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Farming on Dartmoor

Volume 731: debated on Tuesday 18 April 2023

[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of farming on Dartmoor.

I am delighted to serve both under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and in the company of so many of my hon. and right hon. Friends. It is good to see representatives from other parties present to discuss this question as well.

I should say at once that the issues connected with Dartmoor are enormously complex, and they have been debated over decades, if not longer. I do not intend to enter into the wider debate as to what is right or wrong in connection with overgrazing or undergrazing, or as to the causes of the problems that we face on Dartmoor today. The immediate occasion of the debate—I am grateful to the Minister for preliminary discussions—is a problem that has arisen in connection with the farmers on Dartmoor, the viability of their business, and the levels of stocking and grazing that are to be expected by Natural England in connection with the renewal of their higher level stewardship arrangements.

Farmers on Dartmoor sustain the communities of Dartmoor. They breed a particularly independent and hardy-minded type of family who are able to make a living from the harsh and adverse environment that the moorland presents. There are approximately 900 farms and 23 commons on Dartmoor. Dartmoor is owned by a patchwork of private landowners, including the Duchy of Cornwall—there are many other landowners—but it is divided into 23 commons. Some of the land is tenanted, but invariably the commoners have rights to graze on those commons, and there are hundreds of commoners. It is therefore a particularly complex environment.

The higher level stewardship schemes were introduced on Dartmoor in the early 2000s. They were 10-year agreements. Broadly speaking, they commenced in 2012 and 2013, and they are now due for renewal. It is open to farmers to extend their agreements by five years, and the first agreements started to expire in February of this year. The problem that has arisen is this: in or about February of this year, a letter arrived at all of the commoners’ associations, each of which is responsible for the management of one of the 23 commons, indicating to them that, if they were to enter into new agreements, they would have to remove their stock entirely from the moors in the wintertime. What in fact was said was that, other than ponies—you may be familiar with the famous Dartmoor pony, Mr Hosie—stocking and grazing in the winter would be permitted only if they could be justified on ecological and environmental grounds. In essence, that has been interpreted to mean—and Natural England does not appear to contest that it means—the effective removal of stocking and grazing in the winter.

The letter was followed a few weeks later by another letter to a particular common indicating that it would have to reduce its summer grazing by some 80%. Were those indications to be implemented, they would effectively mean the complete eradication of grazing on that common throughout the year and only 20% levels in the summer. That exploded a metaphorical bomb in the small and fragile communities that the moorland hosts. Throughout the entire moor, Natural England’s policy was interpreted to be to apply those stocking levels across the moor. I am glad to say that that is now apparently not Natural England’s intention, but the fact is that those letters were written without consultation or warning. Not a single organisation on the moor was consulted—not the Dartmoor National Park Authority, not the Dartmoor Commoners’ Council, not the landowners, not the farmers’ groups. Not a single warning was given before that sudden and unexpected announcement by the statutory regulator for the moor, which controls the sites of special scientific interest where statutory consent must be given and, more widely, advises the Rural Payments Agency on whether it should agree to these higher level agreements. Not a single word of consultation was given or received.

I think my right hon. and hon. Friends would agree that that was an extremely unfortunate step for the regulator to have taken, and I think it regrets it. I have had a chance to speak to representatives of the agency, and there is no doubt that it accepts that its communications were poor. The problem on Dartmoor is that there has been a steady and gradual breakdown in the relationship of trust and confidence that should exist between the statutory regulator and the farming communities that, by common consent, must implement the agency’s statutory objectives. Natural England cannot fulfil its statutory objectives without the people, the human capital of Dartmoor. Therefore, if that relationship of trust is damaged, the problem of how we manage this precious landscape for the future, both for Dartmoor’s inhabitants—its families and wider communities—and in the wider public interest, will get far worse.

My right hon. and learned Friend is making an excellent speech. On the subject of that relationship and communication, does he agree that the damage has already been done on other moors? Exmoor farmers in my constituency are already contacting me with concerns about their future in the light of what has happened on Dartmoor.

It is a highly regrettable situation. My hon. Friends and I have absolutely no argument with the absolute necessary of Natural England fulfilling its statutory objectives—we gave it those legal responsibilities, and they must be fulfilled and enacted—but that can be achieved only in partnership with those who live and work in the area. That means building a positive relationship of trust and confidence. It means achieving, if at all possible, consensus.

