The debate follows the publication of a letter from Dartmoor MPs on 2 April 2023 raising concerns from farmers who graze livestock on common land within Dartmoor National Park which is part of a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a nature protection designation.

Management of grazing on Dartmoor

Natural England (NE) is the Government body responsible for ensuring that SSSIs in England are in a favourable condition. The Government set an interim target in the Environment Improvement Plan for 50% of SSSIs to “have actions on track to achieve favourable condition by 31 January 2028”. Currently many  of SSSIs in the National Park, which include two of the largest in England, South Dartmoor SSSI and  North Dartmoor SSSI, fail to meet this target.  Dartmoor is also designated as a Special Area of Conservation, which means it is of international importance to wildlife.

Grazing is an important part of managing SSSIs on Dartmoor. However, winter grazing is now common practice because of the introduction of hardier livestock breeds. This can have negative impacts on the condition of SSSIs.  As a result, NE has proposed a new reduced grazing regime for sheep, cattle and ponies aimed at improving the condition of sites in Dartmoor.  According to reports, the new regime includes that “in summer, at least 50% of [farmers’] livestock units should be cattle or ponies rather than sheep, and that ‘except for pony herds, winter grazing will need to be justified through clear and specific environmental outcomes that require winter stocking’”.

Natural England set out  further detail in its approach to ensuring grazing delivers benefits for Dartmoor SSSIs in a blog, Nature on Dartmoor, in March 2023. This explained the need for change to how grazing is managed:

It’s become clear over the recent years that the relationship between farming, nature and other impacts like climate change are not in balance and nature is declining in a way that may jeopardise the huge value that Dartmoor brings to local communities and visitors.

Farmers will have to comply with this new regime, which includes reduced or no winter grazing, to continue receive enhanced funding under the Rural Payments Agency’s Environmental Stewardship scheme (ES). Specifically, the Higher Leve Stewardship (HLS) which is aimed at “more complex types of management and agreements tailored to local circumstances”. From January 2023, HLS is operating under UK rather than EU rules and farmers are able to apply for extensions to their agreements for up to five years. More widely, farm support schemes are changing during an Agricultural Transition period from 2021-27. During this period, environmental stewardship schemes are being further developed to deliver local nature recovery aims. More information is set out in the Library Briefing, Farm funding: implementing new approaches. (March 2023).

Natural England set out how the HLS regime is implemented in 2020, with responsibility for the scheme resting with the Rural Payments Agency. This was in response to criticisms at the time of its proposed management regime for Okehampton Common in Dartmoor:

Environmental Stewardship Higher Level Schemes (HLS) are voluntary and publicly funded agreements. They are a contract between the agreement holders and the Rural Payments Agency (RPA). Natural England’s role is to provide technical advice to the RPA and agreement holders on whether their current management will deliver the publicly funded HLS agreement outcomes. Where evidence shows that management undertaken and funded through the agreement is not securing the environmental improvements required by the scheme we will advise accordingly. Only the RPA have the authority to make any adjustments to an agreement.

Response from stakeholders

Responding to the new proposed regime to allow the rollover of HLS for farmers for 2023, the Dartmoor Commoner’s Council stated that what were expected were minor adjustments “not the draconian changes that have been suggested will take place over the next five years”.

The National Park Authority has set out a proposal (PDF) to Natural England and the Rural Payments Agency, endorsed by Dartmoor MPs, that includes the following:

  • a 12 month extension to current Higher Level Stewardship agreements;

  • an independent review of the situation regarding agri-environment agreements, future of farming, food and fibre production and delivery of public benefits to inform an agreed action plan.

The letter from Dartmoor MPs, Sir Geoffrey Cox,  Garry Streeter and Anthony Mangnall to Thérèse Coffey, the Secretary of State for Environment Food and Rural affairs, endorsed this position:

We strongly believe the only way to achieve the complex balancing of the public interests on Dartmoor, and to gain the consensus necessary, is for an independent inquiry into the way forward to take place.

Responding to concerns the Natural England Chair, Tony Juniper, referred to an article in West Country Voices, Failing nature on Dartmoor – why its protected areas are in such poor condition and what needs to be done, published on 11 April 2023 as helping to “fill in some of the gaps” in the ongoing debate.

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