Green Issues: Is grazing threatened?

Laura White
Laura White

Quite helpfully, I’ve left writing this column to the last minute. I normally have some idea of what I’m going to write about but this week was one of those ‘let’s wait and see what happens’ weeks. As it turns out, just as we are about to go to press, I have received a message from a town councillor about some potentially breaking news that could have a huge impact on the commons.

Currently, this claim is unsubstantiated and I would never normally print something that hasn’t been either confirmed or denied, but please forgive me this once breaking my own rules in the faith that this issue is being investigated and further information, I hope, will be presented in the next edition of The Moorlander.

Grazing on Dartmoor is something that graziers know a lot about and non-farming folk don’t, really. It’s not a simple, straight forward thing; the right to graze is set in stone but what the commoners do with that right can change depending on current government schemes, market values and many other factors.

Basically, in a nut-shell, Devon County Council registered the land in register units CL155 (Okehampton Common), CL164 (Forest of Dartmoor) and CL 135 (the Triangle) as common land in 1967 and 1968 after the Commons Registration Act 1965 was launched.

The purpose of this Act was to have a complete register, set for all time, of who owned which parts, who grazed which parts and who held commoners’ rights. There were five years in which these rights could be registered.

There was a brief period, when the Act was updated in 2006, when commoners who felt their rights should have been registered and weren’t, could apply for the records to be amended. Since April 2001, the common land mentioned has been involved in a Stewardship/Wildlife Enhancement Scheme, which means that graziers could either choose to graze their herd, with the correct registered livestock units (a unit being one cow or horse, or five sheep) or they could accept payments not to graze the land.

Despite the common being registered as common land, it is managed by Dartmoor National Park Authority and Natural England. This particular part of Dartmoor, it appears, comes mostly under the management of Natural England.

So, now onto what we have been told is happening. The following was forwarded to me, taken from Facebook (again, forgive me, something I would never normally do!)

“Just a little heads up to get your cameras out to record a bit of history… . I took  photo yesterday of West Mill Tor and Yes Tor. It saddens me to think that the future of the sheep in the picture, along with the others on Okehampton Common is looking decidedly bleak. Scenes like this are soon going to become a thing of the past.

The body who has been given control to ‘preserve’ Dartmoor is Natural England and their aim is to allow dwarf shrubs such as gorse and the like to take over the landscape which will then cause large parts of the moor to become a wilderness and totally inaccessible to dog walkers, hikers and others wishing to use our lovely commons for recreation. To achieve this, they intend to all-but stop sheep grazing and recommend that sheep are removed from as early as the next few weeks. These sheep have been helping to preserve, not ruin, our landscape for generations.

Each year, these ewes lamb and teach their lambs their ‘lears’ (patches they call home) and this is then passed on through each generation of sheep. It’ll be a sad day when this phenomenon is lost, the landscape changed and we are all unable to reach parts of the moor we’ve loved to visit before.

Traditional Dartmoor farming will alter dramatically and could become consigned to history. So if you wish to preserve memories like these, please take the opportunity to get out with your cameras and take photos of the farming-scape on the moor before it goes completely! (And if you feel strongly enough that such a drastic change shouldn’t be allowed to take place, please voice your concerns to Natural England).”

Attempts have been made to contact all those parties and individuals involved but, as I said,
it’s late in the day so I hope to have more to say next time.

Grazing appears to be something of an issue between farmers and conservationists – both have very strongly held views that it is either essential and beneficial to the landscape, or destructive and invasive. I know which side of the fence I sit on but that’s a discussion for another day.

The point is, it’s not just the landscape that will be irreversibly changed by the ceasing of grazing, it’s the whole culture for generations of Dartmoor farmers; their heritage, their lineage, not just their livelihoods but their very way of life. This must not be threatened.

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