My hon. Friends the Members for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter) and for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) and I wrote to the Secretary of State and to my right hon. Friend the Minister. As our letter said, we strongly believe that Natural England on its own in Dartmoor will not be able to achieve the kind of relationship, partnership, co-operation and consensus that will lead to a way forward for the future. We all know that the sites of special scientific interest on Dartmoor are in an unfavourable condition. The farmers know that the moor needs to be brought towards a favourable condition. We can argue, as I said I would avoid, about the causes of that. Many say it is because of overgrazing. It is perfectly true that in the ’80s and ’90s the policies of the European Union, which paid farmers to intensify their livestock numbers because they paid headage subsidies, undoubtedly overgrazed the moor. Many farmers and experts would argue that since that time the dramatic reduction in stocking numbers on Dartmoor, which has been happening since the late 1990s, has caused problems with the consequential burgeoning of molinia purple moor grass, but I do not want to get into that debate today; I want to focus the Government’s mind on how we are to move forward for the future.

I accept that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is focusing on Dartmoor, but he mentioned a human element. Part of that human element is family tenant farms—those who want to hand over their farms to their sons for the future. Surely, with this way forward, Natural England has a big job to do with farming families who have an obligation to their families and to their sons, who want to take over afterwards.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend, if I may be so bold as to call him that. One of the problems with stocking reductions, including the elimination of winter grazing, is that there are many tenants on Dartmoor. They are not landed people; they are tenants. They have no other farms than those they farm on Dartmoor. Where are they to put their flocks if they are told that they must be removed in the winter? What will happen is simple: those flocks will be lost. Either they will be sold if a commercial consideration can be obtained for them or they will be culled, because they may not be wanted anywhere else since they are used to the high moorland and the conditions they live in there.

These flocks are not just any flocks: in many cases they have been there for generations, for decades, for hundreds of years. They are hefted flocks; flocks, in Dartmoor terminology, that hold their leers. Leered flocks, put quite simply, are flocks that instinctively know the boundaries of their own grazing. It is a minor natural marvel of its own. It is part of the social and cultural heritage of Dartmoor, which, if winter grazing is removed completely, will be lost for all time.

My submission to my right hon. Friend the Minister and all Members who have attended the debate is that, as with so many things with life, Dartmoor presents us with a complex balancing exercise in which there are competing public interests to weigh and balance. Of course, the health of the natural environment is a primary consideration, but so I would argue is the cultural and social capital of Dartmoor, its communities and families who have farmed there for centuries—Dartmoor’s own unique heritage. In introducing the grazing calendar for the renewed agreement, we must have regard to that cultural, social and economic capital, which has been built up over the centuries and which is at risk if these destocking or stocking levels are insisted on. That is why my hon. Friends and I have called for an independent process in which, prior to the agreement of the new higher level schemes, an impartial facilitator and reviewer would lead the negotiation and discussion, review the contesting arguments and balance the competing public interests. 

I am glad and relieved to say that the call for an independent process has been heeded by the Dartmoor National Park Authority and the Dartmoor Commoners’ Council. Indeed, every relevant stakeholder on the moor, including Natural England, agreed on 4 April this year that such an independent process would be valuable. I would argue that we are now beginning to make progress. Unless we do something like this—unless we subject the factors that should go into these new extended agreements to objective review—we will constantly have a tug of war on Dartmoor, which will sap our strength and undermine our conviction and singleness of purpose to achieve the objectives we all want to see. I call on the Minister to give a fair wind to this important process.

The proposal is that an independent reviewer be appointed, possibly by the Minister himself, and paid for by the stakeholders at no cost to the Government. Who would look a gift horse in the mouth? The proposal is simple: we appoint an independent facilitator and all parties are brought into the process. He then reports over a period of 12 months, taking the views of all sides and proposing ways forward by negotiation and mediation. That seems to be a positive step forward.

We have been vexed for too long on Dartmoor by these entrenched positions—by the naturalists and environmentalists on one side and the farmers on the other, and by anybody else who wants to weigh in. The time has come for us to work together, and the way forward is via this independent process. Since all parties are now subscribed to it, I urge the Minister to agree. When one is presented with an opportunity like that, one does not spurn it.

My first call to the Minister is to allow the proposal to take place. It may require a degree of co-operation and assistance from the Department. The proposal is that for the first 12 months there would be no or minimal grazing level changes and the stocking calendar would essentially not change. However, the proposal is called “one plus four”, so that after the 12-month review in which the independent facilitator works to achieve consensus, the remaining four years would implement the recommendations of that review.

