Protecting Dartmoor from its own popularity – Solving the problems of overuse and abuse: Part 2

Laura White
Laura White
Dartmoor is enjoyed by many but is also a working landscape and a fragile environment that we should all take care to protect by minimising the impact © Mike Rego

By Mike Rego

In Part 1 in the previous edition of The Moorlander, (Issue 121, published Friday 2nd April), we summarised some of the initial problems created by recent increases in visitor numbers to Dartmoor National Park, exacerbated by the relaxation of Covid-19 lockdown rules in 2020 and what is being done by the National Park management in 2021 to reduce the impact and minimise the issues likely to be encountered again in 2021.

When Serena first started her job as a National Park Ranger over 30 years ago, if people were doing something wrong, a quiet word of guidance was generally met with politeness, and everyone went away happy, but in recent years the Rangers have encountered increasing levels of abuse and resistance. As Serena says, it seems that an increasing minority of visitors do what they want, and have little interest in how their actions may impact the surroundings. The Rangers have no wish to be fun police, they are simply trying to protect the environment that they and everyone else enjoys. However, the sheer number of visitors and the proportion that don’t seem aware or prepared to act responsibly is increasing, and the Rangers are duty-bound under the Commons Act 1985 and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW) to give public access to the Park.

Simon Lee has been the Ranger Team Leader for three years, having previously been a Sector Ranger for 15 years. Simon leads a team of eight Sector Rangers and two Assistant Rangers and explains that a significant part of their job is to educate and inform and to make people aware of the byelaws on Common Access Land, as well as public engagement advice, public relations, management of footpaths and conservation work in general. He endorses Serena’s observations in that once the COVID-19 rules were relaxed in 2020, there was a huge influx of people to the Park which was great but it also brought issues. Many visitors simply don’t realise the complexity of moorland management in a living landscape. Most visitors are receptive, but in 2020 the Rangers encountered noticeably higher incidences of challenging behaviour – perhaps because of the stresses of lockdown – but a minority were confrontational and abusive when challenged.

One of the main concerns with so many visitors, most of whom seem to converge onto the Moor at weekends in fine weather and especially likely as we come out of lockdown, is traffic volume, with congestion at popular areas and pressure on parking availability, which can lead to motorists parking on land beyond the car parking areas and damaging the land. Congestion of roads becomes particularly bad after snowfall, with a combination of poor off-road parking and motorists who are not experienced in driving in such conditions causing additional blockage of roads, which in turn causes access problems for the emergency services, farmers getting access to their livestock, and even snowploughs who are trying to clear the roads. The problem is often further compounded by a small minority of 4×4 vehicle owners who come up on to the moor to go off-road, and may damage the roadsides and vegetation beneath the snow covering.

Aside from occasional periods of snowfall though, DNPA is attempting to address this issue, but as Ally Kohler, DNPA Director of Conservation and Communities points out, DNPA has no jurisdiction over traffic movement on the public roads within the Park. Occasional traffic congestion is not unique just to Dartmoor, all National Parks last summer had higher tourist numbers, particularly the Lake District National Park, which in 2019 (pre- Covid-19) had over seven times as many domestic tourism visits as Dartmoor. As Kohler says, it is sometimes easier to get the message through to tourists rather than to the locals who feel that they already know the situation, which is why she recommends that even if you think you know Dartmoor, it is worth checking before visiting for the latest information from DNPA and associated websites or from the National Park Visitor Centres.

