Brexit and Dartmoor: Farmers’ fears for the future

Laura White
Laura White

By Mike Rego

At 11:00pm GMT on December 31st, the UK finally left the EU single market and customs union following the referendum that was held back in June 2016, and EU law ceased to apply to the UK. It was in June 2017, in debate following the Queen’s Speech at the Opening of Parliament that the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, gave a brief outline of intended Brexit-related Bills, which included a new Bill on agriculture intended to give greater stability to farmers.

Back in November 2020’ the Government unveiled the new Agriculture Act, with the plan to phase out existing subsidies to farmers in England and to replace the Basic Payments Scheme (BPS) under EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), once the Brexit transition period ended. The UK Government believed that ‘…overall, CAP has not been effective enough at reversing environmental damage caused by agriculture’. Farming Secretary George Eustace announced that the transition period from the old to the new scheme would be a gradual taper over seven years to 2027, with the first reduction in the usual payments from 2021. Eustace stated that farmers should access public cash ‘to help their businesses become more productive and sustainable, whilst taking steps to improve the environment and animal welfare, and deliver climate change outcomes on the land they manage.’ The plan was, and is, that the new ‘Environmental Land Management Scheme’ (ELMS) will award cash for environmental efforts such as improved soil health, creating natural flood barriers and species management, and restoring landscapes such as woodland and peatland.

To counter worries by farmers that the new system does not encourage increased production of farmed goods, the government argues that phasing out of the old system will free up new cash to boost productivity. Despite such assurances and welcoming the pledge about productivity, the National Farmers Union believe it to be a high risk strategy to gradually phase out existing support without a complete replacement scheme in place, particularly when BPS has been ‘a lifeline for many farmers, especially when prices or growing conditions have been volatile’.

However, this is where the potential conflicts lie which concern many farmers on Dartmoor. Despite often being described as the last wilderness in southern England, Dartmoor has been farmed for over 5,000 years since the late Neolithic, and is a managed landscape, consisting of some 48,450ha (47%) of moorland, and 33,041ha (38%) of farmland. (The rest is woodland, reservoirs and habitation.) Many of the farming practices have been developed over the years, evolving in harmony with the local environment, be it climate, geology, or native flora. Since just after the Second World War with the introduction of the Agricultural Act of 1947, the UK Government in line with most European governments has subsidised farming, ‘promoting and maintaining…, a stable and efficient agricultural industry capable of producing such part of the nation’s food and other agricultural produce as in the national interest it is desirable to produce in the United Kingdom, and of producing it at minimum prices consistently with proper remuneration and living conditions for farmers and workers in agriculture and an adequate return on capital invested in the industry’.

It is a sad fact that most livestock farming without subsidies is not economically viable. As was clearly stated in an independent report prepared in 2011 for the European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism, ‘High Nature Value Farmland in Rural development Policy – Dartmoor case study’; “Dartmoor’s harsh climate and poor soils means that farming has always been an economically marginal activity…” and “The vast majority of the agricultural land in the National Park is classed as Grade 5 (of little agricultural value, with severe limitations – it is rough grazing with scope for improved pasture on limited areas.)…”.

The Dartmoor Commoners’ Council has roots dating back to mediaeval times, when ‘venville men’ whose parishes ‘in venville’ surrounded the Forest of Dartmoor could pay the Duchy of Cornwall for the right to graze their livestock on the Forest by day. As a current member of the Dartmoor Commoners’ Council explains, the CAP replacement is the issue, the farming community is worried about the uncertainty. Ever since the Agricultural Act of 1947 and its EU descendant, CAP, there has been support for hill farmers to help keep food production in the UK as cheap as possible, and prices low for the consumer. Fifty years ago, for many people 20% of their average salary would be spent on food, now it is closer to 10%, and it is not unusual for a typical livestock farmer on Dartmoor to be getting sale prices comparable to those of his Grandfather. So a key issue is, do farmers get a realistic livestock price and consumers pay higher food prices, or will CAP be replaced with a viable alternative to keep food prices low? UK beef is regarded as a premium product, particularly from Dartmoor, but on the Moor it takes a long time to grow, so the profits are slim, and don’t make much money for the farmer – and it can be said that as consumers we don’t pay enough to match the cost of production. “If we need to keep farmers producing food at low cost, we need to provide financial support.” In simple terms, the implication is that if farms are no longer viable, there will be less grazing on the Moor, flora such as gorse and bracken will quickly grow out of control, with a consequent negative impact on wildlife diversity and public access, and increased wildfire risk.

