The rewilding of Dartmoor – Who really understands what is meant by ‘rewilding’? – Part 1

Laura White
Laura White
Although ‘wild’ in a remote sense, the spread of Molinia over much of the northern High Moor through lack of grazing does not encourage biodiversity, and conceals much of the archaeological heritage that is an important feature of the national park.

By Mike Rego

In these times of climate change, ‘rewilding’ of the landscape has become a popular topic of discussion, and whilst in various instances there are clearly good reasons for restoring nature to a wilder and less ‘artificial’ or depleted landscape, what does rewilding really mean, and to what extent is it actually feasible?

To many, rewilding implies removing the effects of human intervention – but to what extent, and with reference to what timeframe, and how can that be achieved – if at all? With respect to Dartmoor, a National Park with over 7.8 million day visits annually, it must be borne in mind that it is also a managed working environment – and has been so for at least 6,000 years – and that many livelihoods depend on both farming and tourism, that in turn contribute to the financing and upkeep of the National Park environment.

The term ‘rewilding’ means many different things to different people – it is more than just sewing a packet of wild flower seeds on a roundabout or a meadow, and more complex than simply abandoning land to natural processes without any form of management and guidance.

For some, the rewilding of Dartmoor is envisaged to be the replanting of woodlands, and even a return to the natural state before human intervention; a noble idea but one that is simply impossible to achieve. The term ‘re-naturing’ is perhaps more suitable, as it can be better defined with more realistic and achievable objectives.
When Dartmoor National Park was set up in 1951 under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, 1949, the primary purpose of the Park, in consultation with the National Parks Commission, was ‘to preserve the natural beauty of the district and give opportunities for open-air recreation’. But Dartmoor is more than just a country park for leisure pursuits, it is also a working environment, where the unfenced open spaces of the High Moor are used for livestock farming by the Dartmoor Commoners with free grazing by sheep, cattle and ponies. The Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA) website states that they have a duty to promote the economic and social wellbeing of local communities in the park, which includes supporting local communities and the rural economy.

An example from Haytor Down of gorse that has been cleared by swiping to allow public access and grazing, and promote biodiversity.

The draft Dartmoor National Park Management Plan 2020-2025, published in January 2020 for public consultation (and available via the DNPA website), outlines a number of key themes that form part of the vision for Dartmoor’s future “in delivering the purposes for which National Parks were designated, to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage, and to promote understanding and enjoyment of Dartmoor’s special qualities”.

The Plan recognises that “farmers and land managers are central to achieving the Plan, underpinned by delivery mechanisms such as the new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), national policy, and local support through the Dartmoor Hill Farm Project and partner organisations. The new ELMS will influence how farmers, foresters and land managers will be rewarded for delivering a range of public benefits including clean water, natural beauty, abundant nature, and cultural heritage”. However, it also goes on to state that “food is not defined as a public benefit for the purpose of ELMS, but high-quality food production has been, and will continue to be, an important part of Dartmoor’s landscape”.

One of the key themes that the plan addresses is climate change, and how the National Park can play a significant role as a carbon sink through peatland restoration and planting of woodland, alongside sustainable farming and management practices. The plan also states how “nature recovery at a landscape scale is underpinned by the restoration of natural processes”.

It is one thing to have a vision, the hard part is the successful implementation to achieve the desired results whilst still respecting and maintaining the natural landscape, including the cultural and archaeological heritage, and the needs of those who make a living directly or indirectly through farming and food production as well as tourism and leisure in the National Park.

Isabella Tree’s recent book, ‘Wilding – The return to nature of a British farm’ recounts how a lot of today’s problems with the natural environment in the UK can be traced back to the Second World War. Prior to the war, Britain imported nearly three quarters of its food, and grain production, especially from America and Russia, had created low prices and made much arable farming in Britain uneconomic. However, with the threat of food shortages and starvation created by U-boats torpedoing supply lines, the government encouraged and supported farmers to increase land under the plough, which saw woodlands felled and ancient grasslands and meadows converted to arable under the general campaign of ‘Dig for Victory’. This led to a doubling in size of arable land to 20 million acres by the end of the war, supported by government subsidies.

