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This blog post was published under the 2015-2024 Conservative Administration

Nature on Dartmoor

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: wildlife and farming

Reflections from Wes Smyth, Natural England’s Area Manager on how we ensure Dartmoor’s unique wildlife is preserved for future generations.

Dartmoor is special, a working landscape with wide open moorland framed by steep intimate wooded valleys and a pastoral moorland fringe. It’s a beautiful landscape much loved by millions of people who are drawn to Dartmoor to immerse themselves in nature, in the history that has shaped the landscape and to feel part of something much bigger than any one of us. It is a place with a rich natural history, the result of generations of low-intensity farming including transhumance, combined with naturally occurring habitats and species.

Protecting Dartmoor’s wildlife for future generations to enjoy will also make an important contribution to the UK’s delivery of global targets to protect at least 30% of the world’s land and at least 30% of the global ocean by 2030. This will require natural systems to be restored, species populations recovered, and extinctions halted - an ambition recognised in the Dartmoor National Park Partnership Plan. However, it’s become clear over the recent years that the relationship between farming, nature and other impacts like climate change are not in balance and nature is declining in a way that may jeopardise the huge value that Dartmoor brings to local communities and visitors.

Okehampton Exclosure , fence removed, March 2023 - Natural England, Eamon Crowe

The UK government has acknowledged that delivering on the ambition of UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) will be challenging and will require swift action. The scale of this challenge is evident on the Dartmoor commons where sadly the wildlife that once thrived is no longer as rich or resilient as it once was. On the face of it the wildlife we now experience can seem no different from that enjoyed and experienced by our parents and grandparents. However, memories fade and ecological baselines shift. In the 1980’s large areas of Dartmoor’s open moorland were designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and later as a Special Area of Conservation reflecting the national and international importance of Dartmoor’s moorland wildlife.

Despite the protection these designations provided, and the huge investment of public money in agri-environment schemes, wildlife has declined.  Breeding populations of golden plover, red grouse and ring ouzels have now gone or are on the verge of being lost. The large expanses of upland heathland that once characterised the moor are now fragmented and what remains is often in poor ecological condition.  Dartmoor’s precious peatlands, its blanket bogs on the highest ground and mires in the valley bottoms are still suffering from historic management affecting their ability to store carbon and regulate river flows.

Ring ouzel on cotoneaster bush - Natural England, Peter Roworth

So why has the current approach of protection and incentive through agri-environment schemes not reversed the decline of wildlife on Dartmoor’s moorland?

The current High Level Environment Stewardship (HLS) schemes now in place were set up to deliver a range of environmental outcomes including the delivery of SSSI favourable condition (that is the special interest features for which the SSSI was designated are in a healthy state).  On those agreements where not all the outcomes have so far been met, we are keen to sit down with agreement holders and talk thorough how we can support them in delivering on those outcomes.

For some agreements we will need to agree collectively how we can adjust grazing to reduce the impact on heathland vegetation and help control purple moor-grass expansion, explore how shepherding can be used to even out grazing pressure and address the continuing effect of historic peatland drainage.  We will need to work with graziers to agree how we can achieve the right animals in the right place at the right time of year.  This will take time and a partnership approach given the multiple demands that farm businesses on Dartmoor face.

Okehampton Exclosure, autumn 2022 - Natural England, Justin Gillett

There are of course other factors at play such as air pollution, other land use demands and climate change that have all impacted on Dartmoor’s wildlife and the condition of SSSIs.  The impact of large-scale burning management will also have played a part.  However, we have seen the capacity for nature to recover where farmers support environmental improvements.  For example, the number of breeding Dunlin pairs on Dartmoor has shown a positive response following peatland restoration.

Many of the current HLS agreements on Dartmoor’s commons are due to expire and as part of the transition to the new Environment Land Management scheme existing agreement holders can seek a voluntary 5-year extension to their agreement.  Agreement holders and ourselves can use this 5-year extension opportunity to plan for any changes and agree a way forward, helping provide continuity for farmers during the immediate agricultural transition period and help relieve some of the other pressures farmers are facing.

