whitehall or Brussels. Andy Guy said that it came from a combination of both. It was up to member states how they implemented Directives, but in the UK it did often seem that yet more regulations were overlaid on those coming from Europe. Chris Meathrel (Kingsteignton) asked what funding was received from Europe, and whether a change in the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) would have any implications. John Waldon replied that agri-environment schemes (e.g. ESAs) were funded in large part by the EU, but some funds also came from the UK government. The loss of CAP funds would cause problems but successive UK governments had recognised that if there were benefits from farming, they would provide public money in place of CAP funds.

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Losing Dartmoor’s soul – cultural messages of recent vegetation change, by Tom Greeves (Chairman of The Dartmoor Society)

Dr Tom Greeves obtained a degree in European prehistory at Edinburgh University, followed by a PhD on the archaeology and history of Devon tin mining industry. Tom was appointed as the first Archaeological Officer of the Dartmoor National Park Authority in 1979 and then worked for Common Ground from 1985 – 1990. He is now an independent cultural environmentalist.

Tom opened his talk by stating that the past twenty years had seen a dramatic change in the appearance of Dartmoor vegetation – trees were spreading out into newtakes and colonising the open moor, and tussocky grass now hindered the walker and rider where none was before. Most of all, gorse was on the move – especially the low-growing Western Gorse (Ulex gallii), but also the tall European Gorse (Ulex europaeus). Many would assert that bracken, too, was on the increase.

Most people, if old enough, would know that there had been an equal but opposite dramatic change, at least as far as heather and grassland cover were concerned, in the period between the mid-1960s and mid-1980s, when close-cropped grassland became dominant in many parts of the moor. In fact, this process of change and adaptation had been a constant throughout history and prehistory, as evidence from pollen cores in peat revealed.

For example, at Hingston Hill (Down Tor) stone row and Scorhill Circle, each had a significant growth of heather around it in the early 20th century, and the situation was largely unchanged in the 1960s. But thereafter a clear change occurred; and by the 1990s each site was denuded of heather and the surrounding surface was very well worn. So what was the problem? While some might regret the loss of heather, the sites at Hingston Hill and Scorhill were still clearly visible today. But this was actually due to visitor pressure not grazing pressure, and these sites were an exception to the general state of affairs on Dartmoor. Importantly, even at these sites, the wider archaeological landscape context, often involving subtle archaeological features, was now largely obscured by increased vegetation growth, and walkers and riders were increasingly being channelled into paths.

Tom then showed a set of images of a number of other sites taken at different times to show what was happening more typically all over Dartmoor. At Brisworthy stone circle on Ringmoor Down in the Plym valley, there had been a change from close-cropped grass to rougher molinia over 20 years from 1985 to 2005. In just eight years (1997 – 2005) at Kestor, gorse had begun to obscure substantial above-ground archaeological remains.

On Chagford Common was the very well-known complex of stone rows and related features on Shovel Down. Here the increase in vegetation had had a very deleterious effect within the last ten years, and by July 2005 the Shovel Down archaeological project was floundering through a growth of rank grass. The most easterly known row of the complex, some 540m long, consisted mostly of small stones only just breaking the surface of the ground. Revealed almost certainly by peat shrinkage during the dry summers of 1975 and 1976 and grazing pressure, today this row was almost completely obscured, with perhaps only 9 or 10 stones still visible.

In 1982 a 400m extension of the Great Stannon Newtake was discovered in Little Stannon Newtake, but in September 2005 the row had to all intents and purposes vanished. The newtake had a wide range of archaeological features within it but much of it was now virtually impenetrable and obscured by a mass of gorse and other vegetation.

Recent encroachment of gorse had been similarly dramatic at Corringdon Ball long barrow, the double stone row on Brent Fore Hill, the prehistoric rows and cairns between the West and East Glaze Brooks, Mardon Down stone circle and Snaily House on the East Dart. Compared to bracken, which at least died down for six months of the year, gorse was undoubtedly the greater menace to Dartmoor. In Australia it was considered one of the worst weeds, and had blighted vast areas of grazing in Tasmania. 

The accumulated evidence was an indictment of recent management policies on Dartmoor. The sudden surge of vegetation coincided precisely with the period of Environmentally Sensitive Area agreements and the massive reduction of stock on most of the Dartmoor commons and Forest. Climatic factors may have played their part but the failure of the underlying policy was self-evident. Many people had warned that this would happen, especially hill farmers.  In an article published in Devon Today in February 2001 Tom had presented a case for the damaging effect of ESAs and much of what he had written then seemed to have been vindicated.

