The rewilding of Dartmoor – Who really understands what is meant by ‘rewilding’? – Part 2

Laura White
Laura White
The Haytor Granite Railway is kept clear of vegetation by the Commoners, with the additional help and support of DNPA Rangers and volunteers – photographs © Mike Rego

By Mike Rego

In this article, continued from issue 131, Mike looks at how we have achieved the landscape as we see it now, and investigates some examples on Dartmoor where different management techniques have drastically different effects.

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?

The late Professor Ian Mercer, the first Chief Officer of the DNPA and also a Chairman of the Dartmoor Commoners’ Council, gives an excellent description in his book, Dartmoor (Harper Collins, The New Naturalist Library, 2009), on the evolution of the Dartmoor landscape as the ice began to retreat some 15,000 years ago and was colonised by flora and fauna, including modern-day humans.

It is important to understand that the peat did not begin to form in quantity until some 6-7,000 years ago. Initially, weathering of the granite by freeze-thaw action would have created sands and gravels, with fine silt accumulating in rain-saturated shallow hollows where colonisation by plants could occur, in an anti-decay situation owing to the preclusion of oxygen, and the first peat could begin to form. Those early plants would have been quite short and included the first woody plants such as arctic willow. As the plant cover increased, so would soil development, encouraging further plant cover, with grasses and sedges, birch, crowberry and juniper similar to contemporary tundra.

Ongoing damp conditions would have sustained a continuous surface saturation inhibiting the decomposition of dying vegetation, creating more peat gradually covering the exposed gravels as a precursor to the moorland landscape of today.

Increasing plant cover would support herbivores, which in turn would be preyed upon by carnivores, and it would only be a matter of time before early man came hunting for food too.

At about 8,000 to 4,500 years ago there was a ‘climatic optimum’, preceded by the development of deciduous woodland initially consisting of trees such as birch and Scots pine, to be succeeded and dominated by birch, hazel, oak and alder, with heathers, ash, rowan and bracken, and evidence in the peat of natural fires, as well as of human use of fire around the forest margins. Favourable climatic conditions led to Mesolithic people increasingly manipulating the vegetation in a landscape of woodland with clearings and heathlands on the High Moor.

It was the Neolithic peoples some 3,000 to 3,500 years ago who had the most pronounced influence on the Moor as we see it today, initiating the change from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one of animal husbandry and then cultivation of crops, ie: becoming settled farmers, in turn leading to a group economy and the organisation of a physical pattern of land use and occupation.

It must be remembered that not all the animals were domesticated. Rising sea levels saw the end of the land bridge with Europe and the formation of the English Channel, restricting movement of animals. Thus, many of the large animals that were not suited to domesticity were gradually hunted to extinction in Britain, whereas today most can still be found in the forests of Europe.

Wolves, European bears, aurochs (large wild cattle), beavers, lynx, boar, red and roe deer would have existed on and around Dartmoor, each in turn having its influence on the trophic pyramid, whether by preying on lower ranked fauna or influencing the distribution and growth of flora.

The Dartmoor Society, which describes itself as ‘an independent group dedicated to sharing well-researched information and promoting the well-being of Dartmoor and its communities’, founded in 1998, held a debate in 2016 on the topic of ‘Return of the Wildwood? – Is rewilding the Future for Dartmoor?’ 115 members and non-members attended a series of presentations under the Chairmanship of Matthew Kelly, Professor of History at Northumbria University, who published the Dartmoor-themed book ‘Quartz and Feldspar – A British Landscape in Modern Times’ (Jonathan Cape, 2015).

Lack of swaling at Yarner Common has led to dense scrub, creating lack of grazing, loss of biodiversity and increased seasonal fire risk, with dense bracken and gorse, interspersed with rowan, holly, bramble and thorn. © Mike Rego

Kelly opened the debate by saying that ‘rewilding’: “…was contentious as a term and one that conjures many assumptions, both reasonable and false… No single group has a moral monopoly”. He also considered that: “…rewilding reignites the tension between national preservation as represented by national parks and the perceived needs of local people”.

Rewilding Britain is a country-wide organisation focusing on rewilding, ‘reconnecting us with the natural world, sustaining communities and tackling the climate emergency and the extinction crisis’.

