Natural England offers one-year HLS rollover for Dartmoor

Natural England has written to the vast majority of farmers on Dartmoor to offer a one-year extension to their existing Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) schemes.

It comes as the industry is awaiting Defra’s response to a wide-ranging, independent review led by David Fursdon of farmers’ management of Dartmoor commons.

Robin Milton, a trustee for the Foundation for Common Land and a member of the NFU Uplands Forum, welcomed the move, saying it would give affected farmers “breathing space” and stability for their businesses.

See also: Natural England told to change farmer engagement on Dartmoor

But Mr Milton said Natural England “must use the next 12 months effectively to avoid another cliff-edge situation for farmers”.

He said: “Dozens of farmers are currently enrolled in long-term HLS agreements, but Natural England’s assessment of grazing practices and management is often at odds with farmers, principally around their latest requirement to dramatically reduce livestock numbers.

“Defra is looking to transition farmers to post-EU Environmental Land Management [ELM] schemes, but this is somewhat more complex where the majority of commons are designated as a SSSI [sites of special scientific interest].”

Mr Milton said Defra and Natural England must facilitate negotiations with Dartmoor farmers to allow them to transition to Countryside Stewardship “at speed”.

“They just need to get on with it and not leave it until the last minute in an election year,” he added.

Natural England sent letters and emails to HLS agreement holders on Tuesday (30 January), informing them of the offer.

In a small number of cases, further conservations will be needed with farmers to make sure the conditions of SSSIs have improved.

Defra stance

Mr Fursdon’s review included a recommendation that, as far as possible, current HLS agreements should be extended to create space for agreeing longer-term solutions.

Defra says it is currently reviewing and considering the recommendations within the review and will work with Natural England and policy colleagues to respond fully by the spring.

Over the coming 12 months, Natural England says it will be working with agreement holders and other partners to identify a collaborative, longer-term approach and look forward to engaging fully with the Land Use Working Group, as recommended by the review.

A Defra spokesperson said: “Natural England will work sensitively and constructively with farmers to agree a collaborative way forward that draws on their expertise and knowledge in identifying ways to recover SSSI condition.”