The Vision solution was to define Premier Archaeological Landscapes.  Fourteen large PALs had been designated, most of which had a stated aim of establishing short-cropped acid grassland approximately 10cm (4 inches) in height as the ideal vegetation cover. Ironically, most of these areas had this state of vegetation 25 years ago. The PALs included areas such as Shovel Down and Corringdon Ball, but not, for example, Little Stannon Newtake. It would be very interesting to know how land managers intended to achieve their aim without significantly increasing the numbers of grazing animals.  

But most of Dartmoor’s archaeology remained outside the PALs, which begged the question of how the majority of Dartmoor’s archaeology would be managed. PALs themselves deserved detailed scrutiny and testing of the criteria by which they had been established. There were some strange anomalies – for example, the archaeologically rich Merrivale newtake, Deancombe Valley, the ruins of Whiteslade (Snaily House) and Haytor Quarries (stonecutting) were all excluded from adjacent PALs. In the Upper Erme Valley PAL, several tributary streams were excluded despite containing tinworks and buildings which were features specifically mentioned in the PAL descriptive text. 

Although inadequate and arbitrary, PALs were nevertheless an interesting step towards a better understanding. Establishment archaeology was regrettably still trapped by the notion of ‘Scheduled Ancient Monuments’ and the concept of ‘national significance’. Tom strongly believed that it was high time to do away with scheduling of individual sites on the open moorland of Dartmoor. Unfortunately the response of English Heritage in recent years had been to increase the numbers of scheduled sites. On open moorland and unimproved newtakes, such scheduling was meaningless – it had no intellectual reasoning behind it but served only to fulfil paper targets and performance indicators, and created a very unwieldy bureaucracy. More importantly it did nothing to protect the sites in question.

Substantial evidence, in the form of microscopic charcoal in peat, now suggested that humans were manipulating the vegetation of Dartmoor by burning at least as early as the 6th and 5th millennia BC. Culture and nature had gone hand in hand ever since. By at least the 2nd millennium BC several thousands of hectares of what was now moorland Dartmoor had been given over to regular field systems, interspersed with houses and other structures, where crops were grown. It was inconceivable that these areas had been covered with gorse, heather and bracken when in use. Similarly, in the late medieval and early modern period, from the 15th to the 17th century, the tinners constructed reservoirs on the highest hills of Dartmoor to collect and store rainwater to wash waste from their tinworks. For these to function properly they would almost certainly have needed a fairly closely cropped grass-dominated sward to enable the run-off to be effective. 

It was thus probable that, for much of Dartmoor’s prehistory and history, the moorland areas were relatively closely grazed. It seemed likely that grazing pressure had been relatively high even in the mid-19th century and the greater prevalence of heather 80-120 years ago might therefore be an anomaly in a long chronological timescale, and so perhaps was an unsuitable yardstick for an ‘ideal’ Dartmoor vegetation type today.  But even if it could be proved that relatively dense heather was the norm throughout much of Dartmoor’s human story, our response should take account of the improved understanding that had resulted from evidence revealed by grazing over the past 50 years.

Thanks to the grazing pressure of the 1970s and early 1980s, much ‘new’ archaeology of moorland Dartmoor had been revealed for the first time (as at Shovel Down and in Little Stannon newtake). In particular, the subtle features of prehistoric remains composed of small stones perhaps only 20cm in length and only a few centimetres above the ground surface were recorded – some proved to be elaborately constructed cairns with multiple rings of stone; others were rows. Likewise, very subtle subdivisions or cultivation marks of medieval or post-medieval fields had been observed for the first time (as on Crownhill Down, Yennadon and Ringmoor). Archaeological activity and research on the moor in the 1970s and 80s began to transform our picture of prehistoric and medieval Dartmoor and the local tin industry.

It became apparent that there was on Dartmoor phenomenally good survival of the ordinary past. This revelation undermined much conservation and national park thinking which tended to put emphasis on the rare and exotic. It was the completeness of the record, not its impressiveness, that made Dartmoor so important. In other words, we could read a commonplace human story, 8,000 years old, from what survived on Dartmoor. Combined with the astonishing suite of historical records, almost unparalleled in Britain, Dartmoor became a landscape with some of the greatest human depth in the world, with the opportunity for an unrivalled experience of physical contact with structures of the past. In addition, there was the pollen record, and actual buried structures, in the peat, such as the newly discovered stone row on Cut Hill.    

