Last week, the farming minister called for an “independent evidence review” of the ecological state of Dartmoor’s protected sites, following a fallout between Natural England and farmers in the national park, which has seen MPs call for the regulator’s remit to be reviewed.
Over the past month tensions have been brewing in Dartmoor after Natural England sent letters to farmers in High Level Environment Stewardship (HLS) agreements, who work on parts of the moors under protected site designations.
As part of renewing their HLS agreements, the letter said that farmers would need to reduce grazing livestock numbers to protect the national park’s protected sites. The Guardian reported that it specified that at least 50% of livestock units in summer should be cattle or ponies rather than sheep, and that “except for pony herds, winter grazing will need to be justified through clear and specific environmental outcomes that require winter stocking”.
The move sparked a huge row and anger from farmers towards Natural England, which led to a number of Conservative MPs calling for an inquiry and scheduling a debate in Westminster Hall last week. At the close of the debate, farming minister Mark Spencer agreed to “an independent evidence review covering the ecological condition of designated sites on Dartmoor". It will see the current HLS agreements extended for a year while the review takes place.
The debate also saw multiple MPs criticise Natural England for how it has operated in Dartmoor over the issue. Former DEFRA secretary, George Eustice, was particularly vocal, saying that “it is not sensible for Natural England to have to make the decisions on Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). Instead, ministers should take such decisions having taken advice from Natural England and others, which would restore accountability.”
Despite this focus in the debate, Spencer did not specify if Natural England’s remit would be assessed as part of the review. ENDS asked DEFRA for clarification on the review’s scope, particularly if it would assess Natural England’s remit, but the department said it had no comment to make further to Spencer’s comments in Parliament.
However, the UK’s largest nature NGO, the RSPB, has come out warning against any “political interference” with Natural England’s conservation work.
Blanaid Denman, RSPB policy officer, told ENDS that Dartmoor’s SSSIs “are failing and this urgently needs to be fixed. On that there is clear consensus”.
She continued: “Farming can and should be part of the solution, but as the legal regulator, Natural England must be allowed to do its job without political interference. The outrageous implication that favourable conservation status or appropriate management should be determined by politics, rather than science, is a dangerous and slippery slope, which would not only undermine our ability to meet domestic and international targets but leave nature the poorer.”
Denman added that agri-environment schemes are an “essential tool to help farmers to deliver the step-change needed to bridge this gap”, but said it would be “a waste of time and public money to extend schemes which fail to deliver”.
“More investment is needed in Landscape Recovery schemes and the Higher Tier of Countryside Stewardship, to unlock an offer that works for farming and nature across our most precious landscapes,” she said.
“Four short months ago, the UK government stood shoulder-to-shoulder with global leaders and pledged that 30% of land would be protected and well-managed for nature by 2030,” said Denman, “yet barely more than 3% of land in England meets these criteria.”
In the response that Spencer gave in the Westminster Hall debate, he said that at the end of the review process “we could end up in a circumstance where reducing the number of livestock on the moor is the scientifically credible option and proven to be the right course of action.” However, he added that he recognised that “we need time for people to adjust to that, form a business plan and work with those in Natural England who want to achieve the same as the farmers who farm on that moor”.
“I will never be convinced that those farmers do not have the environment at the heart of their interests”, he said.