Matt Cole is primarily a beef and sheep hill farmer near Yelverton and Princetown, who also grazes ponies on the Moor as well, and is a Director of Dartmoor Farmers Association, formed in 2007 and supported by HRH, the Prince of Wales. The idea behind Dartmoor Farmers Association was to bring together a group of farmers selling high quality beef and lamb from Dartmoor to create a sustainable farming business ‘finding a market for our unique product from our unique place’. He explains that before Christmas, many farmers were anxious about proposed Brexit tariffs on export lambs possibly being as high as 40%, so sold off their store lambs, thereby creating a shortage of lamb in January, and record high prices for this time of year. Given that the average lamb at sale is 20kg, that represents a gain of slightly over 20% equivalent to £20 per lamb, illustrating the volatility of the market.

Of the 110 farmers in the Dartmoor Farmers Association, 60 are sheep farmers who supply 52 stores of Morrisons supermarkets with 400 lambs per week from July through to February, as well as beef to Dart Fresh at Topsham, and to the wholesale catering trade and home delivery. The unique relationship with the supermarket to supply lamb of a certain size provides a degree of stability and avoids many of the risks of the commodity market, but traditionally smaller lambs that are slaughtered in the UK are exported and so prices have been volatile in the run-up to Brexit, with a devalued pound also giving lower prices to Europe.
Matt says that the Duchy of Cornwall and HRH have been key backers in providing legal help and opening doors to big consumer markets – ‘a great ally’ – as they want to encourage sustainable family farms across the Duchy estate.

As Matt sees it, the BPS was supposed to provide for the same price more-or-less across Europe, balance out the risk of the commodity market and typically represented about one third of farm income. Without BPS, the cost of beef and lamb to the consumer would have to rise by as much as 50%. As BPS tapers down to zero by 2027, ELMS will supposedly take over ‘as a shining beacon of hope’, or as the UK Government promotes it, “public money for public good”. Whereas under CAP farmers were paid based on the amount of land they farmed, under ELMS, farmers will be encouraged to produce environmental land management plans and be paid for the environmental outcomes that they deliver. The Government’s ambition is that ELMS will incentivise farmers to deliver the goals of the 25 year environment plan, comprising clean air, clean water, thriving plants and wildlife, reduction in and protection from environmental hazards, adaption to and mitigation of climate change, and beauty, heritage and engagement with the environment. The implication of this as Matt sees it, is that potentially he could stop farming beef and sheep for food production, and earn more money by simply managing the landscape! If farms stop farming and become merely parks and gardens, they will no longer be trading with perhaps up to 40 local businesses, and the bottom will fall out of the local economy. Furthermore, would the landscape actually survive? Grasslands effectively sequester carbon, and whilst there are undoubtedly re-wilding opportunities, re-wilding does nothing to benefit food production or protect the UK’s food security. No grazing leads to an overgrown environment. The key is surely to find the right balance between landscape and food production. It is worrying that food security is apparently not seen as a ‘public good’ under ELMS.

Being a National Park, Dartmoor is somewhat different, with various agricultural agreements between farmers and the Park over the last 25 years, but a major problem is that family farms need to be able to plan ahead and invest, but the current uncertainty with ELMS does not encourage that. Furthermore, if the cost of home-produced food goes up, poorer people cannot afford to buy British food, and the export-import markets become increasingly volatile influenced by foreign exchange rates.

Russell Ashford is a third generation hill farmer from near Buckfastleigh, farming some 280 acres ‘in-bye’ land and renting a further 430 acres of private heathland from the Duchy Estate. He mainly raises Angus beef and Scottish Blackface sheep organically. As chairman of the Dartmoor Hill Farm Project, he is heavily involved with the Dartmoor Environmental Land Management Test and Trials, one of several test and trial sites selected by DEFRA to inform the development of England’s new agri-environment scheme for farmers. Russell sees a number of shortcomings with ELMS already in terms of landscape management – for example, ELMS is supportive of new tree planting, but largely neglects the management of existing timber, and hedgerow management is not currently clarified. Woodlands need to be managed to thrive, as do hedgerows – different species require different styles of cutting at different times of year to support wildlife, and still need a protective fence if they are also to be effective enclosures of livestock. Grassland also needs to be maintained to the right species and standard if it is to be of optimum benefit to fatten livestock, to give the farmer a good sale price.