They define rewilding as ‘the large-scale restoration of ecosystems to the point where nature is allowed to take care of itself’, and as they say on their website, ‘it is an attempt to reconnect and reset, to reverse species extinction and to help nature flourish on a large scale. It is a chance to mitigate the worst effects of climate change’.

Guy Shrubsole is the Policy and Campaigns Coordinator for Rewilding Britain. He lives in Totnes and has known Dartmoor since a teenager when he first took part in the Ten Tors Challenge.

He says that rewilding can also cover the natural regeneration of plants, trees and saplings and is one way in which rewilding and the restoration of natural processes can help with the climate crisis… but not just planting of trees as you do end up with a somewhat artificial environment where even if you plant native species of broad-leaved trees for example, you are still going to end up with a wood that is all the same age. Instead, he suggests that planting a few trees so that, for example, the Jays can come and take acorns and redistribute them further afield, and allow windblown seeds to be distributed and spread – it is important to also introduce the processes by which plants and trees can naturally grow, to create a much richer ecosystem, which gets around the problem of getting the right tree in the right place.

As Guy says, the tree will germinate where the soil is right for it – if it can support some seedling growth and scrubbing up, then that is what nature intends for that area. All of Rewilding Britain’s projects across Britain involve grazing elements, and whilst some have seen a shift towards a greater use of rare breeds of cattle or newer breeds of sheep that perhaps thrive amongst a lot of vegetation, it represents a trend towards more naturalistic grazing.

Yet there is still the ongoing discussion of optimum stock density – which has been played out on Dartmoor for decades. “It is all about how do you identify areas where we can allow nature to come back, where we can allow rewilding, not at the expense of food production – finding the less favourable areas of land, such as the boggy areas, where perhaps, for example, beavers can be re-introduced because the land is simply not favourable for normal farming and food production. Rewilding has to be done as part of a broader mosaic of nature friendly farming, traditional conservation and sustainable food production.”

Haytor and Bagtor Commons are an interesting example of how rewilding might work in terms of a selectively managed pastoral landscape, being managed by result rather than Natural England prescription.

About 15 years ago it was felt that the Commons were not being managed as the farmers wanted so, after considerable lobbying by the National Park and the Commoners’ Council to the Right Honourable Hilary Benn who was then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the farmers were basically told that if they could do better, they could manage the Commons by results rather than by sticking to the Natural England prescription.

As a result, the farming Futures scheme was launched, underpinned by the Higher Land Stewardship scheme under a Natural England framework, with Haytor and Bagtor Commons and the Forest of Dartmoor Commons selected for trial. Haytor and Bagtor Commons have about six to eight graziers, whilst the Forest of Dartmoor Common has 70 to 80 regular graziers.

The Commons are judged on results and the Commoners paid accordingly rather than by prescription. Thus, the selected Commons are managed for livestock grazing, wildlife participation and survival as well as for public access, with Haytor and Bagtor, pre-COVID-19, receiving some 1.5 million visits per year, and visitors typically coming for recreation from Exeter, Plymouth and Torbay parking in one of eight available car parks.

The car parks require management – if access paths and surrounding vegetation onto the open moorland are not cut open by ‘swiping’ (grubbing up the vegetation) and vegetation not managed for wildlife grazing and public access, there can be a detrimental impact on local wildlife and biodiversity.

Each year the Commoners have to produce reports detailing the results of their management, along with a photographic record to demonstrate to Natural England that they are managing their Agreements.

Typically they will perform a number of tasks throughout the year, such as selective bracken spraying to assist butterflies and public access, selective swaling to improve public access and encourage livestock grazing in areas not normally accessed by livestock, swiping of vegetation and spraying of bracken to allow access to archaeological sites and features such as the Haytor granite tramway, and preparation of a stocking calendar on a month by month basis, detailing stock grazing movements of cattle, sheep and ponies, etc.

Some examples of the duties that the Commoners have at Haytor and Bagtor are a contract with a butterfly conservation group to maintain certain areas in a specific manner, a contract to manage the vegetation around an adder breeding colony, a duty to ensure that the mires are dominated by shorter vegetation for insects, and that connecting pathways through the vegetation are widened just enough so as not to be intrusive on the landscape.

