AFTER several tense months since Natural England and farmers locked horns over grazing and the ecological state of Dartmoor, Dave Slater, the Regional Director for Natural England has outlined his hopes and plans for the future of the moor. 

In the blog, the government’s statutory advisor on nature conservation said that it is supporting an ‘evidence-based review’ of the situation of biodiversity loss on Dartmoor, but despite ‘deep divisions’, there is ‘much we all agree on’ for the long-term vision of Dartmoor.

He has reassured Dartmoor's farming community that no major changes will be actioned until an independent review has gone ahead.

In spring, Natural England 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. 

As a result of the findings, NE proceeded to send letters to the 900 Dartmoor farms outlining the need to change in order to reverse this decline. 

The letters indicated that renewals to the soon-ending agri-environmental agreements would be predicated on much stricter grazing regulations for farmers, many of which would remove livestock from the moor almost entirely during winter, and see dramatically lower grazing throughout summer.

While the move aimed to improve the ecological state of many moorland habitats, there were concerns that the changes would effectively end farming on Dartmoor and upend generations of community, culture and tradition with it. 

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.’

Following a Westminster Hall debate in April, it was agreed that an independent review of Dartmoor should take place before any major changes. 

Natural England confirmed this, stating: ‘we have agreed to extend Higher Level Stewardship agreements on Dartmoor, asking for some moderate removal of sheep,’ although ‘the vast majority of SSSI commons will not be asked to reduce stock this year.’

Natural England continued: ‘Once the evidence review is complete, we will look to work together with all the farmers and stakeholders on Dartmoor to agree a way forward. 

‘This will look to ensure there is trust, collaboration and understanding between all the partners – so that commoners can have some certainty on how they can plan their business and they are properly rewarded for the contribution they are making to the recovery of the SSSI.

'In conclusion, while views are often polarised, if we are to see a future for Dartmoor’s beautiful and unique habitats and the return of some of our iconic bird species, we will have to find a way to provide certainty and support to Dartmoor’s farmers.

'We will need to listen to each other and find solutions that are practical and fair– it cannot be one or the other and it will take time.'

You can read the full piece here.