Government agencies view hill farmers as “truculent natives” and treat them with disdain, a senior moorland official has said.
Natural England, the Government’s environmentalist body, and its parent organisation, the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) seemed to have a culture as though they were “colonial powers dealing with truculent natives,” said Dr Tom Greeves, chairman of the Dartmoor Society. He said the agencies had imposed regimes that placed the whole way of life of hill farming families under threat, he said.
Dr Greeves, well-known for his outspoken love of Dartmoor, was addressing more than 130 people at the South West Uplands Federation Conference in Exeter.
There were 175 farming families involved in agriculture on Dartmoor, he said, and they were directly affected by diktats from Defra. But whose knowledge counted, asked Dr Greeves. Was it the knowledge of generations working the land up on Dartmoor, or that of bureaucrats?
Two issues in particular were of major concern, the de-stocking of the commons, and a “re-wetting” programme of bnogs, both of which had been “enormously damaging” he said.
Stocking levels were cut by Defra on the premise it would encourage heather to grow, but without the livestock, gorse, long grasses and bracken had proliferated and there was no sign of any more heather. Gorse hindered livestock farming, impeded access for walkers on the moor, and obscured one of the finest archeological areas in Europe, he added.
“Restocking of the moorland is essential,” he insisted.
The re-wetting of bogs had seen heavy vehicles involved and there was no data to justify the cost of the work, said Dr Greeves. The Blackabrook pilot project, and the Winney’s Down plateau bog dig, were damaging programmes that should be abandoned immediately.
The conference, made up of organisations from Dartmoor, Exmoor and Bodmin Moor, had earlier heard from Anthony Gibson, former regional director of the National Farmers’ Union in the South West, who said cattle numbers on Dartmoor had fallen by more than 30 per cent and sheep numbers by 17 per cent. Increasing the stocking levels was vital if “public benefits” of the moors were to be maintained and enhanced, he said.
But more than three-quarters of hill farmers told a survey they felt what they did was valuable and worthwhile – despite poor returns, and over 70 per cent were satisfied with life generally.
Mr Gibson said farmers should be get more influence in agri-environment schemes, training should be enhanced and marketing encouraged, and “the talking down of hill-farm prospects should stop”.
He concluded: “Uplands farmers are resilient and deep-rooted – certainly not staring disaster in the face. But the relative profitability of their farming must improve.”