Spectacular landscapes and natural networks - Key areas

Build coherent and resilient ecological networks

A key focus for the Management Plan is to help deliver the priorities set out in Biodiversity 2020. This includes:

  • contributing to the achievement of national targets relating to improving the condition of priority habitats (outcome 1A);
  • increasing the overall extent of priority habitats to provide more, bigger and less fragmented areas for wildlife (outcome 1B);
  • conserving areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services (including National Parks) through integrated and joined up approaches (outcome 1C); and
  • the restoration of degraded ecosystems (outcome 1D).

Nearly a third of the National Park is considered to be internationally (27%) or nationally (31% of the total area) important and is protected for its wildlife or geological value. This includes much of the moorland at the heart of the National Park in the Dartmoor Special Area of Conservation (SAC), and the South Dartmoor Woods SAC, designated under the European Habitats Directive. In addition, numerous areas are designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). The percentage of SSSIs in 'favourable' or 'unfavourable and recovering' condition has increased, largely due to targeting of land management through agri-environment schemes to achieve more favourable conditions for habitat improvement. As well as these designated sites, there are numerous areas of local interest for wildlife, including priority habitats, identified as County Wildlife Sites. In the main, these are small parcels of land on Dartmoor's in-bye, including areas of high quality, dry, unimproved, species-rich grassland; species-rich rush pastures; ancient woodland; and high quality wet woodland.

Biodiversity 2020 sets a target nationally for 90% of priority habitats to be in favourable or recovering condition and at least 50% of SSSIs in favourable condition, while maintaining at least 95% in favourable or recovering condition (outcome 1A). A key task during the Plan period is to identify a delivery trajectory for these targets on Dartmoor, including defining and demonstrating what favourable condition looks likely for Dartmoor’s habitats. Dartmoor Farming Futures provides an important opportunity to work with farmers to achieve this.

A key focus of Living Dartmoor will be working at a landscape scale as well as specific sites to build a network of healthy and linked ecosystems resilient to future changes including climate change (Biodiversity 2020 outcomes 1B and 1C). Key wildlife areas comprising moorland, woodland, dry grassland and rhôs pastures have been identified, which will provide the main emphasis of landscape conservation efforts within the National Park, including links to other wildlife habitats in surrounding Districts.

The focus of site management over the Plan period will be on maintaining or improving the quality of Dartmoor’s priority habitats, particularly the large central block of semi-natural moorland and grassland, and developing the natural networks which emanate from them, both within the National Park and beyond to the surrounding parts of Devon. These networks and wildlife corridors allow species to move through the landscape and, with the likelihood of climate changes requiring wildlife to adapt by moving to new areas, habitat links may become even more important in future years for species survival.

On Dartmoor, habitat links include rivers and streams, hedgerows, stone walls and road verges, rocky outcrops, quarries and caves, woodlands, scrub, reservoirs and ponds, old railway lines, and flower-rich grasslands. Many of these habitat links are features of the enclosed farmland surrounding the high moors, and promoting sustainable use of this land, which is managed in a wildlife friendly way, is particularly important (see the Future of Farming and Forestry priority). Rivers are particularly important corridors as they rise within the blanket bogs of the moorland before entering the wooded valleys and rhôs pastures and finally leaving the National Park and flowing on down to the coast. Improving the quality of Dartmoor's rivers and associated riparian habitats is of great importance. The Water Framework Directive sets targets and a timescale for ensuring that rivers and waterbodies are in 'good ecological status'. Catchment Management Plans are being prepared by the Environment Agency and partners to identify how these targets can be achieved. Working at landscape-scale in catchment-based partnerships for water management will also help support these objectives.

In addition to the intrinsic value of these habitats, there has been a growing awareness of their importance in delivering a range of other public benefits. Government policy set out in the Natural Environment White Paper places a high priority on conservation of biodiversity and the services provided to people by the natural environment. In particular, Dartmoor's areas of blanket bog are a vital natural resource as a holder of water, as well as playing an important role as a 'carbon sink' or carbon reservoir. The Mires project aims to restore areas of blanket bog to healthy condition, which has the potential to enhance the habitat and species, sequester carbon and hold more water on the moor (Biodiversity 2020 outcome 1D).

Dartmoor also has a number of nationally important geological sites that are protected as examples of a particular geological period of formation. Plans for the conservation of geological diversity will be addressed through the Regionally Important Geological sites system. Some sites are specifically designated to encourage enhanced public awareness of geological diversity, providing an opportunity for people to visit and learn more about them.

Support stable or increasing populations of priority species

Because of the climate and diversity of habitats there is a great diversity of species. Dartmoor is also an important reserve for those species that can withstand harsher conditions, including some very rare plants and animals. Biodiversity 2020 includes an ambition to achieve an overall improvement in the status of wildlife. The State of Dartmoor's Key Wildlife published in 2011 showed that in the majority of cases, population levels are stable. This has been achieved by ongoing management of targeted habitat by conservation bodies, farmers and land owners, and long-term partnership projects. Increases in the populations of globally threatened species, including the southern damselfly and marsh fritillary butterfly, have shown the effectiveness of such targeted action. However, other species are in decline, including a number of wading birds, some of which are on the fringes of their world distribution and are likely to be affected by climate change, and others where the reasons for decline are unclear. Set against the challenges of national declines in wildlife, continuing this effort in future years will be vital to maintain this diversity of wildlife on Dartmoor.