Russell says that whilst BPS is vital to economic viability, the cross compliance with the BPS is a significant undertaking – one has to comply with all the rules, if inspected and the land is not perceived to be in good agricultural and environmental condition, the farmer may lose some or all of the BPS payment for the year. ELMS is intended to be a voluntary sign-up, and will effectively replace the BPS and the Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS) better known since 2014 as the Rural Development Programme England (RDPE), a £3.1bn government subsidy for agriculture and forestry, to manage grasslands, woodlands and hedgerows.

Dartmoor hill farmers have always grazed their cattle, sheep and ponies on the Forest, Commons and ‘in-bye’ farms for the public good. It is this practice through careful management that has helped to create the iconic landscape that we all enjoy. Increasing restrictions over the last 20 years or so to reduce livestock numbers grazing on the Moor – apparently due to over-grazing – are seeing parts of the Moor become overgrown, particularly with gorse, bracken and scrub, and on the higher more open moorland with purple moor grass (Molinia). Like many other Dartmoor farmers, Russell believes that this policy of reduced grazing is leading to a loss of wildlife diversity, makes areas inaccessible to the public, and encourages greater problems with various tick-borne diseases, such as Lyme Disease, Babeziosis (redwater), Louping and Tick Pyemia. With the increase in scrub density due to lack of grazing, particularly gorse, the task of gathering animals from the Moor is considerably greater. Gorse especially can lead to a major risk of wildfires, and the recent lack of swaling, due partly to wet weather in 2019 and Covid-19 in 2020, has seen a decrease in swaling and a significant increase in the growth and spread of gorse. If under ELMS farmers are required to take more livestock off the Commons, particularly over winter, food production costs will inevitably rise – feed costs will increase, buildings for shelter will need to be built subject to available funding and to planning permission from the National Park, and farmers will be at increased risk of BPS/ELMS penalties for poor land management over the winter due to cattle churning up their land. Bringing cattle inside over the winter months may solve some of the problems with land management, but it considerably increases the costs of stock welfare and feeding, which in turn decreases the overall financial viability.

One member of the Dartmoor National Park Authority, who asked to remain anonymous, puts it more succinctly – if farms on the Moor become no longer economically viable, and are not able to attract the next generation of farming families into farming, we shall lose the farming heritage – the knowledge and skills, not just of farming livestock, but all the accompanying traditional skills, such as stone wall construction and maintenance, fencing and hedgerow management, wildlife management, etc. The risk is that the Dartmoor landscape could become little more than a ‘Disneyfied’ theme park of environmental experimentation, rather than an economically viable and managed landscape contributing to UK’s food security.

Russell hopes that if ELMS policies can be built from the bottom up, as farmers have been led to believe will be the case, then based on input from the experience of farmers it can work, but like many he fears that it will be implemented from the top down regardless, hence why it is so important that the Dartmoor ELM Tests and Trials currently taking place have the chance to break the mould and resolve the many uncertainties currently surrounding ELMS. He goes on to say that livestock farmers are feeling threatened, and if they are not listened to, the implementation of ELMS could be a disaster for farming on Dartmoor leading to either the abandonment of farms, or the amalgamation of farms with jobs being lost. In some instances hill farmers could feel that their only option is to go back to greater numbers of stock all year round on the Commons which in turn could lead to stock roaming beyond their lear or domain, and potentially consequent damage to the Commons. Russell believes that it is important to strike the right balance between effective land management, care for the welfare of livestock, and economic viability for the future of farming on Dartmoor.

The current Dartmoor ELM Tests and Trials are being co-designed by a range of stakeholders including a team of 15 volunteers from the Dartmoor farming and land-owner community, who are effectively helping to write a scorecard to steer the content and output of the project. The hope is for DEFRA to embrace their recommendations from the ground up. At the end of the day though, many farmers like Russell feel that it simply isn’t feasible to expect low food prices and for farms to stay in business. And despite various schemes to promote UK food such as Red Tractor and other food assurance schemes, the public is used to, and wants, cheap produce, and cheap imported produce will always be more popular than premium domestic produce, organic or otherwise. Farmers do try and do their best for the environment, habitat and livestock, which is after all in their best interests also, but they do still need to be able to produce food at an economically viable cost.