Unfortunately, archaeology and culture had been the poor relations of nature conservation. That a new body called Natural England was to come into existence the following month, with English Heritage excluded, perpetuated this imbalance. Countryside was still seen largely as a place where nature reigned supreme rather than being the human construct that it was. Wilderness by design seemed to be what was happening now.

Some might say that it really didn’t matter that archaeological features were obscured by vegetation – at least they were there and known about. But we were still at an early stage of understanding what was within the Dartmoor landscape – numerous subtle features remained to be discovered which had never yet been recorded. Yet the potential for detailed new research had now been stymied. The definition of PALs gave a false impression of where archaeology was visible on Dartmoor and somehow degraded those features outside them. A new understanding had been within our grasp twenty years ago, but we had squandered the opportunity. It was the equivalent of allowing all medieval wall-paintings to be whitewashed knowing they were safe underneath the blank surface. The vegetation itself was potentially damaging, particularly gorse which, in a survey on Exmoor, was considered ‘a catalyst for other destructive agencies’ such as burrowing badgers or livestock eroding the more limited open ground.

The fundamental point still overlooked by most land managers was that the moorland of Dartmoor was a cultural entity in its own right, being the product of human response to the land over at least 8,000 years. Every part of it should be recognised as potentially having cultural meaning; the moorland should be treated as a whole and every part of it given some form of legal protection from unauthorised disturbance. Even under current legislation, it would be straightforward to label each block of moorland as a separate cultural zone. This would bring cultural recognition to Dartmoor’s moorland in the same way that much of it was already designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It would also bring cultural diversity and natural diversity much close together. It was the integration of the two, and a new compact of understanding between the two, with a new vocabulary, which was urgently needed. The assertion that the different approaches of ecologists and archaeologists were incompatible was an admission of failure, and needed to be challenged. Each was a component of the land and each complemented the other. We needed a new word or words to describe the land that contained these elements – perhaps the label Ecocultural Landscape would suffice.   

Humans had the ability to create whatever landscape they wanted, as had been done in the past with dramatic effect, e.g. by afforestation or by treatment of chinaclay heaps, and Tom suggested the following might be a way forward:

  • An increase in the numbers of grazing animals, especially sheep, coupled with research on new and local markets for products from Dartmoor livestock – meat, wool, hides etc
  • Abandonment of deep heather as the desired climax vegetation for most of  Dartmoor
  • Abandonment of ‘scheduling’ of individual sites or areas on moorland, and  replacement by a blanket designation of the cultural significance of all moorland areas, including newtakes, with appropriate legislation to prevent unauthorised disturbance
  • Abandonment of PALs as unworkable and unsuitably hierarchical, and replacement by detailed survey and provision of information to interested parties and communities
  • Initiation of extensive and rigorous research on photographic images of vegetation over the past 120 years
  • Photographic monitoring of numerous locations, and publication of results
  • Commissioning of aerial photographic cover of the whole of Dartmoor to record its vegetation in a particular year
  • Research on the numbers of grazing animals through time
  • An increase in swaling, followed by a programme of archaeological reconnaissance and survey of the swaled areas within a short timescale afterwards
  • Liaison with Bodmin Moor and Exmoor to share experience and information

 If we didn’t tackle this now we were in real danger of losing Dartmoor’s human soul which had sustained communities for at least 8,000 years. Dartmoor was one of the finest cultural landscapes in the world. Now was the time to reject the failed policies of the recent past and to develop a new awareness and renaissance of its culture. Hopefully this would lead to Dartmoor becoming genuinely a Terra Usufructa – a bounteous land with its resources wisely and properly used. 

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 The Hill Farmer’s View – Working the Land, by Tracy May

Tracy explained that she first came to live on Dartmoor at the age of 18 months. She helped a neighbouring family on their farm and, once she was given a pony at the age of 13, she began to explore the moor in earnest. In 1982, two years after leaving school, she took on a 180-acre farm at Lydford where she and her husband Dave now kept Scotch black-faced sheep.

