Future of farming and forestry - Key areas

A policy framework for upland farming that supports sustainable farming practices and National Park purposes

Delivery of many of the environmental benefits from farming is largely influenced by agri-environmental schemes and Higher Level Schemes in particular. Changes in farming and public funding, particularly reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), will have profound implications for hill farming on Dartmoor, and consequently on the National Park’s landscape and special qualities. A key focus for action during this Plan period is to work with partners to influence and shape the CAP and its implementation through national programmes to ensure adequate and appropriate support for the south west uplands.

Engage with and empower farmers to manage the landscape, deliver public benefits and add value to their business

A key message of the consultation was to work with and through farmers, commoners and other land managers to encourage land management systems that help deliver National Park purposes and a wide range of public benefits (ecosystem services). This means being clear about the outcomes that are required, and providing more freedom and flexibility over how they are delivered. A shift in emphasis has begun to put farmers more in control of the farming systems that they will use to deliver these outcomes, particularly through the innovative approach being taken with the Dartmoor Farming Futures initiative. The results of this approach will not be fully known for some time, but they are being carefully monitored and could provide a way forward for how public funding is allocated in future.

Increases in the density of vegetation on some parts of the moor are impacting on the landscape character, damaging archaeology, impeding access and, in some cases, creating tracks across previously open moorland. Whilst some of these changes might be linked to climate change, the primary causes are declines in numbers of ponies and livestock, and changes to swaling practises (controlled burning), resulting in a spread of bracken, scrub and secondary woodland on some of the heathland commons. In other areas, more intensive grazing and recreational pressure is degrading habitats; for example, heather and bilberry on parts of the north moor producing close-grazed grassy areas in place of heathland habitats. This is compounded by areas where Molinia caeulea (purple moor grass) has become dominant, which is less palatable for livestock, resulting in further pressure on the remaining heathland areas (National Character Area Assessment). There is greater risk of uncontrolled burns (wild fires) due to increased vegetation (and potentially in the future from the predicted effects of climate change with hotter, dryer summers). Wild fires can affect water quality and lead to loss of carbon stored in peat.

The Moorland Vision was agreed by farmers, commoners and statutory agencies to provide clarity on the management priorities for the moorland. Efforts now need to be focused on delivering this Vision by agreeing the right levels of grazing to conserve archaeology, enhance wildlife and landscape character, and supporting traditional management practises such as swaling. The future management of Dartmoor ponies and hill ponies also needs to be addressed, to ensure that the important role they provide in conservation management continues.

Whilst funding for environmental management through agri-environment schemes is important, the amount of money from public sources is likely to be more limited in the future, and consequently the future viability of farming will also rely on farm businesses becoming more productive and profitable, or finding alternative sources of income. This might include developing stronger markets for products such as Dartmoor Farmers Ltd – a co-operative of farmers championing and supplying quality beef and lamb produced on the moor, building on local markets and added value such as links to the food and drink industry and tourism – or developing alternative products such as the Moor Wool initiative delivered by the Dartmoor Hill Farm Project (see also the Prosperous Dartmoor priority). Ongoing provision of information, advice and training will be important to help farmers respond to these changes and to take advantage of new opportunities that will add value to their businesses. Options for delivering this advice will need to be considered during the Plan period, with funding for the Dartmoor Hill Farm Project potentially ending in March 2014. There is also likely to be increased interest in schemes to develop payments for the wider public benefits (ecosystem services) delivered by farming, such as clean water or carbon storage.

Animal health continues to be a concern for farmers with the prevalence of diseases such as liver fluke and the tick-borne disease Louping Ill, which is relatively new to the moor. It has become more prevalent with the increase in tick numbers resulting from the increasing density of vegetation on the commons. The Dartmoor Hill Farm Project has provided funding to address some of these diseases and to monitor animal health conditions through the Dartmoor Healthy Livestock Initiative.  

Next generation initiative for young farmers

Traditional farming practises on Dartmoor play an important part in maintaining the National Park’s special qualities. Moorland skills need to be passed on from generation to generation. However, issues of farm succession and falling numbers of active commoners have highlighted concerns over their continuation in future. A next generation initiative has been identified to work with young farmers to ensure that these traditions and customs are passed on, and to equip the farmers of the future for the new challenges that they will face. As well as ensuring that colleges provide relevant options on upland farming, more practical assistance is also needed to support young farmers such as the provision of affordable housing and access to finance.

Encourage sustainable management of existing woodlands and opportunities for new woodlands

The Government's Forestry and Woodlands Policy Statement highlights the value of woodlands for people, the economy and nature. It sets out clear priorities, focused on protecting, improving and expanding public and private woodlands. This includes woodland creation and management, the economic development of the forestry sector, community involvement in local woodlands and tree health.

Around 12% of Dartmoor is currently wooded, and native woodland, principally upland oak wood, dominates the sides of the major river valleys. These oak woods are important for wildlife and many are statutorily protected. Upland oak woodlands are a priority habitat under Living Dartmoor and actions to enhance woodlands for wildlife will be taken forward as part of this (see Spectacular Landscapes, Natural Networks priority). In addition, there are a number of orchards within the National Park and, although relatively small in extent, these still play an important role in sustaining local landscape quality and distinctiveness. Dartmoor's woodlands play an important role in climate regulation through sequestering carbon, providing woodfuel as an alternative to fossil fuels, and helping to protect water quality and reduce flood risk through intercepting pollutants and run-off.

Many valley woodlands are in steep, difficult to work locations, which has led to some neglect. There is an ongoing challenge to bring the more accessible woodlands into positive management, particularly smaller woodlands that are not economically viable to manage. The increased interest in woodfuel and biomass for heating, milling timber and other woodland products means that this could change in future, particularly through co-operative working. Opportunities to bring neglected woodlands back into management will also support the woodland economy and create jobs linking to the Prosperous Dartmoor priority. There is also interest in increasing community involvement in woodlands and orchards which will contribute to objectives under Community Focus.

After the first World War, large conifer plantations were planted high on the moorland to replace timber stocks. These included three large conifer plantations owned or leased by the Forestry Commission: Fernworthy, Bellever and Soussons Down (near Postbridge); a fourth block in private ownership around Kennick Reservoir in the eastern hills; and other conifer plantations around Burrator Reservoir, managed by the South West Lakes Trust, and in the north east of the National Park. The large conifer woodlands on the high moor often occur on formerly priority wildlife habitats, and have a significant impact on the landscape character, although there have been positive changes to the woodlands' structure and management over the last 20 to 30 years. Given their importance for timber stocks and the national strategy to increase woodland cover, there is little chance in the short to medium term of the plantations being removed. In the meantime, there are opportunities to soften the landscape impact of the plantations and improve their biodiversity value through management, and to increase opportunities for access and recreation within the plantations (see Enjoying Dartmoor). There are also targets to restore 'plantations on ancient woodland sites' (PAWS).

A significant challenge for the future management of woodlands is the increased prevalence of diseases. The identification of Phytophthora ramorum led to the felling of most of the significant larch plantations on Dartmoor, either to capitalise on their value without the disease, or due to infection. Other diseases, such as ash dieback, are also affecting woodlands on Dartmoor. Whilst there are clear disease management procedures in place, this highlights the challenges for woodland owners and the importance of national policy and regulation to minimise future risks. The Government’s policy statement identifies tree health as the most urgent priority, as well as taking a longer-term view in planning resilient new woodlands for the future, including expanding woodland cover where this would benefit local economies, communities and the environment.