The park authority supports the proposal, and it is the park authority’s job to balance these factors. Part of its statutory definition and purpose is to achieve a balance between the communities, the socioeconomic factors affecting Dartmoor, the natural landscape and environment, and many other factors besides. If the park authority supports the proposal and Natural England is also in agreement, I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to give it fair wind. However, it will need more than that. Once the independent facilitator has produced his recommendations, it may be that he makes recommendations for the adjustment of grazing on Dartmoor. The problem with the current situation is that in order to renew these agreements, which must be renewed now, none of the farmers concerned about whether to make adjustments in the business model that they have pursued for many years have any time to do so. The proposal would give time not only for an independent review and for the recommendations of an impartial and credible character to be advanced but, as the process unfolded, for farm businesses on Dartmoor to adapt. In many cases, they are fragile, particularly where there are tenants who have no cushion with which to adapt, but they would at least have the opportunity of planning how, over time, they would adapt to graduated changes, if that was the recommendation for the stocking calendar.

However, the Government can help in this way. It may well be that the grazing of molinia by cattle and ponies is regarded as a good thing, so why are the Government not considering incentivising hill farmers to graze molinia at the correct time—between May and July, when molinia is palatable to cattle? Why are they not producing a scheme for the upland areas that will join in tandem with the statutory objective of bringing these sites into favourable condition by encouraging the practices that will achieve that very thing?

I urge the Minister to have an open mind about how the new environmental land management schemes are being developed for the purposes of the upland areas. It may be that on particular moors there should be an element of bespoke, precise targeting of practices that will assist Natural England, and the families and businesses that farm there, to achieve objectives that we all want to see.

We appreciate that ELMS are experimental schemes. They are still being tried and tested. Although we have seen much welcome detail so far, we have not seen, perhaps, sufficient detail about the upland areas. That presents us with an opportunity over the next 12 months on Dartmoor to design the further detail for the upland areas in a manner that will be tailored to the interests of preserving those precious farms and farming communities, and achieving the objectives of Natural England.

That is my second call to the Government and to my right hon. Friend the Minister: support the independent process, allow it to do its work, and consider how, in designing ELMS for the upland areas, they might be tailored and designed to incentivise and encourage the wholesome objectives of Natural England while preserving viable farm businesses on the moor.

In my opinion and, I believe, in the opinion of my right hon. and hon. Friends who surround me, this is a compelling menu for the Minister to choose from. It achieves what we need to achieve on Dartmoor. I do not want to demonise one side or the other, but there is no doubt that the recent indications and announcements from Natural England have plunged Dartmoor into uncertainty. It would appear from the evidence of my hon. Friends here who represent other moors—indeed, I see across the Chamber others who represent moorland areas—that the same is true elsewhere, but certainly in the south-west, an enormous amount of uncertainty, anxiety and stress has been caused.

It is not just farmers who are experiencing that. Around this country, there are tens of thousands of people who regard with deep sentiment the welfare of Dartmoor and its communities—and also its ponies; we must not forget them. They are genetically unique, and precious to many thousands of people. They, too, are under threat from a policy that would eliminate winter grazing and dramatically reduce summer grazing. Why? Quite simply, it is because they are included in the stocking calendars. Given the choice between a productive unit or an unproductive unit, which will people choose? There is bound to be reduction in the number of Dartmoor ponies, to the extreme dismay of tens of thousands of people throughout this country.

The problem has simply been that Natural England has acted, no doubt with the best intentions, in a manner that fails to take into account that it is regulating a complex environment, in which there are multiple public interests and goods that have to be weighed. That might mean that it has to accept, as I believe it does, that the return to favourable condition of these precious sites, which we all want to see, might take place over time. We cannot simply explode on these fragile communities a sudden change in the models of what they have been doing for decades—the loss of their hefted flocks and all these social and cultural values—because of a single perspective that fails to take account of the complexity of the balance that must be achieved.

Not only have I described the problem, but I hope I have described the solution. Having served under two Prime Ministers in government, I recall that both used to say, “I don’t want problems, Geoffrey, I want solutions.” Faithful to that prescription, I hope I have adumbrated not only a problem that is of acute concern to many hundreds of decent people, whom I and my colleagues represent, that is precious and integral to the survival of their communities and way of life, but the solution, to which they are all subscribed and which, with one heart and voice, we call on the Minister to endorse.

