Dartmoor is one of England’s most treasured landscapes and important wildlife havens. Just as the brooding hills, hidden valleys and spectacular tors delight visitors year-round, the oak woodlands, heath, bog and mires are home to many species that are vanishing elsewhere – including golden plover, curlew, high brown fritillary and countless rare insects, plants and fungi.
Worryingly, the condition of many of Dartmoor’s most important habitats is dire and worsening. This is despite a plethora of legal protections, including a 23,000ha Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) – by far the largest in Devon. SSSIs afford the highest level of protection in the UK and include our most important areas for wildlife.
Evidence suggests that excessive levels of winter grazing by sheep is a big part of the problem. Earlier this year, the statutory body Natural England demanded that commoners reduce winter grazing levels on the SSSI if they wished to continue receiving agri-environment payments, which are funded by the taxpayer and linked to delivering improvements for wildlife. This led to a very public row, in which politicians and other groups became embroiled.
The government responded by setting up an independent inquiry, with a panel of experts, to look into the problem. The panel is expected to report its findings before the end of November. The results of the inquiry will be crucial in shaping Dartmoor’s future – either one of ecological recovery or one of continued decline. But the findings are likely to be influential well beyond Dartmoor, as similar problems are being experienced in uplands elsewhere in the country.
There is widespread support for action to restore nature amongst a sizeable majority of the UK public. It is not for me to prejudge the panel’s findings, but at a time of intense economic as well as environmental pressure, it seems only fair that UK taxpayers feel confident that their money is being well spent on delivering the priorities that they believe matter. With that in mind, here are five key tests for the panel and its report: –
- Recognise the severity of the threats to our natural environment and the need for action.
While the inquiry was underway, the State of Nature 2023 Report was published. It showed that 1 in 6 UK species is under threat of extinction. Perhaps this is no great surprise as less than 40 per cent of the country’s SSSIs – supposedly our jewels in the crown for wildlife – are in favourable condition.
National Parks have a key role to play in nature’s recovery and in mitigating climate change through protecting our peatlands. Yet shockingly the state of protected sites such as SSSIs is much worse in National Parks than the UK average. Dartmoor is especially poor, with only 16% of its SSSI classed as favourable, and the situation continues to decline. If we are serious about turning around the fate of our wildlife, we have got to solve the problem of declining habitat quality on places like Dartmoor, and quickly. The panel must recognise this.
- Base conclusions on evidence, not unsubstantiated claims or widely held opinion
The levels of grazing and burning on Dartmoor have been contentious for decades. There are many rival claims by different interest groups on issues such as the state of the moorland, the causes of the problem, the efficacy of agri-environment schemes and the financial impact on farmers of reduced winter grazing levels. The only way to resolve this is for the panel to focus on facts and prioritise independent, peer-reviewed evidence – of which there is plenty. Simply giving ground to the loudest political voice will get us nowhere.
- Look at wildlife on Dartmoor as a whole
Dartmoor is one of the largest and most important wildlife havens in England, and easily the largest in the South West, with many different habitat types and rare species. Despite the huge size of the SSSI, much of the open moor is not designated and enjoys little legal protection.
Ensuring the SSSI is properly protected and returned to favourable condition is of course the top priority. But the panel must not fall into the trap of solving a problem in one area by pushing it into another, such as shifting excess grazing stock from one SSSI common to a neighbouring, unprotected one. In the long run this will do nothing to turn around the fortunes of nature on Dartmoor.
- Avoid weak compromises and delays
The recent history of grazing on Dartmoor has been one of unsatisfactory compromise. This has failed to deliver for nature, farmers and pretty much everything else. Any proposal for significant change is likely to be met with resistance in some quarters, but it is hard to find anyone who is happy with the status quo. To be effective, the panel is going to have to be bold in its recommendations.
In several areas of Dartmoor the condition of the natural habitat is on a knife edge and at risk of falling into irreversible decline. It may be tempting to delay making necessary changes to win support from some interest groups, but a difficult decision is no easier if you kick it down the road. The time for action is now.
- De-politicise the issues and recommend better ways to achieve common ground
The solutions on Dartmoor are within our grasp, and funding is there to help achieve them. One of the biggest barriers to progress has been mistrust and inflexible mindsets, and this has led to an enormous waste of energy and money as well as lost opportunity. It is vital that the panel rises above the blame game and finger-pointing and looks at better ways to make decisions and achieve common ground in future. Rethinking opaque and outdated governance structures will be a crucial part of this.
The review panel has a very difficult job. I wish them luck and courage.