There is little excuse for visitors and locals alike to not be aware of the speed limit on the roads across Dartmoor. © Mike Rego

One method that DNPA are working on to provide more information is to improve Google maps, by getting more of the smaller car parks identified in an attempt to disperse visitors over wider areas, thereby relieving the pressure on larger car parks at the main tourist sites and surrounding congestion, which in turn will lead to reduced erosion on the local footpaths. Ally also says that it is important to get the message across to visitors to be more aware of their actions – do they realise the impact? This can range to anything from not leaving litter, to not parking across farm gates, and ensuring that when people do park their cars in the lanes enough space is left for larger farm vehicles as well as cars to pass. Many farmers can tell stories of being unable to access fields with livestock or farm equipment, either due to cars blocking gates, or being parked in awkward positions so that a vehicle towing a trailer cannot manoeuvre. Russell Ashford, a livestock farmer from the Buckfastleigh area, comments that every day at the moment is already like a Bank Holiday with so many more visitors parking in the surrounding lanes to go walking on the moors, and whilst visitors are always welcome on Dartmoor, like many other farmers he does wish more visitors would be more responsible and think – it may be a weekend for them, but for farmers every day is a working day. In Russell’s case, a continual worry is will the milk tanker be able to get through to collect his daily production of some 2,000 – 3,000 litres of milk? The tanker drivers are on tight tachograph schedules, and cannot afford to wait for more than a few minutes or spend time reversing down blocked narrow lanes, so if farmers like Russell cannot have their milk production collected, it is simply lost – along with the revenue. Unfortunately an associated problem with increasing visitor numbers is an increase in road traffic accidents involving livestock, and although speeding traffic causes many fatalities it is not the only pressure faced by livestock. Karla McKechnie, Livestock Protection Officer for the Dartmoor Livestock Protection Society, says that aside from traffic fatalities which saw 120 sheep and 14 ponies killed last year, problems also arise from people’s general ignorance of
livestock behaviour.

As Karla says, long gone are the days when livestock could graze in peace on Dartmoor, and one could ride or walk five miles across desolate moorland to a lone ice cream van. The number of dog attacks is increasing, and by mid-March this year, during COVID-19 travel restrictions, there had already been some 23 dog attacks reported on sheep, at a rate of two to three per week. And it isn’t just a problem with larger dogs – big dogs tend to attack at the front and can kill outright, and although smaller dogs tend to just bite, the stress caused to the sheep, particularly if in lamb, can kill. Dogs may also chase sheep and lambs off Tors, and into rivers, again providing stress. ‘If you can’t train it, restrain it’ is Karla’s message, and adds that an E-Collar is far preferable to a dead sheep.

Larger livestock also suffer – most cattle have favoured grazing regions on the Moor, generally away from the roads, but with more visitors exploring the High Moor there are more human-cattle interactions which don’t always go well, particularly when people approach cattle with calves to take ‘selfies’ for social media posts, which has led to an increase in reported cattle attacks. As for the ponies, a minority of visitors love to feed them even though the byelaws forbid this on access land and there is no shortage of signs requesting that they not be fed, but because of their relative approachability some visitors inevitably do feed them which leads to so-called ‘ice cream ponies’ that hang around the car parks just waiting for visitors, as if they have lost the will to graze.

The ponies have suffered too – many visitors do love to feed them even though the byelaws forbid this on access land and there is no shortage of signs requesting that they not be fed, but because of their relative approachability many visitors do feed them, which leads to so-called ‘ice cream ponies’ that hang around the car parks just waiting for visitors, as if they have lost the will to graze. There is another good reason not to get too close to the ponies, as many are currently infected with Strangles, a highly contagious infection of the upper respiratory tract so named because abscesses in the throat make their breathing sound like they are being strangled. Strangles is endemic and has always been present on Dartmoor, but incidences are particularly high at present, thought partly due to the high influx of visitors. Unfortunately dogs, or rather their owners, can be the cause of another sometimes distressing problem that a number of Moorlander readers also raised, and that is of discarded dog poop. Most owners are responsible and bag it up in poop bags and take it home or dispose of it in poop bins, but there is a significant minority who leave the full bags just lying around, or hang them on trees perhaps wistfully hoping for the Dartmoor Piskies to come along and dispose of it properly. Even worse are those owners who don’t bag up the poop and just ignore it. The car parks above Haytor suffer badly, allegedly due to the numbers of professional dog walkers who park up there for the free parking and let as many as 10 or 12 dogs out at a time, and just do not bother to bag up the poop. Even if bagged the poop is a risk to livestock who will ingest the plastic, but the main risk is infection. Humans, particularly children, may get infected by a parasitic worm that can last for a long time in the soil and causes Toxocariasis, that if untreated can ultimately lead to blindness. Cattle and sheep can also be infected – Neosporosis can cause abortions in cattle, and Sarcocystosis can cause neurological disease and death in sheep. Given that the first thing young children do after a car journey is to run about and play excitedly in the open air, thoughtlessly discarded dog poop can lead to a fairly unpleasant start to a day out.

