The Federation is calling on Defra and NE to pause reductions in stocking rates when negotiating HLS extensions unti ELM comes on stream. We explain our reasons why. 

Comparing notes throughout England

Over the past few months, we have compared notes with commoners in Dartmoor, Exmoor, North York Moors and Yorkshire Dales on how Natural England (NE) staff apply the rules and conditions for Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) Extensions on commons. The results are worrying. In some areas commoners are being asked to make significant cuts to stocking rates, while in others they are not. Commoners talk to each other and this is fuelling mistrust. One way to rebuild trust is to allow HLS agreements to roll over as they are until Environmental Land Management (ELM) comes on stream, unless there is clear evidence this will be detrimental to the environment.

In Exmoor, and on some Pennine commons, NE staff have offered commoners HLS extensions with no changes. While in the Lake District and Dartmoor, NE is asking commoners to either make significant reductions to stocking rates and/or reduce the period they can graze the common. If they don’t agree the NE Adviser will not recommend an extension. In effect, NE is requesting commoners to deliver a substantially changed scheme for a 1-year period only, in the expectation that it may be rolled over annually until ELM is ready.

Unsurprisingly the impact is different on different common. Some commoners think their flocks have already been cut to the bone. Paradoxically reducing sheep numbers on commons creates extra work for the shepherd, as the sheep wander ever further and are difficult to gather. Commoners are getting to the point where the extra work is not compensated by the money on offer or the wrench of having to part with sheep they have bred and known since birth.

We know of cases, in the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors where the local NE Adviser has withdrawn the option of an HLS extension and offers them Countryside Stewardship (CS) instead. In many cases CS is neither a comparable alternative to an HLS extension, nor an attractive business option. The support payments are usually less, and the scheme takes time and money to draw up.

Schemes are failing?

These 10-year schemes are coming to an end. In NE’s view many are failing as key habitats are not improving quickly enough. This is concerning and worrying for all. Many commoners had no idea their scheme was “failing”, till it was too late in the day. Comprehensive monitoring was patchy as many NE staff were too stretched to do the work. Commoners expected to be guided by NE staff, but this didn’t happen on a lot of commons.

Other factors at play?

We find it hard to believe that HLS schemes in some parts of England are performing significantly worse. So other factors must be at play. We know of NE Advisers who are respected by commoners, seen as even-handed in their judgments and good to work with. While others have the reputation for using schemes to further their ideology and interests. Could bias be creeping in here? When challenged these advisers can rarely provide comprehensive evidence for not recommending an HLS extension as funding for robust scheme monitoring has not been available.

Halt changes to stocking rates

NE Advisers have significant power over commoners, but their decision-making lacks transparency and accountability. This is fuelling a lack of trust. One way to rebuild trust is to allow HLS agreements to roll over as they are, unless there is clear evidence that this will be detrimental to the environment.
For more detail see our report “HLS Extensions on upland commons: gathering an evidence base from 27 case studies.”