Failing nature on Dartmoor – why its protected areas are in such poor condition and what needs to be done

Photo copyright Tony Whitehead

There has been much heated debate over the past few weeks about the future of livestock farming on the Dartmoor commons. Tony Whitehead takes a closer look at the issues … all is not what it seems …

Throughout this tale, one key thing must be borne in mind. A large proportion of the Dartmoor Commons are legally protected because of their value for nature. They are Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and as such should form the backbone of nature recovery in England. However, they are in a parlous state, and the government agency responsible for them, Natural England (NE) has a legal responsibility to ensure they are restored.

But this isn’t just a matter of legal process. We are in a climate and ecological emergency. The restoration of nature is vital both in itself, and for its wider benefits to society. This is not simply of concern to the narrow interests of the farming community. It is of concern to all of us, and we should all have a say in what happens in places such as Dartmoor – because we are all invested in its future.


On 6 March this year emails landed in the inboxes of some Dartmoor Commoners’ Associations. Each association was seeking five-year extensions to their Higher Level Stewardship agreements. The emails were from Natural England.

They set out a number of principles on which the extensions would be consented, an attachment containing example rates at which livestock were to be grazed  and, in one case, a second attachment with a calculation of the actual numbers of animals suggested to be reached by the fifth year of the extended agreement.

Cue outrage. A front page of the Farmers Guardian read.

“Plans to de-stock common land on Dartmoor by 90% have been described as ‘draconian’ and ‘savage’ by farmers who see Natural England’s latest policy as ‘rewilding by the back door’”.

Television and radio interviews followed and the outrage continued to play out on social media and farmers’ forums.

So what on earth happened?

What follows is an attempted explanation for those new to the complexities of Dartmoor politics. I use the biggest of the Dartmoor commons, the Forest of Dartmoor, as a central example, but also refer to other commons.

The Schemes

The Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme was introduced by the government in the late 2000s. Its aim is to reward farmers for the work they do to restore and maintain nature in some of our very best landscapes. Schemes are paid for by the taxpayer and are entirely voluntary – farmers choose if they wish to enter a scheme. Usually, schemes compensate farmers for farming practices that have less impact on the environment – reducing grazing pressure or only grazing at particular times, for example.

HLS schemes are targeted on the basis of priority habitats and are not available everywhere. The Dartmoor Commons contain internationally important examples of blanket bog, plus neighbouring wet and dry heaths, and many of them are legally designated SSSIs (the UK’s top sites for wildlife) and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC: a European-level designation). Qualification for the ‘higher level’ schemes is not a problem for Dartmoor.

Crucially, the majority of designated sites on Dartmoor are in poor condition, and the government had, and has, a duty to get them into ‘favourable condition’. You can read more about this in my previous features on Dartmoor.

Each of the Dartmoor commons has an owner and a group of farmers who have rights to graze their livestock (called ‘commoners’). The Forest of Dartmoor Common, our key example, is 11,000 hectares in area, owned by the Duchy of Cornwall; the affairs of the farmers who have grazing rights are coordinated and represented by the Forest of Dartmoor Commoners Association.

The Forest of Dartmoor HLS scheme was launched to some fanfare at the Devon County Show in May 2012. It was one of the largest single HLS schemes of its type in Europe, granting £13m over ten years to the 300 plus commoners who were party to the agreement.

The Defra Secretary of State at the time, Caroline Spelman, praised the commoners involved for their hard work and support for the project. It was indeed quite a feat – and here’s the first crucial point to remember in this tale – it was the commoners themselves that led the design of their scheme.

This was after a decade during which the commoners felt increasingly frustrated by being ‘told what to do’ by government agencies, and in particular, NE. It was high time, they thought, that they should be trusted and, as Colin Abel, Chair of the Commoners Association, said in a short film – the commoners must own the scheme themselves, with outcomes they understood and agreed.


At the heart of the scheme were the all important grazing calendars. These set the number of animals to be grazed in particular places in each month of the year. The numbers given are the maximums, but a minimum is also set. The stocking numbers are split between cows, heifers, ewes and ponies.

These are important because Dartmoor is a pastoral landscape, shaped by grazing animals. Many of the key habitats, especially the dwarf shrub heaths (ie the heather and bilberry) are dependent for their health on getting the right animals grazing in the right places in the right numbers at the right time. This is what the calendars are for.

The grazing calendars were proposed by the commoners in order to deliver the outcome required – the return to favourable condition of the SSSI. Natural England gave technical guidance. And there was necessarily an element of negotiation between the commoners association and NE.

The second crucial point here is that these calendars were never intended to be ‘set in stone’, either on the Forest in our example here, or on other commons. Reviews initiated by both NE and the agreement holders were to take place at regular intervals through the life of the agreement. This is necessary, of course, because there needs to be regular checking to ensure the outcomes are being delivered. To assess this, NE carried out surveys to check progress.