Dartmoor ESA, Combestone Tor - Natural England, Peter Wakely

In 2020, the Dartmoor National Park set out an ambition to “deliver Nature enhancement at a landscape scale, underpinned by the restoration of dynamic natural processes. Habitats are protected, restored, maintained, cared for, expanded and connected; supported by land management systems and natural capital investment that have the delivery of public goods at their heart.” At Natural England we fully support this commitment and are putting in place changes to support farmers through this transition, through their agri-environment agreements.

The only way to achieve this vision, to a more sustainable future for all stakeholders on Dartmoor is to work in close partnership. We are planning to meet commoners, landowners and the Dartmoor National Park in early April 2023 to try and agree a shared way forward where farmers and landowners feel they have a real stake in the success of their agri-environment agreements. Success would be viable farm business delivering transformational nature recovery on the Dartmoor commons.

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  1. Comment by John Toland posted on

    Very informative, thank you.

  2. Comment by Nigel Gipson. posted on

    The opening paragraph expertly describes Dartmoor,” a working environment “. There lies the problem. Having been brought up roaming and fishing on Dartmoor for over sixty years I have seen how stupid government and government quangos have been the direct cause of the loss of its wildlife and destruction of some ecosystems. First the introduction of headage payments for sheep(resulting in overstocking) then a drastic reduction in stock numbers and overwintering (proliferation of gorse and molinia)and then curbs on swaling resulting in further proliferation of scrub. It is time that the farmers,who know how to get the best out of Dartmoor,without causing the catastrophic results we have seen with government intervention over the last thirty odd years, and who have generations of experience in the vagaries of the moors, are left to manage it under the National park.They understand that areas need fencing off ,to regenerate,they know what stock numbers are needed to control the molinia and they know that large areas of gorse need to be burnt in order to control it. Stop natural England‘s stupid unscientific uneducated interference.Simples.

  3. Comment by Jean Johnston posted on

    Good luck! For many years our organisation (and predecessors) struggled to face up to the basic fact that if there are too many sheep (or other animals) grazing the uplands, they will be seriously damaged. I hope I am right in thinking that the approach you describe recognises that it is long past time that we make sure that we do not recommend any agri-environment agreements that provide public money for preventing nature recovery in the uplands, and do not provide consent for these on SSSIs. We do know what grazing regimes are required, and we need to use the evidence to advocate clearly what is needed. In many cases low levels of grazing, which allow reduced input costs are also better for farm I hope the time has come to sort this out properly everywhere.

  4. Comment by Chris Doel posted on

    I understand the climate change pressure on the world and the need for some radical change. However grazing sheep on dartmoor has been going on for 100s of years . They are part of Dartmoors ecology they are engrained in the land. The amount of sheep grazing on the moor has been vastly reduced over the years because of many things like foot and mouth and other schemes and incentives to reduce numbers. Making sheep farming unviable for many farmers. Farmers and sheep are a vital management tool in the national park. Getting rid of sheep farming by stealth and overstating the environmental benefits is gross green washing by people who really don't have a clue about living and working on dartmoor. At this rate farming in the UK is going to vanish. There are 65 million people in this country who need feeding. We should be more self reliant as recent international crisis have shown. We need agriculture it is vital to our countries existence. We can't allow the UK to become an environmentalist dream island and show case all these schemes that in effect will cripple our farming. I appreciate that things have to change but these have to be measured with the right approach and not removing farming communities all over the country not just Dartmoor. Wake up we need our farmers more than ever.

  5. Comment by Pat Armstrong posted on

    HLS schemes were set up against the advice of farmers and commoners who had lived and worked the high moor for generations. You now have the audacity to turn around and blame them for following your original plan and penalise them /force them into yet another scheme without listening. This is at least partly due to the dual pincer action of powerful lobbys such as Ben goldsmith and right to roam activists, together with the carbon credit lobby.None of which have enough lived knowledge to be able to effect positive change, rather, they have the potential to further damage the moor further. The whole thing beggars belief .

  6. Comment by Penny Bearman posted on

    Dartmoor is so precious, so glad so much thought is going in to its husbandry!

  7. Comment by S E Barnes posted on

    Words and aspirations are easily produced. As stated the previous management plans have mostly failed to improve the SSSIs . Were agreements made and money given out but the agreements not adhered to? Were the agreements inappropriate? It would have been useful to have had some information about the reasons for the past failures simply to prevent future ones happening. Dr SE Barnes.