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Sir Geoffrey Cox). I greatly enjoyed his speech; in fact, I enjoy nearly every one of his speeches. He has a style of delivery that every one of us in this House can only aspire to. He made a powerful case and I hope the Minister will listen. I do not represent part of Dartmoor—I represent an urban area of Plymouth—but Dartmoor is on our doorstep, and what happens in Dartmoor has consequences for the entire south-west, including Plymouth. That is why I want to support the case made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, and to share his concern.

I met commoners on Dartmoor last summer. They operate in an incredibly complex environment of legislation and tough economic conditions, especially around the value of their produce. They also face myriad complexities in the rights of tenants to access certain land at certain times, and the conditions under which they are regulated. That balance is not quite where we need it to be for Dartmoor to thrive. We want Dartmoor to thrive; it should be home to a thriving community.

A good case has been made for an independent reviewer, but we have to look at why one is needed in the first place. That is because the system of regulation, the pace of change by Government, and the complex relationships between those who farm the land, those who own the land and those who visit the land is not in balance at the moment. That is the challenge to look at here.

As we have heard, there are 900 farms on Dartmoor. The south-west is home to a quarter of England’s agricultural holdings and a fifth of England’s total farmed land. That means that what happens for farming in the south-west is a signpost to what could happen to farming across the country. That is one reason I have argued to the Minister and the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), about the need for certainty for our farming communities, so that they can make informed judgments about their investments and future in agriculture.

I worry that the net effect of our agricultural transition from the common agricultural policy to a new future will result in fewer farmers, albeit larger farms; fewer payments from Government; and a greater adoption of technology. The effects of that in the south-west, where our farmers are more independent, there are more tenant farmers and the land is not necessarily as open to successful aggregation as the east of England’s flatter land, mean that we will produce fewer farmers, less of our land will be cared for, and there will be less stewardship in the way that Dartmoor and the surrounding countryside is looked after. I am not convinced that that is the direction that we, on a cross-party basis, wish to take agriculture in, so when the right hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon raises a legitimate concern about how this policy change, which may not have troubled too many headlines outside the agricultural press to date, will have a profound effect on Dartmoor, we should listen.

Mr Hosie, I declare an interest: my two little sisters work in farming. Indeed, they used to have their sheep on a farm in Dartmoor, exercising their right to graze them on common land, so they know this subject well, and I know the passion and determination of people who farm on Dartmoor. It is not just a job; it is a relationship, which in many cases goes back generations. People have farmed that land over many years and see no advantage in destroying it, denying access to it or disrupting the balance. That is really important, because sometimes there can be a view that farmers are deliberately destroying land to make a quick buck.

Environmental and farming policies have not always helped that case, but now we are in a better place. That is why we should look for the principles that the right hon. and learned Gentleman set out. First, we should look for greater certainty for the people who farm. That means giving them an understanding of what regulatory changes will happen and how they can plan for them. Changes that hit too early, too often and too hard have a disruptive effect on businesses and the landscape. Given the complexity of Dartmoor, we should look for a carefully managed transition from one state of agriculture regulation to another. The proposed change is too fast and too hard, without sufficient information for farmers to make a decent decision.

Secondly, we need to make sure that sustainability—environmental but also economic—is embedded as part of the policy. Having fewer farmers and fewer people managing the land has an adverse effect. Land that is not managed in a sustainable way by agriculture does not magically appear as dense forest. In many cases, it produces scrubland, which has a lower biodiversity and ecological value than farmland, so we need to see the transition properly managed.

The third principle is effective regulation and relationships. It seems to me that for the Minister to accept the case that has been made today about an independent reviewer, he must also accept that the way that Natural England has pursued the policy has not been as good as we would like. That means we need to make the case for change, but for sustainable change over time. That is where the three principles kick in.

I want to see the environmental land management schemes properly implemented. I want them to be sustainable and benefit all the different types of farming. But because our farming industry in the south-west is different from the agricultural sectors elsewhere in the country, ELMS need to be a success in the south-west, with our particular style of agriculture, farming and tenancy. That means we need a different way of doing it.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned rare breeds and talked about the importance of Dartmoor ponies. For those who do not follow the agricultural debate in detail, I think the headline of the debate will be, “There is a threat to Dartmoor ponies.” If we are to preserve rare breeds, particularly in Dartmoor, where we have rare breeds of not only cattle but sheep—generally, in the west country we are really good at growing grass, and we get our income from the animals that eat that grass—we need to make sure that the environmental land management scheme approach, and all the regulation that accompanies it, supports not only mainstream species that are being farmed, but rare breeds. I am sure Members have read the Rare Breeds Survival Trust briefing about the risks to rare breeds. I think its mantra of farming the right breed in the right place at the right density is one that we could all agree on, but how it is implemented here is quite difficult.