 In 1998 their farm had 550 sheep, but under their ESA scheme, it now had 220, and the effects on the landscape where the sheep graze had been dramatic.

 Grazing problems

 Tracy had always identified three distinct areas of the common on which her animals grazed. The characteristics of each area before and after the ESA scheme, and the associated problems, were as follows:-

 Lower areas - High Down and the area west of Widgery Cross (Brat Tor)

 Before: Closely grazed grass.

Now:    Large amount of gorse forming a continuous mat broken by sheep paths. Fire risk. Gorse caught in fleeces. Lambs now had to be treated to guard against risks from ticks, which proliferated in the shelter of the gorse scrub.

Sheep gathering: Now very difficult; dogs couldn’t run any faster than sheep through the gorse.                       

Medium altitude area - East of Brat Tor

 Before: Some dwarf shrubs among longer grass.

Now:    Tussocky sward being overtaken by heather

Sheep gathering: Stock in better condition and no more difficult to gather

 Uppermost area - Blanket Bog

 Before: Some vegetation and widespread molinia grass.     

Now:    Still longer molinia grass.

Sheep gathering: Difficult and dangerous as quad bikes may overturn on unseen rocks. At one time cattle would open up the molinia for the sheep, but this now happened to a much lesser extent.

General

In the past, sheep were generally held in any one place by the other sheep around them, but now with fewer animals, this no longer happens, and there is more movement. The encroachment of gorse at the higher grazing rates corresponding to ESA Tier 1 (halting of decline) is in effect resulting in ESA Tier 2 conditions, i.e. recovery.

 Financial Problems

 Income

 Tracy used the example of her own flock of Scotch black-faced sheep. The ewes had a breeding rate of 75%, so in one year 100 ewes will produced 75 lambs. Of these, 25 were kept and 50 were sold. Thus half a lamb was sold for each ewe and with a lamb worth £20 in a good year, the annual income per ewe from lambing was £10.

 In addition, the wool cheque was £400 per year from 220 ewes, or £1.80 per ewe. Thus total income was £11.80 per ewe.

Costs

 Veterinary and medical bills totalled £9 per ewe. Shearing cost £550 in total, or £2.50 per ewe.

 Thus, excluding subsidies, total costs were £11.50 per ewe, giving a net annual ‘profit’ of 30 pence per ewe. And that excluded Tracy’s and Dave’s labour and a vehicle and horse for gathering the sheep.

 The numbers for cattle told a similar story, and Tracy’s figures demonstrated graphically why agro-environmental payments and single farm payments were needed in order for hill farmers to make a living. Yet they stayed in the business because they loved it and the way of life. Diversification was one means of improving income, but it left less time for essential care of livestock. Tracy said that they could use farmers’ markets, but at heart they were farmers, not shopkeepers. Niche marketing such as branded Dartmoor meat was all very well, but one large meat wholesaler had told Tracy that this had very limited attractions and would not sell west of the Tamar, as its origin in a harsh climate caused it to be regarded as of poor quality.

 Livestock were now, in Tracy’s view, less a means of food production and more a means of vegetation management, and payments to hill farmers should reflect this. Moreover, their skills should be recognised and sustained. In order to keep livestock on the outer areas requiring more grazing, Tracy suggested that burning and cutting of vegetation, allied to wider use of mineral ‘licking’ blocks might help. Perhaps fencing was the only way to keep animals at the appropriate densities in the areas prescribed for ecology and archaeology. 

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Afternoon Discussion

 Following the two afternoon presentations, the discussion was again thrown open to delegates, and some of the key points raised were:-

 Timothy Garratt initiated discussion, saying that Dartmoor had been a managed landscape for 8,000 years. The last 20 years had seen far too much meddling from outside bodies, with insufficient attention being paid to the views of those who farmed the moor. Chris Meathrel (Kingsteignton) asked if there was a central academic record of the history of tree growth on Dartmoor, as distinct from localised studies. Tom Greeves said that there had only been small numbers of pollen studies, but it was possible to extrapolate the results across the moor.

 Veronica Laurie (Bovey Tracey) thought that the Government should pay for the upkeep of Dartmoor with wider public health and recreation aspects in mind. It should also fund the clearing of vegetation in wide tracks to encourage people and animals out on to the moor. Michael Reddaway (farmer, Sampford Courtenay) said that vegetation needed to be swaled (burnt) periodically to keep sheep out on the moor. He had noticed that sheep grazing recently swaled ground looked healthier and were free of ticks. John Waldon thought there was a very good case for controlled and selective swaling, but it was not happening because farmers could not raise sufficient manpower to control it. Perhaps a pool of volunteers was needed. Gail Fursdon (farmer, Poundsgate) said that if an ESA agreement prescribed swaling, then this was being done.

