The Minister sees commoning for herself
On July 4th, the Defra Minister, Victoria Prentis MP, Trudi Harrison (local MP for Copeland) and Defra civil servants visited Nether Wasdale Common. They wanted to find out more about the Commons Test and Trial we are delivering with the Foundation for Common Land.
The weather was glorious. Over a picnic lunch we covered a wide range of thorny issues on commons, including:
- Baseline assessments of habitat condition on the common,
- The costs associated with developing new agreements,
- The availability and access to reliable data
- Stocking rates and grazing levels
- Visitor access and pressure especially on areas of SSSI
- Higher Level Scheme extensions
Maintaining a balance
Commoners from Nether Wasdale explained how their traditional heafing system has been knocked off balance over the years by seesawing agricultural policy. At one time farmers were paid to put stock on the common, now they are being paid to take them off. But if you tip the scales in one direction areas of common land get overgrazed. Tip it the other way and we get the worst of all worlds. Under grazing and overgrazing on the same common.
Managing common land so sheep and nature thrive is a skilled and complex job. It requires local farming knowledge and experience acquired over generations, blended with ecological knowledge. This hasn’t happened to date. DEFRA and NE civil servants designed the current crop of standardised environmental schemes with an almost exclusive focus on biodiversity. We believe that unless and until environmental scheme design gives equal respect to local and scientific knowledge, they will always underperform.
Sir George Stapledon probably the greatest pastoral agronomist of the twentieth century observed ‘Master decisions affecting too many people are made by too few,’
He also recognised that ‘standardisation assumes that our system is perfect.’