  8. Comment by Mark Walker posted on

    Thank you for high lighting that under present schemes Dartmoor is not special. Please take a River Catchment system approach involving all the stake holders working together and supporting the changes needed. Immediate changes are needed building on the works already happening in some areas.

  9. Comment by Ian Pope posted on

    Take the sheep and cattle off the moor or at least reduce the numbers massively. Give the farmers the money they currently receive to produce meat that is not needed to properly manage the moor back to health

  10. Comment by Richard Bunning posted on

    One ecologist says effectively end all grazing.

    Another says invasive species are a serious problem requiring more grazing.

    Expert opinion on the evolution of the current environment says the ecology Dartmoor only exists because of land management using grazing.

    To effectively end grazing will be to create an ecology that has never existed before. Much like when the Knight family who bought the royal forest on Exmoor and embarked on revolutionary change of the ecology, the NE plan for Dartmoor risks the same catastrophic outcome.

    It is also the case that once sheep are removed, deer will move on and graze Dartmoor instead. This will grow until the deer saturate the food supply, with no predators to control their numbers, then we will see what over grazing really means.

    What is being proposed is called "internal colonisation" by ecologist experts, the process of imposing a land management regime on the host population that rides roughshod over centuries of handed down farming knowledge managed by farming communities.

    It is a high risk, punk science approach driven by veganomics, not the science.

    In effect it will be the same as the highland clearances. Farming businesses cannot possibly survive losing 90% of their grazing.

    Once the farmers, their highly adapted rare breed animals and their businesses disappear, there will be no way back.

    The world community has a definition of such policies.

    They are "ethnic cleasing", pure and simple.

    Just like the Knight family of the 19th century, NE is effectively treating Dartmoor farmers as country bumpkins who should be elbowed out of the way so that rewilding can be imposed on Dartmoor.


    The science is at best unclear about species decline.

    Perhaps macro ecological factors like pollution or global warming are driving change whilst tradition grazing is holding the line rather than being to blame.

    It is striking that academics in the field from both Exeter and Plymouth universities question the validity of effectively banning grazing from Dartmoor.

    NE is taking us on a voyage into the unknown. Dartmoor was grazed by huge herbivore herds of deer, aurochs and bison long before humans arrived. It's landscape is the result of 4000 years of land management as the wild herds gave way to domesticated animals.

    The NE plan won't restore some nirvana that never existed. What it will do is remove the valuable contribution of grazing. Gorse three metres high will take over, crowding out the species the NE plan is supposed to protect. In summer this gorse will catch fire, destroying huge areas and the animals and plants in them.

    HE is surrendering to the veganomics big business. Money to be made by adopting the vegan agenda, but only by attacking meat producers. Hill farmers, dependent on subsidies are a sitting target.

    NE is guilty of being swallowed into ignoring the impact of their policies simply because fashion rotates otherwise.

    Think again.

  11. Comment by Marguerite Ashman posted on

    Where can the research that you have based your future policy be seen. I would like to review it in its entirety. I feel the push to destock DNP further is definitely not the correct decision and will have a disastrous impact on the moors from many aspects. Please post the research in full.

  12. Comment by PETER TLUSTY posted on

    So what exactly are your plans for Dartmoor ? As a local I don't think there is a lot wrong with it apart from the masses of uncomprehending tourists in the Summer ! Dartmoor farmers do a good job in difficult circumstances Give them support not grief ! Full disclosure I am not a Farmer !

  13. Comment by Christopher Thomas posted on

    the intentions may be good, but we need a PROPER consultation which pays attention to all the views

  14. Comment by Richard Crocker posted on

    Presumably the underlying data on the extent and condition of the upland heath and the declining wildlife populations are in a detailed report. If so, where can this be obtained please ?

  15. Comment by Stephen Westover posted on

    Hopefully, this will serve to quell some of the wilder conspiracy theories out there, e.g. Natural England will be preventing farming and taking land from current owners, without compensation.
    Is there a readily available figure of the sum of money paid by the tax payer to Dartmoor farmers and owners through the various schemes designed to secure favourable management?