Dartmoor independent review: analysis

What does the latest review of Dartmoor mean for rural landowners in the south west and elsewhere? CLA Environment Policy Adviser Bethany Turner explains

In December 2023, the independent review of protected site management on Dartmoor, chaired by David Fursdon, was published. The review is significant not just for members in Dartmoor, but for members managing land in and around protected sites across England.

The review was commissioned following lobbying from the CLA and Devon MPs to examine Natural England’s (NE) plans to reduce grazing levels on Dartmoor. Farmers on Dartmoor were concerned that reducing grazing would be harmful both for the environment and for their businesses.

The review received submissions from more than 150 individuals and organisations. It takes a detailed look at the history of farming on Dartmoor, and there are a total of 41 recommendations made in the report, across nine themes:

  • Vision and governance
  • Protected site management
  • Land-use, ecology and biodiversity
  • Future of agri-environment schemes on Dartmoor
  • Communications
  • Grazing and vegetation management
  • Roll-over of Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreements
  • Recommendations for NE’s future operations on Dartmoor
  • Dartmoor statutory bodies

CLA analysis

The CLA provided evidence to the review, voicing member concerns. One of the key points we made was that agri-environment (A-E) schemes must recognise the value of the livestock and labour of those who farm on Dartmoor. This is part of our broader campaign for the need for fair compensation for the public good that is provided through managing protected sites.

The review has picked up on this, and recommends that: “The relationship between A-E scheme prescriptions and the management of protected sites must be transparent and an agreed balance struck between achievement of different objectives in the future”.

The CLA also highlighted that NE's approach and lack of resource has led to a breakdown in trust. The review recognises these issues and recommends that NE needs a significant increase in staff in order to improve relations and rebuild trust. It also states there is a need for a “complete change of approach” for engagement, and a need for openness.

Overall, the review recognises the need for major changes in how NE approaches land management on Dartmoor, as well as a need for a review of the concept of Sites of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSIs). We were pleased to see the review reflect the CLA’s ask for more monitoring and evaluation of SSSIs and for that information to be more accessible to land managers.

Next steps

While we support the recommendations made, there is more work to be done to ensure that Defra and Natural England implement them. We will continue to lobby for their swift implementation, and for more support for protected sites across England and Wales.

We are pleased to see that the review recognises the role that grazing can play in nature recovery, and that there is acknowledgement of the significance of agri-environment schemes, both in supporting viable businesses and in delivering for nature.