 Philip Heard (farmer, Meldon) said that one solution to the spread of vegetation might be for cattle to be allowed by the ESA scheme to stay out on the moor until early December, instead of the present 1st November. Andy Guy said that this was being considered, and costs were being calculated for each Tier of ESA agreements. Under the Tier 2 provisions of ESAs, it was likely that there would be no prescribed date by which cattle must be brought off the moor, and this would be implemented over the next 5 years. 

 Patrick Cashell (Peter Tavy) said that there were books about Dartmoor by Crossing, Hemery etc, that encouraged him and many others to go out on to the moor to discover something. However, the growth of vegetation was making this harder. Timothy Garratt said that improving access for animals should also improve it for people.

Roger Watts (Teddington) said that, as a retired official, his experience of the Treasury view was that economic well-being was best helped by a free market, i.e. no subsidies for coal mining, fishing or agriculture. The time would come when the EU would find it extremely difficult in world trade and tariff negotiations to convince other continents of the need for farming subsidies. Moreover, the Treasury mentality was to fundamentally question whether the total subsidy of £13m for Dartmoor was justified when set against the needs of, say, health and education. So a good case should be made to keep the subsidy in place. Jonathan Aylett (Newton Abbot and Dartmoor Society Committee) said that in his experience politicians regarded Dartmoor as being for tourism not agriculture.  Tim Ferry (South Brent) thought it wrong to subsidise farmers to maintain a leisure area for urban dwellers, and perhaps tourism should pay instead. Dawn Hatton (Throwleigh) said that we should not forget the lessons of World War 2 for the need for self-sufficiency in food, but the loss of farming expertise would make it difficult to boost food production if suddenly required. Timothy Garratt’s view was that decisions were needed about the balance between farming and the environment. Keeping animals on Dartmoor was a loss-making activity and needed support; the key questions were: where animals would be kept, who would keep them, how they would be paid and where the money would come from.

 Judy Ehlen (Haytor) said that one basic issue appeared to be a lack of knowledge, and there were large gaps in research. Unless we knew the current condition of land, the right decisions could not be made. Simon Bates said that in fact English Nature was probably the only body in the world with such a good understanding of the condition of national wildlife sites.       

 Miles Fursdon (farmer Poundsgate, and Dartmoor Society Committee) said he had been heartened by the much greater support of the public towards farmers, compared to 20 years ago. Timothy Garratt said that he had always advised his farming clients that money from the Government was the cheapest and easiest to obtain. This was the right way forward, not to try and farm in the same way as one’s grandfather. If the Government decided it wanted to use farmers to maintain the landscape, they only had to set the payments at the correct level for enough farmers to do so. 

Tim Ferry (South Brent) asked if the grazing of wild animals would help. Simon Bates said indeed it would, and suggested red deer and even wild boar as possibilities. John Waldon said that the Dartmoor pony might also help. Marion Saunders said that, if more ponies were grazed on Dartmoor, it would have to be accepted that some would need to be slaughtered for food as happened in the past; some sensibilities might have to be offended. Timothy Garratt agreed, saying that this could provide a useful income.

 Quentin Morgan-Edwards (Sampford Courtenay) asked about the experience of New Zealand, where farm subsidies had ended. Tracy May replied that many upland areas were now covered in impenetrable scrub. Tom Greeves said that in Australia, Angorra goats were very efficient clearers of gorse, and the wool of gorse-grazing sheep seemed to be of improved quality.

 Chris Meathrel (Kingsteignton) wondered if there was any documentation of vegetation on sites to help guide people in 50 years time. Tom Greeves said there was a huge amount of information but it was not being ordered for the needs of a specific project, and it was important that it should be. Simon Bates agreed and said that English Nature and other agencies could contribute.

 At the end of the Debate, and before we tackled the fine tea laid on for us, Tom Greeves, thanked delegates, chairman Timothy Garratt, the speakers and caterer Margaret Allin (of The Victorian Pantry, Okehampton) and her staff for making the day a great success.

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