Recently there has been a lot of interest and some misunderstanding of Natural England’s role in providing advice to farmers, especially on our role in advising farmers who have entered agri-environment schemes on the Dartmoor Commons.
Voluntary agri-environment schemes have been important in supporting sustainable farming on Dartmoor for over 30 years. These schemes have had various names including Environmentally Sensitive Areas, Environmental Stewardship and more recently Countryside Stewardship. While the scheme names have changed, they have all had one thing in common: to support farmers and land managers in delivering environmental benefits that reflect Dartmoor’s unique landscape, cultural and natural heritage.
For example, many agreements have sought to achieve improved visibility of historic features, the restoration of peatland habitats and an improvement in the condition of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) so that Dartmoor’s wildlife can thrive. Alongside changes in the schemes, Natural England’s role in advising and administering these schemes has also changed. Whereas previously Natural England also administered schemes, this is now the role of the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) with Natural England providing technical advice to agreement holders and the RPA on the delivery of agreement outcomes.
The Dartmoor Commons support some of the most important archaeological landscapes in western Europe. They are also of national and international importance for wildlife, reflected in their designation as SSSIs and Special Areas of Conservation, a European designation, and are hugely valued by local communities and visitors for recreation and public enjoyment.
Sometimes these different aspects compete for management attention. The Dartmoor Vision, in which Natural England is a partner, identifies how archaeological and nature conservation interests can best be managed. While this vision now needs updating, agri-environment agreements on the commons have reflected the outcomes envisaged by the Dartmoor Vision.
Farming on the Dartmoor Commons is complicated. Many commons hold grazing rights for sheep, cattle and ponies on more than one common and many commons adjoin each other with no fences between them, which means livestock can migrate between commons.
This means that responsibility for delivering agreement outcomes is dependent on commoners working individually and collectively. Of course, for commoners there is the added pressure of running a commercial upland farm dependant on income derived from livestock. This is where agri-environment schemes can help by providing funding to support farmers in the delivery of environment outcomes that maintain Dartmoor’s unique and special qualities.
Environmental Stewardship agreements on the Dartmoor Commons are worth £3 million a year, which reflect the numbers of commoners and the complexity of delivering the agreement outcomes. These are 10-year agreements and if the agreement holders want to continue with their agreement, they can be extended on a rolling 1-year basis up until 2024. The offer of an agreement extension by the RPA is reliant on the successful delivery of agreement outcomes and Natural England’s site checks, aftercare visits and SSSI monitoring to provide the evidence on the success or otherwise of an agreement. Where this evidence indicates that the agreement outcomes have not been met, we must advise that this is the case.
In these cases, we would provide a view on which aspects of the current management, such as stocking levels, are having [a detrimental effect] on the upland heathland vegetation, such as the extent and condition of the heather and bilberry. Where we consider the current management is acting as a barrier to delivering the agreement outcomes, we will look to help agreement holders identify how this can be rectified. It has always been in the hands of agreement holders to decide how they wish to respond to our advice.
Agreement holders may, of course, decide they do not wish to extend their existing Environmental Stewardship agreement, preferring to have no agreement or alternatively apply to enter the newer Countryside Stewardship scheme.
Many commoners have already decided to extend expiring Environmental Stewardship agreements and this has been supported by Natural England where the agreement outcomes have been met or where management adjustments have been put in place that give confidence that the outcomes will be delivered within the extension period. However, where agreements have not been met and no changes to the agreement are proposed then Natural England cannot recommend an extension to expiring agreements.
Farmers on Dartmoor have always been innovative in responding to changing market conditions and technological advances but also in finding solutions to better deliver environmental outcomes. One such example is the Dartmoor Farming Future project on two commons where farmers have taken ownership for the setting and monitoring of agri-environment agreement outcomes. This approach reflects something that has always been apparent throughout the last 30 years of agri-environment schemes on Dartmoor: that ownership of agreement outcomes by the agreement holders themselves is key to the success of delivering environmental benefits.