AFTER several hours of deliberation in a House of Commons debate, Westcountry MPs came to a bi-partisan agreement to independently review controversial proposals by Natural England to dramatically reduce stocking levels of livestock on Dartmoor. 

The inquiry was given the green light by Minister for Farming Mark Spencer MP after MP for Torridge and West Devon, Sir Geoffrey Cox raised concerns during a House of Commons debate he secured on Tuesday.

The inquiry comes after Natural England, the body that represents Defra, published a blog post explaining that much of Dartmoor’s Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) were in decline, despite ‘huge investment’ through agri-environment schemes since the 1980s. 

Following the blog, Natural England proceeded to send letters to the 900 Dartmoor farms that sent shockwaves throughout the community. The letters outlined much stricter grazing regulations for farmers in the agri-environment schemes, which, would remove livestock from the moor almost entirely during winter, and see dramatically lower grazing throughout summer.

Sir Geoffrey Cox said that this news ‘was the equivalent of exploding a metaphorical bomb within the small and fragile communities that the moorland hosts.’

Sir Cox notes that ‘not a single organisation on the moor was consulted.’

He continued: ‘The problem we have on Dartmoor today is that there has been a steady and gradual breakdown of trust and confidence that should exist between its statutory regulator and the farming communities.

‘You cannot simply explode upon these fragile communities, a sudden change of what they’ve been doing for decades, the loss of their hefted flocks, the loss of all these social and cultural values, because of a single perspective that fails to take into account the complexity of the balance that must be achieved.’

Since the commons debate, MPs unanimously agreed to conduct an independent inquiry into NE’s plans. 

Speaking on the decision, Sir Geoffrey said: ‘I am very glad the government has acceded to this necessary request for an independent process. It is essential that there should be a partnership between all those involved in managing Dartmoor’s precious heritage and it is clear the relationship between our farming communities and Natural England requires urgent repair. 

‘I am determined to support our local farming families to sustain viable businesses on the Moor, which are vital to the wellbeing of our communities on Dartmoor, while enabling the condition of our natural landscape to be improved. I shall be closely following this independent process, which will now go forward over the next 12 months.’

Anthony Mangnall, MP for Totnes, said: Mr Mangnall said ‘Farmers are not anti-environmentalist. They have followed Government rules and regulations, because that is what is required of them. However, Natural England’s recent pronouncement about livestock and grazing reductions will push most common land farmers to the brink. Their future hangs in the balance. This is not rhetoric or parliamentary drama; it is a fact...we cannot stand idly by – we must see an improvement.’