It is thoughtlessness on the part of a minority of visitors that can spoil the enjoyment for the majority and this is what the DNPA wish to counteract, through making visitors more aware of their surroundings and to take responsibility for their actions, as many simply do not realise their impact. Sadly, there will always be thoughtless actions by a minority. One common criticism is that a significant number of cyclists on bridleways and other tracks seem determined to not use their bells to warn pedestrians of their approach, even though pedestrians and cyclists have equal rights on bridleways and popular routes such as the Wray Valley Trail. One underlying issue that all visitors unwittingly contribute to and is hard to manage, is soil erosion, which is one of the reasons that mountain bikes, for example, are restricted to bridleways. The peat is fragile, particularly in the wetter months during autumn and winter, and soil erosion rates have been noticeably increasing in recent years around some of the more popular tourists spots such as at Haytor and the track to Wistman’s Wood. This is another reason why DNPA are keen to try and persuade visitors to explore Dartmoor from some of the smaller and currently less popular car parks, to spread the localised footfall pressure.

There can be no doubt that the DNPA has a tough job to conserve Dartmoor as an idyllic recreational landscape and as a working environment – whilst attracting so many visitors can be regarded as a success it also brings tough challenges. Many of the challenges are addressed in the DNP Management Plan 2020 – 2025, but meeting these challenges also depends on making as many visitors as possible more aware of the sensitivity of the environment around them. To this end, part of the remit of the Rangers is to raise public awareness through direct contact with visitors and local communities, and publicising the Ranger Code, a more Dartmoor-specific version of the old Countryside Code, that has the associated Ranger-led Ranger Ralph Club targeted at 5 to 11 year olds, and the Junior Rangers Club aimed at 11 to 15 year olds.

Additionally, the Rangers have been working more closely with the police over the last 12 months and getting support to enforce the byelaws against non-acceptable behaviour by the few who deliberately or maliciously cause damage. Ally Kohler would ideally like at least another six or seven Rangers to help engage and encourage people, along with Information Outreach Volunteers. She states that no-one wants to have to enforce the rules harshly, so DNPA is planning to start by increasing signage around the Park to get the message across to visitors and regular recreational groups such as dog walkers, cyclists, rock climbers and the like. No-one wants the Park to become a form of Disneyland; it is important to recognise that it is a working environment as well as a recreational space, with the biggest issues being visitor numbers and parking management of motor vehicles.

The Dartmoor National Park Management Plan 2020 – 2025 (which can be viewed online) comprehensively outlines the key drivers and challenges facing the National Park, including conflicting objectives and competing priorities, and sets out how these should be addressed. In terms of maintaining a good visitor experience in harmony with the Park being a working environment, the Management Plan summarises the objectives for the future quite clearly, stating: ‘People of all ages, backgrounds and abilities are able to access Dartmoor and feel welcome. Every visitor has positive and immersive experiences resulting in a long lasting connection and care for the place and its communities. More people can benefit from the health and well-being benefits that Dartmoor offers’.

There can be no doubt that Dartmoor is a very special place, and that the DNPA work hard to keep it that way for the benefit of all – farmers, residents and visitors. There was certainly an increased presence on social media leading up to the Easter holiday weekend, let us all hope that awareness can be raised and that Dartmoor National Park can stay the special place that it is, and continue to be so for the many visitors, businesses and residents who enjoy its many benefits.

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