So far so good – this all sounds reasonable. The commoners are at the helm and taking responsibility for appropriate grazing management. Stocking calendars are produced, and NE carry out checks to see everything is on track.

Trouble is – third crucial point – what happens when the schemes do not deliver the changes required? Plans are great, when they work. What happens when they are not working? And herein, in a nutshell, lie all the current problems.


The HLS schemes simply have not delivered the outcomes. The Forest of Dartmoor HLS scheme, at a cost of £13m to you and me over ten years, has not resulted in the common moving into favourable condition. The Forest of Dartmoor SSSI remains in unfavourable condition, ten years later. And this motif occurs time and time again across Dartmoor SSSI commons with agreements.

Anyone can read this failure in the site condition reports produced by Natural England. On the Forest, surveys in 2019 consistently revealed that the mires and dry/wet heaths:

“were found to be unfavourable across the majority of the survey area due to significant failures to meet acceptable thresholds for cover/frequency of positive indicator species in all habitats”

Seven years into the multi-million pound scheme and the plants that form the key habitats, the indicator species such as heather and bilberry, were simply not recovering. To understand this, first we need to look at the underlying problem.

The Problem

The issues vary to a degree across the commons, but keeping with the Forest of Dartmoor common as our example will help give a basic introduction.

If it were in good condition, the Forest common would be a mix of healthy blanket bog, accompanied by rich wet and dry heaths. However, as it currently stands, large parts of the common are dominated by a single species – purple moor grass, or Molinia. Anyone who walks the high moor knows this plant, as it forms tussocks that make progress challenging. It’s the UK’s only deciduous grass, dying off in winter and changing whole landscapes from green to beige.

The reasons for its dominance are twofold. Molinia cannot tolerate stagnant water and is therefore encouraged by water movement. This movement may be slow, but as long as it is sufficient to prevent certain chemical accumulations in the peat on which it grows, then Molinia will benefit. In degraded conditions due to historical cutting and drainage, followed by decades of overgrazing and burning (swaling) in the latter part of last century, the peat has dried out. And dry peat encourages water movement. Thus the Molinia thrives.

Secondly, growth of Molinia has been boosted by increases in atmospheric nitrogen from agriculture, industry and transport – quite literally, it rains fertiliser on Dartmoor.

Molinia is only palatable for grazing livestock in spring and early summer. And, as is the case for us, it’s also difficult for animals to access – which means they graze around the edges or avoid it entirely. In turn, this has the knock-on effect that animals are concentrated in smaller areas surrounding the Molinia ‘desert’. This leads to overgrazing in these places – not because there are ‘hordes’ of sheep or cattle anymore, but because there is less available attractive land to graze.

This knock-on pressure is then felt on the drier heaths. It’s compounded by yet another issue; sheep kept out on the moor over winter. Obviously, during the colder months grass is at a premium. And so the sheep will quite happily turn their attention to nibbling heather and bilberry, especially new growth in late winter. As a result, the heather condition is progressively weakened and what was once species-rich heath progressively becomes species-poor grassland.

Cumulatively, the historical overgrazing and over-burning, alongside the degradation of the peat has led to the parlous state of the Forest common. And it’s a similar story elsewhere ­– sometimes with added issues around gorse and bracken encroachment.

What to do?

To solve these problems three things are needed, two of which are wholly the responsibility of commoners and to be delivered through their HLS agreements.

The first one, which is not wholly the responsibility of the commoners, is restoring the peat. Actually, despite all the focus on grazing, this is as important, if not more important, because this is the only action that will reduce Molinia dominance on the deeper peats – in addition to locking up carbon. Some peatland restoration work is being done on Dartmoor, led by the South West Peatland Partnership. But it needs to gather pace. The only job of the commoners in respect of this is to be supportive of peatland restoration, and to give permission, as is required of them as rights holders.

The second two only the commoners can deliver.

In summer, the right animals need to be encouraged to graze the Molinia. Top of the list are cattle, because not only do they eat it when it’s palatable, they also pull it out to get at other grasses when it’s not. Ponies do a similar job. Sheep are neither here nor there in respect of this.

To get the right stock in the right places at the right time, they need a mixture of shepherding and a combination of tracks cut into the vegetation and the use of things like cobs or salt licks – ‘treats’ to get them to the places needed, so they then graze their way out. You also don’t need huge amounts of animals in summer to do this – especially initially – the danger being that stock, particularly sheep if there are too many, wander off and continue to overgraze the edges.

And in winter – stock needs to come off the commons; particularly sheep. This will allow the heather to recover, especially on the drier heaths. There’s a great example of recovery up at West Mill Tor where, as an experiment to help ring ouzels, a fence was placed around a rocky area to the west of the tor. In the absence of grazing, the bilberry and heather bounced back in only a few years.

Molinia ‘desert’. Photo copyright Tony Whitehead

The Problem – Part Two!

So given the problem is understood, the solutions are apparent, and there is funding through schemes to support commoners to deliver – why do places like the Forest common remain in unfavourable condition?

