Public money for the public good?

With Okehampton Common in the news this week, Dartmoor resident and environmental campaigner Tony Whitehead looks at the way the public supports farming on Dartmoor, and why…

Farmers have a significant say over how Dartmoor’s landscape is managed, and what it is managed for. But if they are in receipt of public money, which most are, then the Government needs to ensure that basic standards are kept that benefit both the place and the public.

If a landowner wishes to access public money to do more than the basics to help Dartmoor’s natural heritage, then he or she can enter into a special agreement that is advised by Natural England and administered by the Rural Payments Agency (who annually pay over £2 billion each year to support the sector). These have had various names over time, but ‘Stewardship’ most often appears somewhere in the agreement title.

Okehampton Common is certainly worthy of a special agreement. It is part of the North Dartmoor Site of Special Scientific Interest. As such it is offered basic legal protection and Natural England has a duty to work with the commoners and the landowner to ensure it is in favourable condition for nature.

The Okehampton Commoner’s Association entered into an agreement with Natural England on 1st March, 2012, to put their land into Entry Level and Higher Level Stewardship. This means that they have agreed, with advice from Natural England, to manage their land in a certain way to help wildlife.

In return for doing this the Commoners will be paid over the ten years of the agreement. The total cost of this agreement is given as £1,435,305, and the amount paid to date is given as £1,128,352. This information is taken from the Government’s useful Magic interactive map (https://magic.defra.gov.uk/)

Where does this money come from? You and I. We pay it in our taxes.

Now, I don’t mind making a contribution here, because if the agreement is followed, the land will be better for wildlife. I will also be helping to keep farmers farming, because in more marginal areas these contributions are vital to farm businesses. This is public money for the public good.

But, farmers have to produce the wildlife if that’s what they sign up for. And to do this, they have to follow advice on what’s best for the ecology – and they are not specialist ecologists, they are farm business owners. It is Natural England’s job to provide that expert advice.

On Dartmoor, management for wildlife often means working with grazing intensity. Livestock, including sheep, have a place, both as part of farm businesses and for the benefit of wildlife. But, the grazing needs to be done at the right levels at the right time of year in the right places. And by the right animals. While some parts of the moor are under-grazed, some parts of the moor are also overgrazed, and, in particular, winter sheep grazing appears to be causing issues in places. It’s a delicate ecological balance, which is why expert advice is needed.

However, if the Commoners do not follow expert advice on what is best for the ecology, then what exactly are we paying them for? And yes, of course, it cuts both ways. Natural England also has to be fair, open and transparent in helping agreement holders ensure that their management is meeting their agreement objectives in order that the Rural Payments Agency can release payment.

As a Dartmoor resident with a passion for the place and its wildlife, I think the current debate about Okehampton Common is important. We are currently in a climate and ecological emergency. Our nature is depleted; we have lost so much over the last few decades. And this year world governments once again failed to meet their commitments to nature. We must do better.

As we leave Europe the Government is currently redesigning its domestic agricultural policy. This is the right time to ask how we can ensure our farming not only provides the food we all need, but how it cares for the land and our wildlife. At the same time however we face economically tough times post-COVID and post-Brexit.

Therefore, more than ever we, as taxpayers, with all the demands being made on our contributions, need to know that our money is being used wisely. And therefore it is right to ask; ‘what am I paying farmers for?’.

Personally, I can’t imagine Dartmoor without farming. But farming here is tough. This has never been easy land to make a living from. Therefore firstly I do want to see good farming in these marginal areas supported. But farming here has to be more than just about producing food. And to be honest, being so marginal, Dartmoor’s contributions to the nation’s larder are modest.

But, the quality of the land in other respects is huge. Its wildlife is of national and European significance, and of course the peat on the high moor is very important for its carbon, plus its contribution to delivering clean water.

Or, at least, its potential is huge. Like many of our uplands, Dartmoor is not in as good condition as it might perhaps appear. Our breeding golden plover have gone, and our curlew have almost gone, and we see the ever insidious creep of moor grass that turns once diverse commons into monocultural deserts.

It’s not unreasonable therefore to ask for a system where farmers are supported from the public purse to produce more nature, and improve things. And yes, this can include rewilding parts of the Moor as well as less intensive management of other parts. And in doing so there’s no reason why farms could not produce high quality food which, properly marketed as, say, ‘rewilding friendly’ could actually carry a premium to customers who want to help. There are already some schemes along these lines.

This month, in response to the ecological emergency, the Prime Minister promised to protect 30% of the UK’s land by 2030. In doing so the Government claimed that 26% is already protected and included the National Parks within that figure. This signals clearly their importance in the nation’s ambition to do better, and so uplands like Dartmoor have to play their part. And this, fundamentally, means looking closely at how we as taxpayers support Dartmoor farmers to do the right thing.

Laura White

Author: Laura White

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