Dartmoor’s challenges and the Dartmoor Commoners Council
The challenge facing Dartmoor in the 1970s was popularity. Walkers and horse riders were pouring in. Ecologists were discovering more of its unique ecosystem. Archeologists were reaffirming the largest concentration of ancient monuments in Europe. Historians were realising how well life of the last 500 years was preserved in the landscape and buildings.
Farming on the moors was suffering, There were no regulations to deal with new approaches and opportunities. With farmers affording more machinery and able to buy in winter feed, the moors were suffering from overuse of tractors and animals being overwintered in the open.
So in a unique outbreak of sanity government bodies stayed in the background and allowed Dartmoor people to talk…for 11 years. Being Dartmoor, they ended up arranging for a unique Act of Parliament, Dartmoor to be recognised as a Commons for the first time since the new owners took over in 1296 and a brand new elected body to regulate the moorland farming. So in 1986 the Dartmoor Commoners Council was born and ever since has been a ground-breaking success.
How the Dartmoor Commoners Council works
he council has 20 members elected from the 850 registered commoners, drawn equally from the four quarters of the moor. Another six members are representatives from the National Park Authority, land owners and a vet. It is financed by charging all graziers a fee.
Dartmoor commoners can keep a fixed amount of cattle, sheep and ponies on the moor . The number is determined by the traditional rights affixed to their farms. They also burn, or swale, the moorlands to improve the grazing.
The obligations preserve the traditions, the moorlands and the communities. Farmers must ensure each animal is marked with their personal brand, registered with the Commoners Council. Stock must be collected in from the moors over the winter. Use of machines on the moors is strictly regulated, thus the modern prevalence of quad bikes with their soft tyres.
The Commoners Council is the foundation of the cooperation essential to running the moors. Yearly pony drifts collect the moorland ponies and bring them down for inspection, sale and branding. Swaling can now be strictly controlled to allow for wildlife protection and prevent fires getting out of control. The Commoners Council liaises with the National Park Authority to make sure all moor users are heard. Even the training of stock (learing) to stay in one area of the moor is supervised.
Success, tradition and community
The new users of the moor are happy too. Bracken and gorse are grazed so archaeology remains visible. Walkers’ and riders’ right to access has been put into law for the first time as well as the moorland remaining walker friendly. Wildlife and bioersity have not only increased, but ongoing projects like the Dartmoor Mires project could not have happened without the Commoners cooperation.
The Dartmoor Commoners Council is an impressive success. It reflects the millennia of tradition and community that still runs deep on the moors. Our Dartmoor ancestors erected stone monuments lasting 5000 years with the same collective spirit that made the council – mutual interest, tolerance and love of the moor. They did what real communities do best. They talked and created a solution for everybody.