Defra responds to Dartmoor independent review

How has Defra reacted to the latest review on Dartmoor? Bethany Turner analyses the government’s response to the moorland’s grazing review

The independent review of protected site management on Dartmoor, chaired by David Fursdon, was published in December 2023, following criticism of Natural England’s plans to reduce grazing on Dartmoor.

This week, Defra published its response to the review, and set out its plans for the future of how Dartmoor is managed. The review was commissioned following lobbying from the CLA and Devon MPs to examine Natural England’s plans to reduce grazing levels on the moorland.

Farmers on Dartmoor were concerned that reducing grazing would be harmful both for the environment and for their businesses, and the review received submissions from more than 150 individuals and organisations, including the CLA. It took a detailed look at the history of farming on Dartmoor, and made a total of 41 recommendations in the report.

Land Use Management Group

One of the recommendations from the review that will be taken forward is the establishment of a Land Use Management Group (LUMG), which Defra says will be up and running by autumn 2024. The group will sit for two years, facilitated by Defra and with the Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA) acting as secretariat. The group will be accountable to the Defra Secretary of State.

On the face of it, the CLA is pleased to see this recommendation taken forwards, which gives land managers on Dartmoor the opportunity to work collaboratively on future plans for Dartmoor. This will be an important group and we look forward to seeing the terms of reference and membership which are yet to be shared.

The group is tasked with developing a multi-functional land use framework for Dartmoor, as well as overseeing the implementation of the review recommendations. This is quite a challenge and will need strong chairing, dedicated work by the management group, and engagement with those who farm on Dartmoor.

Future of grazing

In the response, Defra acknowledges the value of cattle for managing moorland and the importance of grazing to support the site’s environmental objectives. Following member concerns about the future of grazing on Dartmoor, this recognition is something that we were delighted to see.

However, the response does not clarify Defra and Natural England’s plans for future stocking densities or long-term plans on grazing. Natural England has committed to working with the LUMG to come to a shared agreement of how grazing can be used to manage Dartmoor, but there is concern that this progress may be too slow to give land managers certainty.

By Defra committing to getting the LUMG up and running by autumn 2024, it is hoped that this will help inform new agri-environment scheme agreements, which may start in 2025. This means that, if the 2025 agreements propose altering stocking numbers, farmers will have very little time to buy or sell livestock.

Agri-environment schemes

One of the key issues on Dartmoor was the suboptimal process for agreeing the extensions of Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreements, which gave holders and Natural England little time to agree and implement any required changes to the conditions of the original agreement. Therefore, we welcome the move to the two-year plus three model, whereby agreement holders and Natural England will have two years to negotiate amendments to an existing agreement for the final three years of the agreement. The terms of the original agreement will continue to apply with no or limited changes during the two-year negotiation period.

This move will help give land managers more certainty and will allow them to plan for the future. Defra says that all the HLS agreement holders on Dartmoor have been contacted to agree these extensions.

In the longer term, Defra is keen to encourage HLS agreement holders to transition into the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) and Countryside Stewardship (CS) when the time is right. The January Agricultural Transition Plan update included an improved moorland offer which both updates the existing CS actions and introduces five new actions which support grazing and shepherding. While the addition of new actions is positive, we are awaiting key details on the compatibility of the existing and new actions, which is expected in the coming months.

Protected site management

Natural England has committed to monitoring and resurveying the Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) on Dartmoor, and sharing those findings with stakeholders. The overarching aim of Defra and Natural England’s management of Dartmoor is to get the site into favourable condition, in line with Environmental Improvement Plan 2023 commitments

The review’s recommendations suggested that protected site legislation should be simplified and the concept of SSSIs should be reviewed. Achieving this would require a change to primary legislation, something the CLA has been lobbying for. Defra has confirmed that it will not be taking these proposals forward as they believe that existing legislation gives enough flexibility for SSSI condition to be improved. The CLA will continue to lobby for improvements to protected site management across the country.

CLA analysis and next steps

While we are pleased to see Defra taking some of the review recommendations forward, there is still more to be done.

The effectiveness of the LUMG remains to be seen, and there are still details to be worked out around how the improved SFI and CS schemes will benefit Dartmoor and other upland landscapes.

In addition, the CLA is disappointed to see that Defra believes that there are no issues with the legislation governing SSSIs, and will continue to lobby on this issue.

The CLA's response

“Defra’s support for the review will help reset relationships between Natural England and farmers on Dartmoor," says CLA President Victoria Vyvyan.

"The unique environment of Dartmoor makes farming, particularly livestock farming, challenging for the businesses which shape and are custodians of the landscape.

“We need more commitment from Defra that the report’s suggestions will be taken forwards. We welcome the establishment of a Dartmoor Land Use Management Group but await details of how it will operate. Defra are asking farmers to put a lot of faith into SFI 2024 when the details are not yet available."

Until Government provides more specific information on SFI 2024, and commits to a wider review of SSSI legislation, rural businesses in Dartmoor and beyond will continue to operate in an uncertain and challenging environment

CLA President, Victoria Vyvyan
Government response to the Dartmoor review

Key contact:

Bethany Turner headshot
Bethany Turner CLA Environment Policy Adviser, London