Conserving and enhancing biodiversity is not just an issue for wild species. It also applies to cultivated plants and farmed animals, including native breeds of farm animals often associated with traditional land management. Dartmoor has three native species at risk due to declining numbers – the Dartmoor white and grey faced sheep, and the iconic Dartmoor ponies. The conservation of these species is important to maintain genetic diversity, but also because they play a vital role in the conservation of key habitats through their selective grazing of moorland.

Connect people with nature

As a National Park, Dartmoor has a dual purpose to conserve and enhance the wildlife and habitats, and to increase their understanding and enjoyment. In delivering these purposes, a core value of this Management Plan is to increase engagement by involving people in understanding, conserving and managing the National Park and promoting social inclusion. There are great opportunities to reconnect people with nature by involving them in practical conservation work, looking after their local environments, and monitoring and recording the wildlife that they see. Communities and volunteers should be encouraged to be more involved in practical habitat management and surveying work, as well as understanding the aims of wildlife conservation. However, given the limited resources to achieve this work, there is a key need to prioritise areas of higher importance to focus efforts.

A number of initiatives being co-ordinated through Living Dartmoor will support this, including the incorporation of County Wildlife Sites into the interactive map, the Community Toolkit for the Natural Environment, and the development of Parish Biodiversity Audits and Parishscapes.

Conserve and enhance Dartmoor’s distinctive landscapes

The landscape is a product of the interaction between geology, habitats, and their management and use. As a result, most of the actions identified in this Management Plan will have some influence over the landscape. A key task is therefore to ensure that the forces for change affecting the landscape are understood, and action is co-ordinated to manage these changes where possible. Dartmoor's characteristic landscapes are defined and described in the Landscape Character Assessment. This takes forward the European Landscape Convention, and forms part of a wider programme of work being undertaken on a Devon-wide scale, designed to help guide strategic management planning and development decisions and provide guidelines for the conservation and enhancement of Devon’s special landscape qualities.

A significant activity during the Plan period is the preparation of a Landscape Conservation Action Plan as a phase 2 bid for the Moor than Meets the Eye Landscape Partnership programme. This could result in significant funding being made available to deliver a range of integrated projects that will conserve, restore and enhance the unique natural and cultural heritage, help discover and understand more about it, and address identified threats.

One of the main issues resulting from the consultation was concern over threats to landscape character from inappropriate development, both within the National Park and development affecting its setting. These issues are covered in the Community Focus priority.

Continued good environmental management of the Dartmoor Training Area

Dartmoor has been used for military training for over 200 years. The moorland terrain and weather provide a challenging training environment for dry and live tactical training and adventurous pursuits. The designated training area covers approximately 13,000 ha, comprising some 12.5% of the National Park, or 25% of Dartmoor’s open moorland landscape. Only 1,000 ha is owned freehold by the MOD; the larger part is used under licence from the Duchy of Cornwall, with smaller areas licensed from the Maristow Estate, South West Water and other landowners. Live firing is permitted on a limited number of days when the public is excluded – up to a maximum of 246 days at Willsworthy, 120 days at Okehampton and 175 days at Merrivale. Other forms of training can take place at any time within the Range Danger Areas and other designated training areas. Training is supported by two camps at Okehampton and Willsworthy.

In the long term, the National Park Authority retains a vision and ambition that military training damaging to National Park purposes should cease. The fundamental conflict between military training and National Park purposes centres on the loss of access at times of live firing, the visual intrusion in the landscape of warning signs, look-out shelters and flagpoles, and noise intrusion from military activity, notably helicopters. Conversely, there is a strong tradition of military training and presence in the south west region, much public sympathy for the role of the Armed Forces and their need to be trained to standards of excellence, and recognition of the significant contribution that the Armed Forces make to the local economy. Review of the military, including withdrawal of troops from training camps in Germany and elsewhere, and continued operations abroad, means that the need for training on Dartmoor will be maintained. The military licence for use of the Okehampton and Merrivale Training Areas was renewed in 2012 by the Duchy of Cornwall for the next 21 years. An application for planning permission for military use of Cramber Tor for a further 40 years was also approved in 2013.

In the short to medium term it is therefore important to maintain progress in reconciling the competing interests, to continue the good environmental management of the Dartmoor Training Area in line with the Integrated Rural Delivery Plan, and to sustain good working relationships. Dartmoor is an exemplar in how the two national needs of military training and National Park purposes can be managed sympathetically, and much progress has been made in reducing the impacts of training, enhancing conservation benefits, and improving access arrangements. The Dartmoor Steering Group, established in 1978, brings together the MOD plus the key statutory and landowning bodies that have an interest in the management of Dartmoor Training Area to keep under review the best possible reconciliation of the requirements of military training, conservation and public access. The Steering Group is supported by the Dartmoor Working Party and Dartmoor Military Conservation Group.