Recently an old stone track originally to Haytor Quarry used by horse and cart was restored with hardcore to create access for wheelchair users. Swaling has not been carried out over the past two years, partly due to COVID-19 and fire risk, but by being done previously in selected areas so as not to affect western heath gorse, for example, it has been beneficial to bird species such as the Dartford Warbler.

In the area behind Haytor Rock it has contributed to a large influx of Golden Plover; even surprising the RSPB expert who came to observe the effects. As Maurice Retallick, a Commoner on Haytor and Bagtor says: “Without management and simply left to rewild, we would not have all the paths, access and enjoyment of diverse nature that people currently have.”

For comparison in management methods, adjacent to Haytor is Yarner Common, where although the Commoners own the vegetation, they do not own the land, and since swaling a few years ago temporarily destroyed a telephone junction box, the owners no longer allow swaling.

Historically Yarner has had two, ten-year Environmentally Sensitive Area Agreements which are coupled with management stopping control of vegetation – essentially rewilding by default, or abandonment.

As a result of the lack of management intervention over the past 20 years, the Common is now ‘scrubbing up’, with bracken, gorse, holly, rowan and thorn, yet Natural England have never enforced the agreements, despite the fact that it is no longer suitable for public access or grazing over large areas. Even the few sheep that do wander in are at risk of getting caught up in brambles, and if not rescued will die whilst trapped.

Despite all the other Commons having a thick book of National Park prescriptions for land management that they are supposed to adhere to, with Natural England only having three staff to cover the whole of South West England, monitoring of compliance is regarded as weak by many.

At nearby Trendlebere Down, a nature reserve managed by Natural England where they own the soil, they have restricted Commoners from vegetation management, and now just say ‘manage the gorse’.

However, the lack of swaling has led to dense growth of the gorse and there is no longer any livestock grazing there between the upper and lower roads, nor beneath the lower road. Those few animals that do venture there are restricted to the pathways that are cleared by swiping through the gorse and bracken, but still have to return to other areas for water.

It is interesting to compare the dramatic contrast between the enclosed vegetation on the north flank of Venford reservoir, where there is minimal grazing, to that of the adjacent open moorland, where there is regular grazing and occasional swaling.

Within the enclosed area there is young woodland, with naturally generated birch, larch, willow, rowan and alder, with an undergrowth of ferns. No doubt in time there will be oak.

The open moorland, however, is largely bracken, with gorse, heather and rowan, and grassy areas that support regular grazing, with larger tree growth effectively suppressed by the grazing and occasional swaling. Regular swaling on an area-by-area basis creates and maintains a mosaic of different habitats that support a greater biodiversity than uniform vegetation cover.

Tim Sandles, on his excellent website ‘Legendary Dartmoor’, looks at some of the implications should Dartmoor ever be rewilded to the extreme extents that some people call for. Whilst the National Park has been promoting the benefits of getting out onto the Moor, the implications for a child disturbing a wolf or lynx in the undergrowth are not great, nor are they for a family caught out by a rapidly spreading wildfire.

In 2011, ‘EBLEX’ – now ‘AHDB Beef and Lamb’, a division of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, published a report ‘Landscapes without Livestock’ in which they projected how the Dartmoor landscape would change with a major reduction in grazing.

They gave five scenarios, but by 2041 envisioned the moorland landscape to be covered with moor grasses, bracken, gorse and self-seeded pine trees thereby obliterating the current pastoral landscape that attracts so many visitors, and highlighted the increased risk of ‘wildfires that sweep uncontrolled through the moor in times of drought’.

As EBLEX stated, many people visit Dartmoor to go walking, enjoy the scenery and to explore the abundant archaeology.

However, with remarkable prescience, they showed a before and after photographic prediction of the moorland landscape in 2041, not dissimilar to many parts of the Moor today, with the prediction that with reduced grazing, ‘everyone would be trudging through ankle twisting moor grasses, getting scratched to death by gorse, picking up ticks from the bracken and unable to find Dartmoor’s heritage because it’s buried under a shroud of vegetation’.

To anyone who regularly walks on the Moor, it sounds all too familiar already, and yet 2041 is still 20 years away!

Despite all the debate few people appear to have a clear understanding of what rewilding should actually consist of, or how it might best be applied to Dartmoor.