Natural England proposes one-year stewardship rollover for Dartmoor

Natural England has written to farmers on Dartmoor to propose a one-year extension to existing stewardship agreements, with no reduction in livestock numbers for most areas.

This would be followed by a four-year extension to agreements that would take into consideration the findings of an independent review into the management of Dartmoor, overseen by Defra ministers.

Alternatively, where appropriate agreed management is in place, agreement holders could opt for a five-year extension to their Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreements.

See also: MPs criticise Natural England plans for further destocking on Dartmoor

Natural England, which is responsible for designating sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) across England, has come under fire from farmers and Devon MPs for attempting to restrict grazing livestock on Dartmoor without any consultation.

The government body wrote to all the commoners’ associations in February, representing some 900 farmers, and told them many would have to stop winter grazing and also reduce summer grazing by as much as 80% in some areas.

Natural England insists a reduced grazing regime for sheep, cattle and ponies is necessary to improve the condition of sites on Dartmoor.

But farmers fear the move would destroy the ancient traditional hefted flocks and put their businesses, especially tenants, at risk of closure.

Farmers Weekly understands the vast majority – 19 out of 23 – of the Dartmoor Commons will not be asked to make any changes to their stocking levels for their one-year agreement extension.

In locations where Natural England is asking for changes in stock levels, it is because without change it believes the long-term recovery of the commons will be affected.

Meetings due

“There are a small number of sites where we would like to discuss a change to stocking levels in the first year where we are concerned that current grazing levels, if allowed to continue, may inhibit long-term recovery of habitats,” said a spokesperson.

“We will be setting up meetings with these agreement holders in the coming weeks to discuss these arrangements.”

In some cases, Natural England will be working with agreement holders to secure changes to other management, such as shepherding, cutting of fire breaks and re-wetting of peatland.

Robin Milton, a member of the NFU uplands forum, said: “This is the start of the process and Defra needs to expedite the independent review in order to ensure some clarity of decision-making for the future.

“It is a start to a process that should have been concluded by now. Most people should have been in a position to sign up to their agreement rollovers already to ensure they can make sound business decisions about the levels of livestock they are keeping.”