Colin Abel, Chairman of the Forest of Dartmoor Commoners’ Association and a sheep farmer from Peter Tavy, states that due to the Brexit deal, prices are up at present and relatively stable, but that prices still do not cover the cost of production. He believes that if ELMS can’t cover the costs of production and doesn’t function, there will be serious problems ahead. Payment by result of environmental landscape management is all very well, but who determines the outcome, and will it be determined at an informed local level rather than at national level? Dartmoor National Park is primarily an upland environment, and ELMS could work if there is local input, but like many farmers he believes that it is not currently achievable.

Twenty years of such prescriptive schemes have reduced livestock grazing on the Moor by 50-75%. As an example of the detrimental effect of lack of grazing, Colin references the Dartmoor Forest Commons in the region of Teign Head and Dart Head, where there is blanket bog that can be grazed in summer but not winter. The non-burning peat policy, under the Peatland Burning Code whereby areas of peat with greater thickness than 40cm cannot be swaled, has allowed purple moor grass (Molinia) to take over rapidly during the summer months. Molinia has good nutritional value in the spring whilst fresh, but thereafter is of minimal value to livestock or the farmer in terms of promoting weight gain. Furthermore if not grazed it forms a dense blanket when it dies back in October, dominating and smothering other flora and limiting the wildlife diversity. In the past, regular swaling area by area would have kept it in check. From a farming perspective, the increase in Molinia affects where the livestock prefer to graze, but with overall stock reduction, and thereby less competition, the livestock takes the easy option and drifts down off the Forest Common to the sweeter grass on the Home Commons and in-bye farms, making it a continual battle for the seventy or so graziers on the Forest Commons to keep their livestock where it is meant to be.

The reduction in winter grazing on the Dartmoor Forest Commons after November 1st, was introduced by Natural England under the Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) Scheme in 2001, because they believed that the Moor was being overgrazed and that the livestock damaged the peat bogs. However, many farmers believe that this has seen the hill cattle become less hardy. As Colin says, and other farmers echo, there seems to be little compromise from Natural England in their quest for ‘re-wilding’ of the Moor that actually helps the hill farmer.

In discussions with The Moorlander, it is clear that many rank and file farmers and land owners are not confident in the future of farming on Dartmoor as ELMS replaces BPS post-Brexit. They feel persecuted by what they see as increasingly restrictive environmental and landscape management schemes that sacrifice food production and a landscape that has been managed and shaped by over 5,000 years of farming, (not to mention mining and tin streaming), in favour of ‘re-wilding’ – seen by many as creating a semi-artificial recreational landscape that whilst supporting biodiversity actually sacrifices sustainable farming and food production. As one farmer describes it, ‘Natural England seems to want birds and butterflies rather than viable businesses’.

One, fifth generation sheep and cattle farmer from the in-bye areas adjacent to the Commons on the eastern edge of the Moor, explains that farming on Dartmoor has always been a ‘dog and stick’ affair, because of the harsher environment, the remoteness of many areas, and crucially the narrow lanes that restrict the movement of larger agricultural machinery. Whilst trying to produce food sustainably, but with increasing demands in order to qualify for subsidies, farmers feel like they are being asked to jump through ever smaller hoops. As an example, he states that Natural England want farms to grow and maintain grasses that are environmentally friendly to insects, however, such grasses are not ideal pasture as they don’t fatten lambs so well without buying in additional feed supplements, thus reducing the stock value and creating a need for feed supplements, in turn increasing the cost of food production. In the past, small farms would traditionally grow a variety of crops such as kale, rape or swede to help fatten the livestock, whereas the larger farms would rent fields off the Moor in the South Hams for example, but as many arable farmers in such areas are now sowing winter corn on top of spring corn for better yields, rental per acre can be more than double that of the in-bye country, and before livestock can be grazed in such areas, fencing also needs to be improved, all of which greatly reduces the profit margin yet further.

A comparison between the Natural England approach to re-wilding of moorland and that of the Commoners’ approach to traditional moorland grazing methods cited by a number of farmers is between the East Dartmoor Nature Reserve at Trendlebere Down, and the adjacent Haytor Down and Bagtor Down Commons. Natural England’s approach to Trendlebere has been a largely hands-off affair, and where twenty to forty years ago there was abundant pasture for grazing by livestock, with abundant heather typical of lowland heathland, today the area is overgrown with large areas of gorse interspersed with patches of bracken, and little heather. The lack of swaling means that the gorse is often four to six feet high in places, and ever encroaching on footpaths and archaeological sites, leading to a dramatic reduction in grazing with increased erosion by walkers and horseriders of the ever more constricted pathways. Despite the creation of firebreaks being cut through the gorse, which also act to concentrate walkers, horse riders and the occasional livestock, in dry weather the undergrowth is like a tinderbox, and at high risk of a major wildfire that with a light wind could easily jump the firebreaks. Ironically perhaps, under the definition of Lowland Heathland on the Dartmoor National Park website (, which includes Trendlebere Down, it is stated that: “Threats to this habitat include over-grazing, abandonment and inappropriate burning regimes.”

