DEFRA confirmed this week that there will be an independent evidence review into the management of protected sites on Dartmoor.

Additionally, most Dartmoor farmers have been offered extensions to their stewardship agreements, meaning that they will not have to reduce their livestock on the moor until the review concludes.

David Fursdon, an experienced industry figure based in Devon, has accepted the position of chair and will lead the review alongside a small panel of experts.

The review follows a tumultuous few months for farmers on Dartmoor. Earlier this year, Natural England (NE) 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, NE 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, MP for West Devon and Torridge, 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.’

MPs worked to secure the independent review that ‘will work with local farmers and stakeholders and will draw on the best available evidence to provide an independent perspective on the management of the protected sites on the moor.’

The review seeks to:

  • Examine the existing ecological evidence base to consider the current management of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) across Dartmoor to determine why some sites are seeing improvements and others are not, and how lessons might be applied across all sites on Dartmoor.
  • Review any lessons learned from previous approaches on Dartmoor or similar situations by examining comparable case-studies.
  • Make recommendations as to the most effective grazing and management regime(s) that would deliver improvements on the SSSI sites 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.
  • Advise what is needed to support delivery of that regime consistent with existing legally binding targets and statutory duties, with a particular focus on those sites that are currently not recovering or in favourable condition.

Farming Minister Mark Spencer said:

‘I’d like to thank David Fursdon for agreeing to chair this important independent review.

‘The review will help us identify how we can deliver much-needed environmental improvements on Dartmoor while supporting other priorities such as agricultural production, public access and cultural and natural heritage.’

David Fursdon, Chair of the review said:

I am delighted to be Chairing this independent review and I look forward to fully engaging with all stakeholders involved in the management of Dartmoor.

The review will report in the autumn and help inform the environmental schemes and protected site management across Dartmoor.

While the review is ongoing, NE, working with Defra and the Rural Payment Agency, has confirmed it will limit changes to current environmental agreements. 

It confirmed this earlier this week. In letter sent to Dartmoor farmers outlining a proposal for a one-year extension to existing stewardship agreements. The proposal assures that there will be no reduction in livestock numbers for most areas during this extension period.

Following this initial extension, a four-year extension is planned, which will take into account the outcomes of an independent review on the management of Dartmoor announced earlier this year overseen by Defra ministers.

In the case of appropriate agreed management practices being in place, agreement holders will have the option to choose a five-year extension for their Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreements.

NE will only ask for immediate changes to stocking regimes ‘on a minority of sites where the severity of the risk is such that it poses an immediate threat to the longer term recovery of the ecology of the Site of Special Scientific Interest.’

Dave Slater, South West Regional Director for NE added: ‘Natural England welcomes this review as an important step for the future recovery of the natural habitats on Dartmoor.

‘Our long term joint approach with Dartmoor farmers to protect and enhance these habitats needs to be based on a shared understanding of the evidence that will inform how we can have a future where nature and farming can thrive together.’