With food rationing remaining in Britain until 1954, the government continued to encourage and support intensive agriculture, and by the 1960s subsidies were encouraging the development of large specialised arable farms, with increasing use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers as opposed to rotation with the fertility-building benefits of crops such as grass and clover, and livestock. Trees were felled and hedgerows taken out in the drive for efficiency to allow larger farm machinery to operate in larger fields – by 1972 the rate of hedgerow destruction was of the order of 10,000 miles per year. As the trees and hedgerows were removed so were the habitats for much flora and fauna, severely impacting the biodiversity.

Tony Whitehead in his articles published online in West Country Bylines sums up the situation well: with respect to Dartmoor, traditional grazing habits on the Commons would see summer grazing, (reflected in the ancient drove roads surrounding the Moor), with local breeds such as South Devons and Ruby Reds brought up from the lowlands to graze on the Commons for three months of the year. The gradual introduction that started over a century ago of hardier animals such as Scottish blackface sheep and Galloway cattle that could overwinter on the open Moor increased grazing levels and was supported by post-war domestic agricultural policy, with subsidies paid to hill farmers to support what was otherwise a very marginal business. The ‘headage’ payments were based on the numbers of livestock – the more livestock, the greater the headage payment – which not surprisingly led to farmers bringing in as many livestock as possible. With an increase in sheep numbers on the Commons from 44,000 in 1952, to 132,000 by 1994, the increase in grazing pressure led to a change in vegetation. In addition, increased swaling led to increased Molinia (purple moor grass) and bracken, at the expense of gorse and heather heathland.

The ending of headage payments combined with foot and mouth disease in the early 2000s led to a decline in livestock grazing, and with Molinia being only palatable to cattle and sheep between May and July, this led to a change in grazing patterns leaving some parts of the Moor under-grazed, and others over-grazed due to livestock seeking more palatable grasses. In turn, the rise in the dominance of Molinia has led to an additional decline in biodiversity.

Following publication of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan In 1994, the Commons were grazed according to agri-environmental agreements attached to agricultural subsidies, leading to fewer Commoners being allowed to put stock on the Commons, resulting in many areas ‘scrubbing up’ with increased bracken and gorse growth – which in turn brings problems of fire risk, loss of access to horse riders and walkers, obscured archaeology and decreased biodiversity. The Commoners complained that they did not know what they were expected to provide, that they were not being listened to, and that Natural England, the government’s scientific advisory body on nature conservation, were forcing on them a change in the landscape making grazing even less viable than it had already become. As one Commoner told The Moorlander in October 2020, referring to Natural England staff: “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.”

Dr. Adrian Colston, a post-Doctoral Researcher at the University of Exeter’s Land, Environment, Economics and Policy Institute (LEEP), has recently published his PhD thesis online via his blog site on the topic of ‘Stakeholder attitudes to the narratives of the Dartmoor Commons: tradition & the search for consensus in a time of change’. He describes himself as a conservationist, and now a rural social scientist worrying about uplands, wildlife and hill-farmers. In it he describes how re-wilding has become a popular idea in recent years as “an antidote to traditional conservation practices in the face of declining wildlife”.

The term “rewilding” apparently originates in the North American Wilderness Movement as a means for returning the land back to a pre-colonial natural landscape, but as Adrian writes in his thesis, “rewilding back to when and to what?” He goes on to say that since the retreat of the ice sheets, post-glacial ecosystems in Britain have not existed in the absence of humans, and given the evolution of climate since, not to mention atmospheric pollution from the last 250 years, it is simply not possible to return to a historical starting point for a restoration/rewilding trajectory.

The re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park in America 25 years ago is hailed as a great rewilding success story – which it is – but such a scheme would simply not be practical in the UK for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that National Parks in America tend to be larger in area, with significantly more ‘true’ wilderness and limited livestock farming, if any, within their boundaries. Also, not many farmers on Dartmoor would be happy to lose stock to wolves! However, we can learn from the Yellowstone story how re-introduction of a top-level predator acted as a framework to conserve and restore biodiversity.

