Background: many Dartmoor HLS commons agreements ended in 2023

In early 2023 Natural England (NE) notified Dartmoor commoners and their Associations that NE could not recommend extensions to most of these agreements unless the commoners agreed to make significant reductions in stocking rates and in many cases total off-wintering.
This came as a shock to the commoners believing their future participation in Agri-Environment Schemes had been thrown into question. Some saw it as “rewilding by the back door”.

The Dartmoor Commoner’s Council expected minor adjustments from NE but “not the draconian changes suggested to take place over the next five years”.

Request to the Defra Minister for a Review

The Dartmoor National Park Authority stepped in with commoners and other interested parties, they developed a set of proposal to NE and the RPA, including:

  • An automatic 12-month extension to current Higher Level Stewardship agreements.
  • An independent review of the situation regarding agri-environment agreements, future of farming, food and fibre production and delivery of public benefits to inform an agreed action plan.

This was endorsed by Dartmoor MPs who sponsored a Westminster Hall debate to move the issue forward. They requested the Minster, Mark Spencer commission a Review. He agreed and appointed David Fursdon as Chair, along with a panel of 8 members, including Will Cockbain.

The purpose of the Review

The review was asked to look at the following:

  • examine existing ecological evidence, consider the current management of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) across Dartmoor, determine why some sites are improving and others not, and how lessons might be applied across all sites on Dartmoor.
  • review any lessons learned from previous approaches on Dartmoor or similar situations by examining comparable case-studies.
    make recommendations as to the most effective grazing and management regime(s) that would deliver improvements on the SSSI sites across Dartmoor so they can maintain or achieve favourable condition whilst also balancing the long-term and sustainable delivery of other priorities such as agricultural production, public access and cultural and natural heritage;
  •  advise what is needed to support delivery of that regime consistent with existing legally binding targets and statutory duties, with a particular focus on those sites that are currently not recovering or in favourable condition.

Headline Findings from the Dartmoor Independent Review

The Review was published early December 23. What follows is a summary of the conclusions and findings. You can read the Review  here

Natural England gets a pasting. The review calls for a total overhaul of policy and practice and told NE to completely change its approach to engaging with farmers on Dartmoor. They need to put effort into rebuilding trust and respect through working closely and openly with the commoners and other interested parties.
Dartmoor is not in a good state. Its hydrology is severely compromised because of historic peat cutting and drainage. Molinia (purple moor grass) is out-competing other vegetation, gorse and bracken are encroaching causing increased erosion as more people and animals are channeled onto the few clear paths. Heather and other dwarf shrubs are stunted and sparse. Vegetation management is beset by under-and over-grazing and there is a danger of a vicious cycle developing.
30 years of environmental policy has failed. NE’s narrow focus on SSSIs condition is not working to restore/improve biodiversity. The lack of consistent SSSI monitoring has made it impossible to know whether the SSSIs were in favourable condition when they were notified, and if they have improved or declined since then. The panel suspected that many of the SSSI have been in poor condition for a long time and NE’s focus on changing the balance of grazing and removing the sheep has not resolved the problem.

Some key recommendations
  • The creation of an independent Land-Use Management Group to deliver a new plan for Dartmoor.
  • Support for vegetation management, including conservation grazing by cattle and ponies, controlled burning, and the management of sheep to protect heather and other plants.
  • Agri-environment schemes that support the vision for landscape recovery.
  • Improved transparency of the way protected sites are monitored.
  • More staff at Natural England to create partnerships with commoners and farmers and re-build trust.
How does this relate to Cumbria?

Rings true: The Dartmoor Review uncovered failures of NE’s policy and practice, poor communications, and monitoring. It has brought to light what we have known is going on in the Lake District, Pennines and Howgills.

Stressfull: Commoners’ Associations and land agents across Cumbria tell us that their experience of negotiating HLS extensions with NE is fraught and stressful. Frequent complaints include: the extension process started late giving little time for negotiation; NE staff are neither open nor transparent in the way they apply the rules and conditions for extensions; NE staff ask graziers to make reductions to their sheep numbers with little explanation or concrete evidence; NE staff only make flying visits to SSSI commons, resulting in fairly cursory judgements of their condition.

Poor communictions: NE’s approach to engaging with graziers is often not that good and could do with improving .

Lack of transparency:  NE often do not provide basic information on how they undertake SSSI condition assessments on commons for HLS extensions, such as when and how often it has been moniotred over the lifetime of the agreement, who undertook the monitoring.

What should you do?
If you find NE staff are asking for further cuts in stocking rates to give you an HLS extension, point them to the Dartmoor Independent Review. Ask them where their evidence comes from and crucially whether it is robust enough before they ask for changes that have the potential to impact negatively on hill farmers’ livelihoods, management of the common, and the environment.
In conclusion, the Review has brought to light what we have known for ages.

Please read the Dartmoor Independent Review and tell us what you think we should do next.