Natural England threatens to sacrifice Dartmoor’s farmers

Laura White
Laura White

The Moorlander is hereby launching a campaign to support the farmers of Okehampton Common and any other areas affected by Natural England’s recent decision to remove all sheep from the common for six months of the year.

As explained so eloquently on the Dartmoor Farmers Association website: ‘Dartmoor has been farmed by man for over 6,000 years; its landscape of open moorland, craggy granite tors and deep wooded river valleys is linked with its farming heritage. As custodians of the internationally important landscape of Dartmoor, our farmers have the responsibility of managing the land for themselves, their families, the environment, local communities, businesses and visitors. Without their experience, expertise and stock, the moor would be an entirely different place. When teamed with selective burning , the mixed grazing patterns of the ponies, sheep and cattle create the open moorland areas with their natural grasslands and peat bogs which support internationally important wildlife species.’

As was mentioned in our Green Issues column in the previous edition, The Moorlander was contacted and made aware of this new order from Natural England but at the time the facts were not known. It has now come to light that, in the name of environmental stewardship, Natural England has indeed signed the death warrant of those farmers and the future of the moor itself.

A statement from Natural England said: ‘Okehampton Common is part of the North Dartmoor Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Dartmoor Special Area of Conservation and Natural England has worked closely with commoners to put in place grazing management which balances the needs of farmers, wildlife, cultural heritage, recreational users and the contribution the common makes to Dartmoor’s special landscape qualities.

‘Management on the common has been supported through an Environmental Stewardship scheme aimed in part at restoring the heather and bilberry heathland that contributes to the site’s national importance for wildlife. We are working with the commoners on changes they can make to ensure their scheme is a success.” (We would like to point out that we have changed the spelling from the original statement, which had Okehampton as Oakhampton.)

However, it appears that they are not working with the commoners; the commoners have no say in this decision that will see their livelihoods taken from them. Commoners have grazing rights on the moor going back hundreds of years. For the past 25 years or so, many have been in agreements such as the Higher Level Stewardship scheme, with Natural England, who pay them subsidies to manage the land as dictated by the government. If the farmers do as they are told, they get their money. This new move will ensure that farmers comply, or risk losing their subsidies which provide many farmers with funds to run their farms. Without this, farmers could see themselves bankrupt. However, by complying, they will be losing their means of income as many farms are not large enough to house such numbers of animals and have no funds with which to feed the flocks over the winter.

Although Mat Cole, Director of the Dartmoor Farmers Association, farms on a different part of the moor, he is all too aware of the huge pressures that farmers are already under. He told us: “Many of us across Dartmoor are tenant farmers; our only capital is our livestock. You take that away, we have no capital to work with. Sheep can’t just be taken off and brought back to the home farm, the home farm is where we grow our winter feed. Sheep can’t just be put on the moor, they need to be born there. The only option would be to sell the sheep and then we’re left with nothing.”

The Okehampton farmers who first brought this new ruling to light keep sheep on the common. They said: “With taking the sheep away, a lot of gorse and other shrubs will grow up. It won’t just be the farmers that will suffer when the common becomes overgrown, the public will too, that’s why we think the public should be made aware of this.”

Another farmer who runs a flock of Scotch Blackface sheep in the area said he had requested a meeting with Natural England, who declined, and also further declined the compromise put to them of reducing the number of sheep by half rather than removing them all. Natural England refused to concede, responding that they wanted numbers reduced ‘close to zero’.

When the Natural England Team Leader for South Devon and Dartmoor, Eamon Crowe, was contacted for comment, he at first denied that his organisation had in place any schemes that would remove sheep from Dartmoor. It was pointed out to him that a member of his staff had indeed contacted the secretary of Okehampton Commoners Association with a letter that was to be distributed to farmers in the area, clearly stating that: ‘I think there needs to be a very significant reduction in numbers over this period with sheep numbers being brought down to as close to zero as possible for this period for the remainder of the HLS agreement’.

To this, Mr Crowe responded that the correspondence was supposed to be private. The Moorlander attempted to get further comment from Mr Crowe but we were simply referred back to the press statement as printed above.

Although each farm with grazing rights has a number of livestock units they are allowed to put on the moor, Natural England has, for the past few years, been raising subsidies to farmers if they reduce the number of sheep grazing. But this latest move to remove the sheep completely, for six months of the year, every year, will undoubtedly leave sheep farming in that area an impossible task.

Mat continued: “Without farming our communities are dead. All we are, are commuter belts for Exeter and Plymouth. Natural England are moving the goalposts and making sheep farming unsustainable, forcing farmers to reduce their flocks to unviable numbers. We’ve been dictated to by Natural England, by those who think they know better than the people who actually farm the land, for the last 25 years. It is their perceived wisdom to take animals off the moor when the moor has so many other things that cause an impact – tourists, the military, climate change. The only thing they have to manage is us, so we’re the whipping boy.”

It is not just the farmer’s livelihoods at stake either. The very landscape itself is under threat. Sheep have been grazing the moor for centuries so it seems to the ordinary person’s thinking that it is not the sheep that is the problem, if indeed there is a problem at all. A Dartmoor hill farmer who farms in another area of the moor said: “This area used to be purple with heather come late summer. The heather has been dying for years and it’s not overgrazing, we’re not overgrazed here. It’s because they don’t like us burning anymore.

‘There’s an area over the hill that we burnt about three years ago. You go there now and it’s covered in new, young heather. The old stuff that hasn’t been burnt for years is leggy and woody – nothing eats it and nothing lives under it and it isn’t regenerating like the burnt areas do. But they don’t like it; the burnt areas look black and not very nice for a while. Yet come back in a couple of years and you can see the new growth; thick, healthy growth.

‘These people out of university think they know it all, think they know best how to manage the land we’ve been managing for years. Farmers don’t want to damage the moor, we love it, it’s our homes and our livelihoods, why would we want to do anything to jeopardise that? They’ve wanted our sheep off the moor for years and now they’re stopping us burning too. They will be the ones who will damage this land.”

Geoffrey Cox, MP for Torridge and West Devon, commented: “I am most concerned to learn of Natural England’s decision to exclude sheep grazing on the moor over the winter. I am urgently seeking an explanation from the agency and, if necessary, I will raise the issue with the Secretary of State.”

The Moorlander would like to encourage readers to sign the petition letter printed below and send it to Natural England. We feel very strongly that in this instance Natural England should be held accountable for their ill-judged decision and a much more lengthy, open and transparent consultancy needs to take place.
Send to:
Mr E Crowe
Team Leader, South Devon and Dartmoor
Natural England
Ground Floor
Sterling House
Dix’s Field

Or email

Dear Mr Crowe,
I am writing to demonstrate my support for the farmers whose livelihoods have been imperilled by the latest direction from Natural England to drastically reduce sheep numbers on the commons. The decision would not only put many farmers, some of whose families have been farming in the area for generations, out of business, but would also change the ecological balance of the area irreversibly.

Alongside being an income stream for farmers, sheep are an incredibly important management tool for keeping the moor accessible and its flora regenerated. Without grazing, the area will soon become an impenetrable forest of gorse, bracken and bramble.

I ask you to withdraw your order to remove sheep from September to March and enter into more considerate and transparent talks with the commoners affected.

The moor may be managed by your organisation but it
is home to many people and an important part of many more people’s lives. Your web site says you are the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England, helping to protect England’s nature and landscapes for people to enjoy and for the services they provide. This move is not protecting our farmers, our landscape nor our flora and fauna.

Please consider the wider implications of your actions.

Yours sincerely,

Local Life