As the natural top predator in the ecosystem, re-introduction of 14 wolves in 1996 had an almost instant effect on the elk and deer populations, and as the natural interaction between fauna and flora recovered, the knock-on effect cascading down the trophic pyramid saw willows recovering within 10 years, and within 20 years the recovery of aspen, stabilisation of riverbanks, and beavers, eagles, foxes and badgers thriving along with the return of songbirds.

Colston explains in his thesis why the term ‘rewilding’ is so misunderstood and contentious, and notes two examples with respect to rewilding on Dartmoor. The first initiative was in the early 1990s by the community group ‘Moor Trees’ who wanted to see more deciduous woodlands on the Moor, whilst a proposal in 2005 suggested that the southwest corner – where much land is owned by the National Trust – could be rewilded to support a population of lynx.

Lynx became extinct in Britain about 1,000 years ago, but re-introduction into the Scottish Highlands has been proposed since 2008. Not surprisingly perhaps, the proposals have met with opposition from sheep farmers despite research indicating that because lynx also predate on foxes, the number of lambs killed would be reduced. In 2020, Tony Juniper, chairman of Natural England, voiced support for the “inspiring” proposal, and stated that lynx could help to control deer numbers, whilst Scottish re-wilding charity ‘Trees for Life’ claims that re-introduction would “restore ecological processes that have been missing for centuries and provide a free and efficient deer management service”.

Thus, it is easy to see why rewilding is so misunderstood and so contentious, ranging from small scale, participatory and non-threatening schemes to imposed, far reaching and threatening.

The UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, in POST Note 537, states that: “There is no single definition of rewilding, but it generally refers to re-instating natural processes that would have occurred in the absence of human activity.”

However the same overview states that whilst rewilding aims to restore natural processes that are self-regulating ecosystems, there is considerable debate about the type of ecosystem that should be restored. Whilst rewilding may provide benefits such as flood prevention, carbon storage, recreation and biodiversity, it is poorly defined, and with few rewilding projects underway there is limited evidence on their impacts. Furthermore, the overview states that rewilding in human-altered landscapes – such as Dartmoor – could lead to the emergence of novel combinations of species, with some proponents suggesting that rewilding should take inspiration from the past, but not replicate it.

Rewilding can lead to increased biodiversity, but outcomes are often unpredictable and unique to each site and whilst some species may benefit (as in the example of Yellowstone), others that depend on features maintained by human intervention may decline – for example, approximately 18% of UK butterflies inhabit open habitats that are a direct result of traditional agricultural practices. Similarly, large herbivores play a key role in ecosystem function by distributing seeds and nutrients in their dung. Conversely, smaller herbivores such as rabbits, believed re-introduced to the UK since the last glaciation by the Romans, have a negative effect by grazing all the newly germinated grasses and seeds – should they be removed from any rewilding project? Does this make a case for re-introducing a higher-level predator?

George Monbiot, an investigative environmental journalist for the Guardian newspaper and campaigner on various environmental topics such as rewilding, is regarded as having been influential in impacting and affecting policy of where we are going on Dartmoor by creating extreme viewpoints and opinions, effectively ‘leaving a space to move into’. Monbiot has a video on YouTube describing the Yellowstone rewilding as the ‘classic trophic cascade story’ and Colston believes that it is this video that has inspired so many people to believe that rewilding is the way forward.
Colston believes that Monbiot’s ideas on rewilding on Dartmoor would perhaps see 10% – 20% of the Commons abandoned and the rest managed as a pastoral landscape with the blanket bog restored – not as extreme as rewilding the whole of Dartmoor and throwing the Commoners off, but his way of operating based on his writing and speaking is to be extreme in order to create a space, and then people such as DNPA develop less extreme ideas as a form of compromise.

Colston goes on to say that: “If Dartmoor was in one single ownership and didn’t have thousands of different Rights over it and all the complications that go with that, then a process re-introducing top level predators such as wolves onto Dartmoor would undoubtedly lead to a series of different habitats, but we are where we are – we have Common Rights, we have Commoners and there is no way of getting rid of those Rights even if people thought that it was a good idea. From my perspective if we were to go down that route it is not dissimilar to the Highland Clearances and I don’t think we want to go down that route, so in terms of rewilding on Dartmoor, if it doesn’t involve the Commoners as part of the solution then it’s some interventionist thing which has all sorts of ethical problems.”