There is a challenge around ELMS in upland areas, which affects not only Dartmoor and the south-west but elsewhere. I see the hon. Gentleman from up north, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who I am sure will say something similar when he gets to his feet.

We also need to look at why it is important to get this right. There is an ecological prize to be won for managing the transition to get us into the right place. We need to move towards making sure that farmers are not only supported, and sustainably, but that the outcomes are clearly specified. Changes hitting hard, without much notice, do not deliver that.

Finally, no debate about Dartmoor can pass without wild camping being mentioned briefly. We need to strike a balance, of which wild camping is a part. Sometimes, there is a simple headline to be got, but we need to see a proper balance, proper relationships and proper certainty restored. I am glad that the case on wild camping was brought, because it puts pressure on Parliament to update the laws to make sure that there is a proper right to roam, not just on the countryside, but also in terms of access to rivers and waters. In return, there needs to be a proper relationship between the people who visit the land, to ensure that it is looked after and to prevent over-exploitation, and the people who look after the livestock and the environment. There is a balance to be struck here.

I hope the Minister will take seriously the suggestion from the right hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon of an independent reviewer for what happens with farming on Dartmoor. This is something that Members on both sides of the House will be watching carefully.

Order. I suggest that colleagues take no more than six minutes, in order to give the Front-Bench spokespeople time to make their contributions. I call Anthony Mangnall.

Thank you, Mr Hosie. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I fear that if I were in the dock and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Sir Geoffrey Cox) were prosecuting, I would surely be sent down. In this instance, I can only hope that his argument has landed so effectively with the Minister that the points will be taken on board, accepted and implemented.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for securing the debate and for his continued work and engagement on this issue on Dartmoor with the common land farmers. It has made all the difference and it is the reason why we speak on this side of the Chamber with one voice. I welcome the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) back and wish him a speedy recovery; it is good to see him in his place.

This debate is of the utmost importance, and time is of the essence. As has already been stated, on 31 March, while farmers in my constituency were calving and lambing and preparing for the year ahead, a letter arrived, asking them to reduce their livestock and their grazing rights. Farmers do not prepare and work on a monthly basis; they sometimes work two or three to 10 years in advance. To receive a letter asking them to make a decision within two months is an insult that cannot be left alone. It must be answered for, and I hope that this debate will go some way to answering it.

For those who have not been there, Dartmoor is a remarkable place and space. Those of us who are fortunate to represent areas of it know that it is a multi-focused area, with focuses on agriculture, environmentalism and recreation. We should not prioritise one over the other, but all of them together, allowing livelihoods to flourish, experiences to be gained and traditions to be passed down. It is a working environment.

Farmers on Dartmoor are not a recent phenomenon. They have been playing their part for hundreds of years, through multiple generations. They have been the cultivators and protectors of the landscape and biodiversity. They have been so, and are so, because their livelihoods depend upon rich, fertile lands and healthy livestock.

Farmers are not anti-environmentalist. They have followed Government rules and regulations, because that is what is required of them. However, Natural England’s recent pronouncement about livestock and grazing reductions will push most common land farmers to the brink. Their future hangs in the balance. This is not rhetoric or parliamentary drama; it is a fact.

I will give the Minister an example. One of my farmers, on the Holne valley, has been asked by Natural England to reduce his sheep by 75% and his cattle by 66%, with no winter grazing at all. That is meant to happen over the next five years, but Natural England would like to see the majority of that cut in 2024 and 2025. I reiterate that right now, farmers are calving and lambing and preparing for next year and the year after. The request from Natural England is not only out of time; it is completely out of kilter with how people farm and look after their land. It is an insult for a regulatory body to take that approach with farmers. It should be working with them, rather than against them.

