On the 14th, 15th and 16th the bi-annual National Parks Conference was hosted by the Dartmoor National Park Authority and was held at The Bovey Castle. Normally these affairs hold little interest for the general public and attract little media attention. However, 2015 was an exception thanks to one speaker in particular, that being the Guardian columnist, writer and environmental activist George Monbiot. I am not sure whether he was booked as the sacrificial lamb or the cabaret act but he certainly caught the media’s attention both locally and nationally. His presentation was called ‘Time to go Wild‘ in which he proposed that all the UK National Parks should consider ‘rewilding’ of their uplands. Basically the idea is to reduce the amount of managed agricultural activities occurring thus allowing the landscape return to its once wooded and vegetated state. This in turn would encourage the indigenous wildlife to thrive and also provide the opportunity of re-introducing some of the species that have been extinct for many hundreds of years. This idea is nothing new and in fact the DNPA listed as one of the Key Challenges and Issues the following statement in the 2007 – 2012 Dartmoor National Park Management Plan: “Landscape and Natural Environment – Wild Country; the scope for rewilding, which could bring benefits to Dartmoor without affect (sic) the special qualities.” So what was all the fuss about?
Firstly to be fair many of Monbiot’s remarks were aimed at other National Parks especially those with grouse moors and huge deer estates in the north of England and Scotland. However, there were some rather pointed statements aimed at his host’s National Park and it was these that has led to the media furore. For instance; “Sheep are purely ornamental, they are worse than ornamental they are substantially loss making… Sheep are just about the most destructive land use that exists… Areas like Dartmoor have been ruined by sheep… They have been comprehensively shagged by the white plague.” His argument was to heavily reduce the subsides that the hill farmers to receive which would mean that they would no longer stock the uplands with grazing livestock. Instead the landscape should be allowed to regenerate to almost a wooded state last seen by prehistoric man. This in turn would give wildlife a greater chance to thrive and provide the possibility of re-introducing long lost species such as boar, lynx, beavers and even the possibility of wolves. But what about the poor farmer? Fear not for he had that solution. Should that ever happen then farmers could make their living from ‘eco tourism’, in other words wildlife safaris. He gave one example, suppose one farmer or landowner had adopted rewilding to some extent and had managed to attract lynx on his land. He could use this to bring in tourists, possibly providing accommodation or tours. But his neighbour had wholeheartedly embraced the idea and had provided a habitat for wolves this, in theory would attract a greater number of visitors thus giving him a larger income. Again, please bear in mind these remarks were made to encompass all the UK National Parks.
He also commented that; “There is one sheep to two hectares in some national parks.”. It may have been an idea to be more specific to what parks this applies. There are a couple of points to remember here, firstly no matter the size of the upland areas and number of sheep grazing them they will not spread over the entire area. Sheep will naturally ‘heft’ which means they will learn where the best grazing and shelter is to be found and remain in those areas, this lesson is passed from mother to lamb. Therefore sheep will not graze over the entire upland area. Secondly, not all of Dartmoor’s upland areas are suitable for grazing as there are numerous bogs and mires. So to glibly throw out such statistics without clarification is not the best idea, especially when sat in a room on Dartmoor.
Back to the subject of agricultural subsidies, there can be no question that these are paid to upland farmers but most of the cash will in one way or another find its way back into the local economy. A few years back one of the national newspapers published a two-page photograph of a farmer and his family in the centre. Then stood around them were around forty or fifty other people with whom he spent his money thus providing them with a living wage.. As someone who has worked in the agricultural industry and I might add made a living from it I know this only too well. Just take the products I sell, a farmer buys a veterinary drug from a vet or agricultural store. This then puts money in their pockets some of which goes back into the local economy. These companies then buy the product from me which goes towards my salary, again this goes back into the local economy and so on and so forth – this is just one example how the subsidies get re-cycled. Believe me there are numerous other identical instances of services a farmer will use over the course of a year. So for someone to say all subsides should be reduced in order to cut the number of grazing sheep which in turn would allow for rewilding is an absolute nonsense. That is unless that individual’s private income is in no way related to upland sheep farming. Finally in the case of the average sheep farmer when all income and expenditure is taken into consideration along with the hours of work needed to tend a flock some will be earning below the minimum wage.