The recent book on wilding by Isabella Tree describes a 20-year project on the Knepp Estate in West Sussex to restore 3,500 acres of clay soils that have been intensively farmed since the Second World War, back to nature with minimal human intervention. Herds of free-roaming animals have stimulated new habitats, and rare animal and plant species have returned and bred, dramatically increasing the biodiversity. Accordingly, the project is hailed as a leading light for conservation in the UK, “demonstrating how letting nature take the driving seat can restore both the land and its wildlife in a dramatically short space of time, reversing the cataclysmic declines that have affected most species elsewhere in Britain over the past five decades.”

Many species at Knepp have benefitted from the mosaic of habitats produced by grazing, which in turn has provided opportunities for recreation in the form of nature tourism. As an example closer to home, the re-introduction of beavers to the River Otter has seen an influx of visitors to observe them, thereby putting money into the local economy and arguably creating job opportunities in providing accommodation and catering. Global demand for nature tourism is apparently so high that visits to protected areas were generating as much as $600 billion in revenue each year prior to the pandemic.

But valuing nature is controversial, and not easy to quantify. As Tree states: “no matter how important the public benefits, no farmer or landowner can be expected to turn their land over to nature out of altruism. It has to make financial sense.” And somewhere along the line, we still need to be producing food, ideally locally to reduce the carbon footprint but also to reduce dependence on imports for UK food security at a time of increased rates of climate change and variability. As one cattle farmer on the southern flank of Dartmoor put it, under the current system he could get as much return from planting half his farm with weeds and plants to feed wild birds, as he can from farming beef cattle!

Layland Branfield farms at Princetown, is on the Executive Committee and Hill farming Sub-committee of the Dartmoor Society and is also Vice Chairman of the Dartmoor Commoners’ Council. He farms in an area where there is a lot of public usage of the National Park and cannot see how in practice the land could simply be left to its own devices in such a public area, or support the reintroduction of apex predators such as lynx and even wolves. He cannot see that it is fair to release any such apex species in the UK as they roam considerably greater areas than Dartmoor can afford. But as Layland says, there are bits of his farm that neither he nor his livestock get to very often for one reason or another; it isn’t deliberately rewilded as such, but is a little wild in a remote sense. But even in these areas you wouldn’t see the impact that rewilding could make because the areas simply aren’t big enough and there is too much external influence.

Layland believes that the agricultural community is very frustrated because despite the Natural Capital Committee, (NCC, an independent advisory committee that ran from 2012 to 2020 that advised the government on natural capital including ecosystems, species, freshwaters, soils, minerals, the air and oceans and other natural processes), and a Secretary of State concerned with climate change and food production etc., for a long time there has not been anybody that really understands the joined up thinking of climate change, nature conservation, food production, and what is good for the community, and until we find somebody that is prepared to stand up and put these things together, we are going to be in a mess.

‘Within 12 months of the NCC being set up, the definition of ‘Natural Capital’ was changed to be something that you don’t get rewarded for from the marketplace, i.e., food. “What we are allowing to happen, is that there is a whole load of people and organisations out there with a whole load of fancy concepts of what good careful nature, agriculture and food production is – something that isn’t new except to them, and they think that they’re trying to drive something that is nature friendly, carbon friendly and everything else, when in actual fact it is probably something that myself, my father and grandfather have been doing for years but we don’t shout about it,” said Layland.

“The idea of carbon sequestration and all the rest of it is muddled as an issue and until we can get ourselves into a position where everybody agrees on what is happening, we are all going to be back to the issue of what is rewilding, and a hundred different ways of looking at carbon sequestration.”

In the next issue of The Moorlander, Mike continues to look at rewilding, focusing on how we have achieved the landscape as we see it now, and looking at some examples on Dartmoor where different management techniques have drastically different effects.

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