Using the sites of special scientific interest as a reason, Natural England is attempting to force farmers out of business by making their business models untenable. I question why Natural England is taking such an approach. Perhaps it is unhappy with the state of the SSSI. Of course, it is important to protect SSSIs—no one on the Government side of the House doubts that—but to date there is little information or evidence to show that farmers are to blame. Livestock numbers have successively been reduced, but the environmental issues have not improved, so why try the same thing again and expect a different result? It appears, rather, that farmers are the easy target: a small group of people who are often overlooked or are not considered, and who are sometimes at the mercy of the Twitter mob, rather than being able to stand up for themselves. We are here today to stand up for them and to ensure that we can get done the things they need to see delivered.

Whether it is higher concentrations of nitrate, milder winters or just climate change in general, we have to look at the alternatives. That is why the request from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon for an independent inquiry and the breathing space of an extension on 2022 stocking rates is absolutely essential. We ask our farmers to produce food, meet our food security levels and look after our land, all of which they do in spades. However, right now, Natural England is jeopardising that relationship on Dartmoor, and that cannot be allowed to continue. If we wish to see our farmers remain and the viability of their businesses endure, we must look at the issue of HLS and provide all farmers—not just those on Dartmoor—with the flexibility and understanding they need.

That is why myself and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon ask for that independent inquiry and that extension. We also ask for an improvement in Natural England’s communication and engagement with farmers. Things cannot be allowed to go on like this and cannot be allowed to take place in other parts of the country. I hope the Minister will be able to assure us of that. The damage and lack of trust is worrying, and we must now provide that reassurance.

We should take note of what is going on in Europe, specifically in the Netherlands, where the cry is going out, “No farms, no food.” If we lose our Dartmoor farmers, they will not come back. We will find ourselves at odds, and we will see a poorer landscape as a result. I hope the Minister will take on board the points we are raising. We cannot simply stand idly by—we must see an improvement.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Hosie, and to follow all three of the speakers so far. They have all spoken articulately and passionately, and I support pretty much everything they have said. I want to say a big thanks and congratulations to the right hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Sir Geoffrey Cox) on securing this important debate.

The conflict that has arisen around the higher-level stewardship schemes on Dartmoor common is deeply concerning for everybody involved and for all of us who care about the future of Britain’s vital uplands and moorlands. Our uplands are crucial to our biodiversity and to tackling climate change; they contribute to food production and flood prevention, to our tourism economy and our landscape heritage; and they are crucial to the communities who live there. Indeed, it is the human destocking of our uplands that troubles me even more than the enforced removal of animals entailed in this deeply upsetting stand-off.

Too often, the Government and their agencies take rural Britain for granted—especially those communities and families who underpin life in our uplands. We officially call them less-favoured areas, but they are favoured by God with awesome beauty, immense significance and wonderful people who sustain that landscape beauty with hard work and commitment all year round.

As we have heard, letters from Natural England were sent to more than 20 commoners on Dartmoor at the very last minute—at the very point when the current HLS schemes were running out. The letters, which were received just as farmers had their animals in calf and in lamb, told those farmers that they had to remove their stock by this coming winter—no wonder the commoners reacted with such dismay. Natural England’s argument is that current schemes have not delivered in ecological terms, as if this was all down to the farmers, and nothing to do with Natural England itself. Of course, Natural England is a Government agency, responsible to and ultimately directed by Ministers, and funded—or, crucially, underfunded—by the Government. If HLS partnerships have not delivered on Dartmoor, or anywhere else, for that matter, the responsibility must be shared. The solution must also be based on partnership and patience and not on a Government agency blaming farmers and taking zero responsibility itself.

It is no accident that this conflict has arisen after Natural England has seen its staffing levels in the south-west reduced by around 90% over the past few years. In Cumbria, we too have seen Natural England staffing resources severely restricted. That is perhaps why only half of the farms that could enter countryside stewardship higher tier are able to even contemplate doing so. It is also one reason the Government are inexcusably botching the transfer from the old payment scheme to the environmental land management scheme.

Farmers in general are being sold short. The uplands have all but been abandoned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which knows full well the impact of its painfully slow agricultural transition policy on business viability. The Government’s error in Dartmoor is caused not just by underfunding but by a fundamental misunderstanding—a mindset that says that there is an overriding conflict between farming and nature. That is simply untrue. There is no such in-built conflict. In Cumbria, and, I am sure, in the west country, farmers demonstrate that they can produce food and care for the environment, but if we do not enable them to farm and to maintain their businesses, we will lose our most important partners in the fight to defend and improve nature.

