Farmers and Tory MPs are joining ranks to clash with conservation authorities about the best way to look after Dartmoor national park.
[Sources at Natural England said that while the Conservative MPs talk of the “grazing traditions” of Dartmoor, sheep have only been grazed there in the winter in the last 60 years when hardy Scottish breeds which could tolerate the freezing, windswept moors were introduced. See also this short historical review of human exploitation and the shaping of Dartmoor.]
So Conservatives have short memories. Whose interests are they really conserving? – Owl
Helena Horton www.theguardian.com
Parts of the national park are worryingly overgrazed, particularly by sheep, say nature experts, which is destroying habitats and putting rare birds at risk of local extinction. Breeding populations of moorland birds such as golden plover, red grouse and ring ouzels have now gone or are on the verge of being lost.
Natural England, the government nature watchdog, has advised farmers who are in agri-environment schemes and receive government money for nature friendly farming that they will have to reduce their stocks. It said that in summer, at least 50% of their livestock units should be cattle or ponies rather than sheep, and that “except for pony herds, winter grazing will need to be justified through clear and specific environmental outcomes that require winter stocking”.
Sources at the quango said that of the three largest moorland sites of special scientific interest (SSSI) – north Dartmoor, south Dartmoor and east Dartmoor – none of the key open moorland habitats, such as bog and heath associated, are considered to be in favourable condition.
Critics argue that farmers should not be paid millions of pounds of taxpayer money for environmental stewardship without changing their practices when the habitats are being degraded.
But the suggestion has been met with concern by local MPs. Sir Geoffrey Cox, a former attorney general and local MP, published a statement with other local Conservative MPs last week saying: “It seems that valuable and constructive work has now been abandoned by Natural England which has issued apparently peremptory limits on grazing, which would have a significant adverse impact on farm businesses (especially tenants), rendering some, if not many, no longer viable. It would also destroy the ancient traditional hefted flocks, which instinctively know the boundaries of their own common and are themselves a prized part of the unique life and culture of Dartmoor.”
Cox, Sir Gary Streeter, the MP for South West Devon, and Anthony Mangnall, the MP for Totnes, have asked for the current grazing regime to be kept in place for an extra 12 months, the appointment of an independent facilitator, and then an agreed “road map” for the way forward.
Cox, the Conservative MP for Torridge and West Devon, has secured a parliamentary debate later in April, where MPs will discuss whether Natural England’s management of the moor is adequate. The farming minister, Mark Spencer, is expected to respond.
But sources at Natural England said that while the Conservative MPs talk of the “grazing traditions” of Dartmoor, sheep have only been grazed there in the winter in the last 60 years when hardy Scottish breeds which could tolerate the freezing, windswept moors were introduced.
Dave Slater, the south-west regional director for Natural England, said that the grazing changes need to be made to save rare birds on the moors.
“Dartmoor contains three of the largest moorland SSSIs in the south-west, but none of these are in a ‘favourable condition’, with rare moorland birds all but disappearing from the area and precious peatland habitats damaged. The right type of grazing is fundamental to restoring the health of these moors.”
Alice Groom, the RSPB’s head of sustainable land use policy said: “Natural England have a statutory duty to protect Dartmoor’s SSSIs which like many in our national parks are largely in unfavourable condition.
“In order to deliver on the UK government’s commitments, places like Dartmoor need to provide more nature. This means ensuring that agri-environment schemes are fit for purpose, and support the people best placed to deliver it.
“In some situations, this will however involve making difficult choices about sustainable management. But we are in a nature and climate emergency and must not fight shy of making these choices.”