The frequent response from some on Dartmoor goes something like this … to paraphrase in my own words … “Natural England has set stocking rates, the commoners have done what they have been told, and it’s not worked. It’s all NE’s fault, they have no idea what they are doing”. This then leads to wilder claims on conspiracies that this is a ploy by NE to “rewild Dartmoor by the back door” and rid it of its “indigenous” farming community.

However, it’s disingenuous on the part of the commoners to claim that they’re just doing what they are ordered. First, as you can see from the above example on the Forest, the commoners themselves are supposed to suggest appropriate grazing levels to NE, not the other way round. It is then for NE to agree and monitor. It’s a negotiation, not an edict,backed up by payment of millions of pounds of public money.

In negotiation there is give and take; there has to be. If there is fault to be ascribed to NE it is that when the HLS agreements were originally negotiated, and with the benefit of hindsight, they compromised too far, allowing grazing levels higher than they would have liked because of pressure from the commoners. This has contributed to the failure to restore SSSI conditions over the ten years of the existing agreements.

You can see how this happens though – a multi-million pound scheme, and a project to put the commoners at the helm. Everyone wants this to work – of course they do, and to trust that the commoners know what they are doing. However, within the second half of the ten year agreements the site assessments showed clearly that the HLS agreement was not working.

What appeared to be happening was that the agreed stocking calendars were set up with maximas and minimas so that stocking could be adjusted accordingly to deliver on outcomes.  In reality, however, stocking rates, particularly in winter, tended to sit at the maximum in many cases; with sheep, this led to continued overgrazing. This was well known – none of this, as some claim,has come out of the blue.

On Okehampton common a few years ago, for example, NE tried to rectify the situation of winter stocking numbers. Following surveys in 2018 and subsequent site checks in 2019, they advised the agreement holders that the evidence indicated their current management was not delivering the improvements required, and asked the Commoners’ Association there to suggest new rates, especially for winter. Cue more lurid headlines about ‘de-stocking’ the commons and farmers being ‘sacrificed’.

In summer, the problem was precisely the opposite. NE found summer cattle rates were not high enough for the duration of the period when grazing was needed – this despite the commons’ HLS agreements including payments to encourage shepherding and supporting work to get the animals into the Molinia.

Of course there are reasons for this. The central parts of the high moor are distant from the home farms and increasingly difficult to traverse (ironically because of the Molinia). With increasing intensification of work on the home farm, many are really pushed to find time to get on to the commons to ensure the right animals are in the right places. This is not universal and there are some that really try their best (and huge respect to them, the moor is a tough place to work), but you see the issues.

So plans and agreements are great – but the reality is they are sometimes wrong and they are not always that easy to deliver at a practical level.

What is to be done?

In order to justify extensions to the ten-year agreements, which will cost the taxpayer more millions of pounds, it is vital this time that the grazing rates are correct, and closely monitored so they can be adjusted in shorter timescales.

This is what has prompted Natural England to issue their new set of principles. You can read these in full here.  Bottom line – no animals in winter unless justified. Then summer grazing with the right animals in the right places (the right animals being 50 per cent cattle and ponies); and in smaller numbers to prevent summer overgrazing. This is to be phased in, with annual checks to be made to assess progress.

The headlines about ‘90 per cent reductions’, and fears that all the Dartmoor hill ponies are to be culled seem to be based on extrapolation of guidance on optimal rates for overgrazed heaths that were sent round, and a worked example for a single common. To be frank, the dry heaths on Dartmoor would recover if you removed grazing altogether for a while – West Mill Tor is the example of this.  We also know that this would help the regeneration of the high altitude woodlands.

But the Molinia on the wet heaths and blanket bogs (ie most of the high moor) is still going to need the work of cattle and ponies, as well as restoration of the peat. There is no plan or proposal from Natural England to ‘de-stock’ the commons.


Natural England has a statutory duty to ensure protected sites, SSSIs, are in favourable condition. These sites should be the backbone of the recovery of nature in England. On Dartmoor, the majority of SSSIs are in unfavourable condition.

In the recently published Environment Improvement Plan (EIP) the UK government committed to restoring 75 per cent of protected sites to favourable condition by 2042 (EIP p45) and stated clearly that this ‘is crucial’ to delivering the UK’s wider domestic and international biodiversity commitments.

In order to deliver on the UK government’s 30×30 commitments*, places like Dartmoor need to provide more nature. It’s Natural England’s job to deliver this on behalf of the taxpayer.  In the short term, extending HLS schemes is the way to do this, through financial support for commoners.

However, the schemes, and the commoners, have to deliver real positive change. And in some situations, this will involve making difficult choices about sustainable management. But we are in a nature and climate emergency and must not fight shy of making these choices.

*30×30 is a worldwide initiative for governments to designate 30 per cent of Earth’s land and ocean area as protected areas by 2030.