Professor Ian Mercer explains something of the history of our Dartmoor landscape and its essential relationship with agriculture. He goes on to show why the survival of traditional farming practice in the Uplands must not be allowed to fall by the wayside.
Since the Mesolithics began woodland clearance, Neolithics accelerated the process and Bronze Age farmers took it to its lower topographic limits, at the valley lip of all the gorges, Dartmoor moorland has been sustained by the grazing and burning practices inherent in the south western hill-farming system.
The qualities of that moorland which matter to all of us we only began to appreciate properly, if earlier writers are to be believed, in the nineteenth century. They are essentially in two contrasted groups. First, a wide open space, with long views punctuated by rocky structures natural and man made, a real temptation to walk and ride onwards. But as we shorten the gaze a splendid mosaic of plant communities is revealed, in its optimum state less than knee height.
Beautiful to the observer but not impeding his or her progress. It does range however, with its underlying soils, from very dry, where bracken and European gorse may slow one’s pace, to extreme wetness, the latter as blanket bog or valley mire demanding navigational care. The great sweep of the ‘people–friendly’ Moor lies between these two extremes or did until we (corporately) began, very recently, to intervene in the hill-farmer’s regime in the apparent interests of biodiverse ‘favourable condition’ and its ‘recovery’.
The effect of our intervention so far is essentially to have reduced numbers of animals grazing – in some cases to the point where the flock or herd of a particular farmer has become too small to warrant its retention by him. A great range of headage numbers demands the same effort. At the low end of that range the normal reward from sale may be just not enough to justify the work, and other enterprises may have to be indulged to make up the income deficit.
It is already clear that the overall effect of the last decade’s divergence of farmers’ and scientists’ ‘targets’ has reduced grazing and all that goes with it to damaging proportions. One may still be able to push a way through some heather and some western furze communities, but all that used to be bitten off at the height of those two canopies is becoming rampant. The slope westward from Birch Tor, the crest of Soussons Down which comes eastward to meet it, the col just west of Haytor, the southern slope of Chinkwell are all now bearing rowans three or four feet higher than the dwarf shrub tops.
Conifer seedlings from all the plantations are surviving further and further away from their seed sources, and while mainly in newtakes they are on the open common too. Complaints of impenetrability and difficulty of access from walkers and riders are already beginning to be registered, and farmers have pointed recently to the fact that riding a quad bike to see to stock is now made more hazardous by the new invisibility of the low boulder. Archaeologists have an almost identical problem as well-loved monuments begin to disappear – and of course it is the tiny ones which go first.
So, the current picture is worrying, but the real risk is that the capacity to manage the moorland in the not too distant future might be entirely lost. For, if a hill farmer has to generate enough income to survive, or better, make a decent living, and his normal practice of producing stores and lambs to be finished elsewhere is denied him, by reducing his numbers without adequate recompense, then he seeks other forms of income. Diversification has been preached for a long time and most of it tried, but instinct must say, ‘stay with what I know I can do’. Readjusting stock numbers upwards has to be outside the regulated space. Down the hill they can be finished and the extended farm business then gets the added value a hill farmer doesn’t usually see.
The immediate effect is that the farmer takes his eye off the moorland ball, because it is no longer the be all and end all of his work. The real concern is that his successor sees a hybrid business as the main, even sole, enterprise. ‘I can develop that’ he or she might say ‘and do I need to go out on the moor like father still, or even at all ?’. Stock must be overseen daily wherever they are; why do the roughest bit of that, if it’s no longer necessary to the livelihood ?
There is the real rub, we stand to lose not only the managers of moorland who are the contemporary holders of a crucible forged over 3000 years at least, but the knowledge and skills contained in that crucible. No one else, as is made plain by the last decade’s intervention, has those skills.
The capacity to manage the moorland might be lost
Without the daily deployment of those skills we stand to lose not just the Dartmoor we have loved since childhood but the obvious public goods which Adam Smith told us more than 200 years ago we should have to buy corporately, for they made no individual a profit.
For the record they are: natural beauty, access to it and across it, a unique heritage displayed within it and a small but critical contribution to overall biodiversity. BUT, much less obvious is a store of carbon to beat any other in relative volume in the peat, which also exudes water as clean as any in England and as a sponge works to ameliorate lowland floods. These things all depend on grazing, for rank vegetation developing into scrub and trees will use up the carbon and transpire the water up and away.
The hill farmer has sustained all those things, until quite recently innocently, as by-products of his main enterprise – and by the way, we still need that. The the food chain which begins in our own hills will loom large as food security rises up the agenda.
We have to calculate the proper price for the work involved, for what the Navy knows as a ‘hard-lying allowance’. We need a good and stable market for the annual crop of calves, lambs and foals which, before they go, add greatly to our enjoyment of the Moor that their parents graze under the knowing and watchful eye of the most threatened of all hill farming species, homo sapiens.