The future of SSSIs on Dartmoor

  • Contributor information: CNP


The Independent Evidence Review on Dartmoor was set up earlier this year to:

“make recommendations on the most effective grazing and management regime(s) that would deliver improvements on the Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) 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.”

The effective management of protected sites has been an issue on Dartmoor’s commons ever since they were notified in the 1980s. The designations are there to legally safeguard, in essence, three types of internationally scarce wildlife habitat – blanket bogs, heaths (both wet and dry) and remnants of our Western oakwood, often called our “temperate rainforests”.

To a lesser or greater degree, the condition of each of these habitats is intimately linked to the way Dartmoor’s commons are grazed. Too much grazing, particularly by sheep in winter, and associated burning (“swaling”) and the habitats are destroyed or impoverished. Too little summer grazing, especially by cattle, and huge areas are swamped by moor grass resulting in a species poor monoculture.

This, in a nutshell, is what we see on the moor. Under-grazed moor grass dominates in many places, inaccessible to livestock and concentrating their numbers on surrounding land where overgrazing occurs. Here where heather and bilberry once flourished, poor quality grassland is the result.

These are the main reasons why so few of the SSSIs on Dartmoor’s commons are in favourable condition. 

Despite decades of effort, and in the last ten years £32M+ of public money given to farmers in agri-environment schemes, the right balance of grazing has never been achieved and the protected sites continue to fail.

This simply cannot be allowed to continue. We are in a climate and ecological emergency. On the Biodiversity Intactness Index, the UK is 12th from the bottom out of 240 countries. The latest State of Nature report states that one in six species in the UK is at risk of extinction.

Dartmoor has to play its part in reversing these trends, and indeed must do if the Government is to meet its legally binding target to deliver 30 per cent of land and sea well-managed for nature by 2030. Currently, only a dismal 3-5% of land qualifies.

So, what needs to be done? What crucial issues does the Review panel need to consider to ensure Dartmoor’s farmers and landowners can restore the SSSIs to good condition (and adhere to the law that requires this)?

First, nature must become the priority in the National Park.  No “ifs”, no “buts”, nature must be number one. It needs to be written into the purposes of the Park Authority; it needs to be written into the purposes of the Dartmoor Commoners’ Council who have legal responsibility for the way grazing is carried out. This will need repeal of the 1985 Dartmoor Act and may mean the Council as currently constituted is disbanded and reformed to include wider representation of interests and is better suited to delivering nature restoration. If it is not fit for purpose, so be it.

Second, nature needs farmers on Dartmoor’s commons. Many of the habitats, especially the heaths, are a product of farming. The others feel its influence. So, to flourish, it needs farmers that have the needs of nature at heart. “Of course!” many will cry, but on the moor this actually means a deep and fundamental change of mindset.

Nature must come first, it should start every conversation, and only then should attention turn to food production, culture and the many other things farming provides. This is quite a radical change.

Many will say farming is there to primarily produce food; to ensure food security. Of course, in many places it is. But 20 percent of the UK’s least productive land, including Dartmoor, produces just 3 percent of the calories. In a recent study by the Green Alliance, it was calculated that required changes to stocking on Dartmoor to deliver nature and carbon would result in just a one calorie difference to the nation’s food requirements.

No, farming on Dartmoor’s commons must be primarily about providing nature on behalf of the nation – “nature security”. The security that is fundamental to life on earth. This is not to say that food cannot be produced on the commons, nature and food production are not incompatible (indeed the latter depends on the former). It is just that, in this place, it is not the primary reason farming is done.

To achieve this change, given that the market doesn’t reward “nature production”, farmers must be paid appropriately by the taxpayer for delivering nature on our behalf. Any future agri-environment schemes must support “public money for public goods” and nature restoration must be the top priority for all support payments.

These payments must of course be based on real and measurable outcomes to ensure the public are getting value for the tax money they are investing. In this respect it is also vital that farmers get the very best advice, and that the Government’s nature agency, Natural England, is properly funded to provide independent quality assessment.  

Those farmers who are ambitious and forward looking in delivering nature deserve all our support. For those that are not, we need to ask, as a society, whether they are the right people to be managing Dartmoor’s commons.

Third, and leading on from point two, we need new schemes to really deliver. This is again going to mean change. One crucial change is the removal of sheep in winter from places where the heather and bilberry need to recover but currently can’t because of the grazing pressure during the cold months when they have little grass to eat. Such changes of course mean farmers must look again at how their home farms off the moor provide space for animals in winter – but schemes and support needs to reconnect commons with home farms, they should not be viewed separately as they are currently. 

There also needs to be the right number of animals, particularly cattle, on the high moor in summer. Properly managed in the right places in the right numbers at the right time, these could help reduce the dominance of purple moor grass in places.

In essence, with livestock it may be about re-establishing a form of “transhumance”. The use of the high moor as summer grazing is, after all, central to the historical and cultural traditions of Dartmoor.

Fourth, and last, it’s also important to recognise that nature’s recovery on Dartmoor’s commons is not just about farming – and this needs proper recognition. The restoration of blanket bogs is about rewetting the peat by restoring healthy hydrological function of large areas of the highest ground. This has little to do with grazing – it’s akin to a huge engineering project to block gullies and grips to stop water flowing off the peat. Get this right and large areas can be returned to favourable condition for nature, as well as actively storing carbon and making a contribution towards mitigating climate change.

Already much great work is being done on peat restoration, but much more needs to be done, and with increased urgency. Yes, the cost is high in terms of outlay.  But the benefits to society far outweigh the investment.

In summary, any review into Dartmoor’s commons must conclude that nature in this place is the priority for farmers to deliver on behalf of the nation and this must be written into the purposes of key organisations charged with the management of the land, chiefly the National Park Authority and the Commoners’ Council.

It must also ensure that nature-friendly farmers are given the right support to deliver nature – over and above anything else and change their mindset towards this. There are some potential positives in this respect. The East Dartmoor Landscape Recovery scheme is in development, and bids are in for two other areas.

One of these, the Central Dartmoor landscape Recovery scheme is of particular interest because it is farmer led – exactly the sort of initiative and ambition we need to see.  But there is only limited Government funding for these “higher level” schemes, and the next round is likely to be oversubscribed. If we are to deliver 30×30 the Government needs to urgently find the cash to reward farmer ambition.

Dartmoor is a wonderful place – and its unique offer to us all is nature. And we can do so much better. In a climate and ecological emergency, it’s vital that it realises its full potential.