The debacle in Dartmoor could be averted if Natural England and the Ministers to whom it is responsible took the time to negotiate with commoners, create space for respectful conversations and listen. The Minister must surely know that, if the threats in the February letters are carried out, that will be the end of many of those upland farms. Farmers whose families have cared for these commons for generations will be dealt the cruellest blow, through no fault of their own, and will face the crushing reality of being the ones who lost the family farm—all because of intransigence and a failure to treat people like people and to work in partnership to find workable solutions together.

In Cumbria we have seen that, although it can be difficult, progress can be made, but only if we work in partnership. In 2019, “co-operation not conflict” was the theme of a meeting between all players in our world-class uplands in the lakes and the dales. The meeting was led by the Foundation for Common Land and was attended by His Majesty the King when he was the Prince of Wales. The outcome was a clear understanding that when we co-operate we deliver far more. I hope that this Government will heed that outcome and, in doing so, put right the grave wrong that Natural England has done to the commoners of Dartmoor.

This year, the result of partnership working in Cumbria has seen, for example, the agreement that led to the Duddon, Subberthwaite, Torver and Coniston commons coming into a countryside stewardship agreement that ensures 600 hectares of woodland pasture. That shows what can happen when people talk with each other over time, rather than when Government agencies send terrifying letters to commoners who now find themselves on a cliff edge with nowhere to turn.

In considering how we work with farmers to achieve public goods, we need to remember that arresting biodiversity decline is essential but that it is not the only public good that we must secure. Environmental schemes must also deliver on our climate goals, food security, landscape quality, cultural heritage, flood prevention and water quality. To achieve those vital gains, we will need partnership, which is distinctly lacking in this case. People who work for Natural England in Cumbria are good people, but there are not enough of them. That is surely the case with Dartmoor too.

The simple fact is that the Government have let down rural England as a whole. Promises to maintain previous levels of funding for agriculture and our environment have been broken. With basic payments reduced by at least 35% this year but fewer than 10% of farms entering the new sustainable farming initiative schemes, Ministers know that they are making huge savings and not using that money to support farmers, or even their own agencies, to bridge the gap to keep farmers farming and to protect our environment. Farm funding is being hollowed out. It is overcomplicated and riddled with red tape and built-in conflict. The consequence is that farmers from Cumbria to Cornwall will be needlessly put out of business. Or they will do what many are already doing: they will look at the inaccessibility, unattractiveness and restrictiveness of the new schemes and do the only thing they can think of to save their business and feed their families—turn their backs on environmental schemes and increase their stocking levels. I spoke to farmers in Westmorland just last week who are doing that very thing. They are doing it with heavy hearts, but what are they meant to do when the Government have let them down so badly?

The conflict on Dartmoor is tragic but not inevitable. We simply need Ministers to give Natural England the resources and the instruction to manage transitions in partnership, not with threats, and allow time for solutions to be delivered. I strongly urge the Minister to choose co-operation over conflict.

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Sir Geoffrey Cox) for not just securing this debate and making such a powerful speech but leading the charge for us all in Devon in relation to Dartmoor over the last 12 months. It has been a joy to work with the other three Dartmoor Members of Parliament, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride), whose representative on earth is with us in the Public Gallery this afternoon. All of us have been working together to bring about a better outcome for our farmers and commoners.

I will make a few quick points. It will be difficult enough to balance all the competing interests on Dartmoor. First, there is the importance of access for recreation and leisure, especially post lockdown and given the mental health issues about which we all know very well. Secondly, there are the legitimate rights and interests of landowners—we have heard a bit about that from my right hon. and learned Friend. Thirdly, there are the interests and needs of the farmers and commoners whose families have been farming Dartmoor for generations, and other moor communities. Finally, there is the need to protect and see flourish nature and biodiversity for the long-term sustainability of often overlapping and sometimes competing interests. All of that would be difficult enough to balance if all stakeholders were collaborating and pulling together, working hand in hand towards meeting a set of common goals, but sadly we have not seen that collaborative approach in recent years. Especially in the past three months, it has been very far from that, and Natural England’s heavy-handed, clumsy approach has caused alarm and distress among farming communities the length and breadth of the moor and more widely. My right hon. and learned Friend covered that in some detail.