Finally let’s just look at a few implications should rewilding ever happen upon Dartmoor. The National Park has been promoting the fact that everyone should get out on the moor and enjoy themselves and the benefits it provides. Probably a bit extreme but a family are strolling through the newly regenerated woodlands, the kids run off to explore and manage to disturb a feed lynx or wolf – oops. Imagine the same family wandering through those same woods on a hot balmy summer’s day, suddenly there is a bush fire rapidly spreading across the moor – oops. Think that sounds a bit extreme? In 2011 Eblex published a report called; ‘Landscapes Without Livestock’. In this they projected what would happen to the Dartmoor landscape should grazing be drastically reduced. They give 5 changing scenarios from 2011, to 2041, by 2041 it assumes that the moorland landscape would be covered with moor grasses, bracken, gorse and self seeded pine trees thus obliterating most of the landscape features and views. They then go on to highlight the distinct possibility of; “wild fires that sweep uncontrolled through the moor in times of drought.” You can read the report on the following link – HERE.
Do people not visit Dartmoor, incidentally labelled ‘the last wilderness’ to wander fairly easy through it’s landscape, to enjoy the scenery and explore the numerous prehistoric and historic monuments that are to be found. As the Eblex report clearly shows by a series of 5 photographs, without grazing everyone would be trudging through ankle twisting moor grasses, getting scratched to death by gorse, picking up ticks from the bracken and unable to find Dartmoor’s heritage because it’s buried under a shroud of vegetation. Take a look at my recent page on the Heritage at Risk Register, there you will see that by far the largest culprit in the destruction of Dartmoor’s scheduled monuments is plant, tree and scrub growth.
Another point Monbiot makes is that re-generated tree growth in the uplands would provide ‘ecological architecture’ for wildlife providing cover, shelter and habitat. Additionally they would also hold back the rain so when heavy downpours they would retain the precipitation thus avoiding floods in the lowlands? Maybe I have missed something but on Dartmoor is that not what the peatlands already do? Is that not why such schemes as the ‘Mires Project’ are being initiated?
Monbiot has suggested that if rewilding took place then species such as the lynx could be reintroduced well here are a few facts from the Lynx UK Trust.
In the UK the lynx was probably hunted to extinction between 500 and 700AD.
Depending on density of its prey their territories can range between 20 and 400 square kilometres, the whole of the Dartmoor National Park covers 954 square kilometres – do the maths.
Females generally produce 2 – 3 kittens each year.
In the wild the liefespan of a lynx is roughly 13 – 19 years.
Lynx eat between 1 and 2 kilograms of meat each day.
Could Dartmoor ever sustain an upland lynx population before it began to encroach down on the lower levels and populated areas which surround the moor? Fancy adding a few wolves to the mix? There were/are wild boar on southern Dartmoor and look at the problems they caused. Beavers have been reintroduced to the river Otter in Devon and it is now reported that they haven’t been seen for six weeks? All of Dartmoor’s major rivers have a thriving otter population and local deer numbers are also on the rise. Despite the current TB situation the badger is doing quite nicely with setts dotted around the high moors. Foxes are on the increase, maybe due to the fox hunting ban or not. All this without ; “substantial areas of re-forestation,” as suggested.
As noted above, many of Monbiot’s remarks were directed at other National Parks and in this format it would have been hard to be park-specific. It would be interesting to hear his views solely on the Dartmoor National Park. Rewilding is a very emotive topic with many supporters who possibly could be referred to as urbanites? They certainly do not earn a living from upland farming or understand much about rural life and the rural economy. But what it boils down to at the end of the day is ‘right place at the right time’. Yes I would love to see a lynx in the wild but not at the expense but Dartmoor is not the place and now is not the time.
It’s very rare that I have any sympathy for the Dartmoor National Park Authority but in this case, with such a well presented argument for rewilding, they would have a hard in not impossible balancing act to achieve it. Unfortunately what the conference organisers have done is given this topic a much wider audience thanks to all the local and national media coverage of Monbiot’s controversial comments – or maybe that was the idea?
Should you want to see Monbiot’s presentation then the Dartmoor national Park Authority have kindly posted a video of this on Youtube which can be found – HERE