By comparison, Haytor Down and Bagtor Down Commons are regularly swaled and grazed, and the view across Haytor Down shows a contrasting mosaic of habitats leading to greater biodiversity, easier public access, assorted livestock regularly grazing and a reduced risk of extensive wildfires spreading
out of control.

Dartmoor National Park Authority wants to see the Commons well managed by the respective Commoners who have the grazing rights and effectively manage it for Natural England. One area of Spitchwick Common that is not regularly swaled is also rampant with gorse, contrasting against the effect of swaling nearby.

Adrian Colston, former General Manager for the National Trust on Dartmoor and now a Ph.D researcher at Exeter University specialising in the politics of farming and the environment on Dartmoor, posts an excellent regular blog detailing various aspects of the Natural History and Environmental Land management of Dartmoor. In a blog post dating back to November 2019, he discusses, amongst other topics, the problems of Molinia and livestock grazing, and how although it is acknowledged that the best way to manage Molinia is by grazing with cattle from May to July whilst it is palatable, the economics of hill farming make it difficult to provide sufficient cattle to check the spread of Molinia through grazing. As a result the livestock concentrates on areas of sweeter grasses closer to the moor gates leading to over-grazing in localised areas, reinforcing the argument that more livestock are needed to graze the Moor to create the required increase in biodiversity. As Adrian states: “We need to find a new narrative – a narrative that is better than the one it replaces. And somehow, Dartmoor will need more cattle and ponies. …”

There is an alternative approach in action. ‘Dartmoor Farming Futures (DFF) is a farmer led, experimental pilot project aimed at developing a new outcome-focused approach to the management of the public and environmental benefits associated with Dartmoor’s moorland…’. The DFF initiative was developed some twelve years ago principally by Dartmoor Commoners, Dartmoor National Park Authority, the Duchy of Cornwall and the Dartmoor Commoners’ Council, with additional support from Natural England, South West Water and the Royal Society for Protection of Birds. The concept is that the scheme offers farmers and landowners more responsibility for the design and delivery of agri-environment schemes, focuses on the complete range of public benefits associated with upland farming, and facilitates a collaborative approach to agreeing the outcomes sought, delivering the management required and assisting with the monitoring of the process. DFF ties in with Dartmoor Vision, ‘a shared vision developed with the landowners and users which sets out what the moorland will look like in 2030…’. It can be described as an attempt to give farmers a blank sheet of paper to input their intimate knowledge of the Moor from a historic and practicable farming and land user perspective, irrespective of Natural England, to create a sustainable and economically viable future for the management of Dartmoor’s unique landscape and environment.

Post-Brexit, it is critical that ELMS be made to work for farmers as well as the landscape and environment, particularly within harsher upland habitats such as Dartmoor, and where many farmers are tenants with livestock being their only tangible asset. Such tenant farmers are reliant on the environmental payments through Natural England, and if for any reason such payments are not maintained, they will simply not be able to survive. At present many farmers on Dartmoor, both tenant and land-owning, have little confidence in the future of farming on Dartmoor under ELMS.

Farmers and landowners, governing bodies and environmental groups have a trade-off between managing the environment and landscape for biodiversity and sustainability, domestic food production and security, and ensuring that farming on Dartmoor, which has evolved over some 5,000 years is economically viable.

The current fear of many is that if current farms and farming practices cannot survive, Dartmoor may look a very different place in twenty or thirty years, and not necessarily for the better.

The following weblinks can provide more information about some of the organisations and projects mentioned in this article:

A Dartmoor Blog by Adrian Colston
Dartmoor Commoners’ Council –
Dartmoor Farmers Association –
Dartmoor Farming Futures –
Dartmoor Hill Farm Project –
Dartmoor National Park –
Environmental Land Management Test and Trials in Devon –
Forest of Dartmoor Commoners’ Association –
Natural England –

FeaturesLocal Life