If Natural England accepts that the situation has been badly handled and now wants to work more collaboratively with other stakeholders, that is hugely to be welcomed and we should look forward, not backwards. However, from my conversations with hill farmers in recent weeks, including two yesterday, it is clear that there has been a breakdown in trust. I will not say that it is irretrievable, but it is serious. I therefore strongly support the call for an independent process to get to the bottom of how we get the balance right and protect the moor without damaging beyond repair the long-established practice of farming on the commons. I hope the Minister will confirm that DEFRA will embrace and facilitate the independent process that all parties appear to have agreed at the meeting on 4 April. It is important that Natural England becomes a trusted partner once again to enable long-term solutions to be found by consensus.

Whatever the Minister says in his response, it is clear that time and space must be given for any changes to be made. I grew up on a dairy farm not far from Dartmoor, and my father milked Channel Island cows—Jerseys and Guernseys in the main. In those days, there was a premium for Channel Island milk—the Minister is probably too young to remember that—because it was creamier, so the Government paid a bit more for it. I remember the horrible day when the letter came from the then Ministry of Agriculture saying, with little warning, that the premium was going to be removed. I remember my late mother being in tears for days over that, wondering how we would survive. Although the premium was taken away in just a few short months, it took my parents three to four years to change the herd to Friesians, which as most farmers know give an awful lot more milk, to enable them to recover the lost income. It was a tough few years while we transitioned.

Farming is not like manufacturing widgets: farmers cannot just flick a switch and increase or reduce production levels overnight. If we are going to ask farmers to reduce stocking levels, once the case has been made, there has to be time for transition. If possible, the existing agri-environment agreement should be left in place while the independent process is carried out. Many of the five-year HLS agreements are coming to an end over the next six months or so, so we would like them to be left in place if possible. I hope the Minister will talk long and hard with his officials about that. If that is not possible legally, I strongly support the “one plus four” proposals that were discussed at the 4 April meeting.

Whatever happens, the process must be evidence based. The farmers need to see Natural England’s workings. What is it basing its assumptions on? It must be related to Dartmoor, not to moorlands further north—I am sure they are wonderful, but Dartmoor is its own complex ecosystem, so we need statistics and evidence gathered from Dartmoor.

Finally, I hope that out of the stress of the past few months—it has been stressful for many of our constituents—an exemplar for the future will emerge. We were promised that, once we left the EU and the common agricultural policy, our support for farmers would be less bureaucratic and more tailor-made and farmer-friendly. Perhaps the jury is still out on that, but if in the months ahead genuine dialogue is undertaken with all the interested parties and agreement is reached about the long-term benefits to nature and communities on Dartmoor, that model could be built on for other communities. This has been a crisis, but out of it can come an opportunity. I urge our widely respected farming Minister to play his part in making that come about.

I declare an interest in that our family farm in Cornwall is home to a number of rare breeds and native breeds, including a handful of Greyface Dartmoor sheep.

The spur for today’s debate is a specific issue with the conditions that Natural England is applying for new countryside agreements, particularly when it comes to stocking densities for sheep, but behind that are two much bigger debates that I want to focus on predominantly. First, how do we secure the financial viability of certain farming types, particularly in upland areas, as we move away from the nonsensical area payment scheme to something that rewards environmental and other outcomes, such as animal welfare? Secondly, what are the right organisational structure and functions of DEFRA’s arm’s length bodies in a post-EU world, and how do we correct the lack of accountability that was an inherent feature of our EU membership?

On the specifics of this issue, as ever, DEFRA is between a rock and a hard place, in that there is currently a very trenchant debate about water quality. We know that, in some geographies, including places such as Dartmoor, diffuse agricultural pollution, some of it linked to winter grazing, is a contributory factor; but at the same time, there is the issue of farm viability. The Minister’s predecessor gave Natural England a steer to try to adjust stocking densities, but gradually, not suddenly—perhaps over five years. However, it is unclear why that seemed not to be followed through. Either Natural England felt that it was doing that and was simply beginning a conversation with farmers, or perhaps it thought that, with the Minister’s predecessor out the way, it could do its own thing. Or maybe the Minister gave Natural England a different order and told it to be more hawkish and move faster. He might want to explain what happened in that instance.

On the issue of viability, the big challenge is that many upland areas are already quite invested in agri-environment schemes. Some would see limited scope to earn more money through agri-environment schemes as the BPS payment falls away. We have considered this quite a lot in DEFRA, and there are three main answers. The first is that, in some of these landscapes, frankly, land rents are too high. There is a lot of evidence that about 50% of the BPS payment that immediately disappeared in the first few years has inflated land rents, and that needs to adjust. Secondly, the Department must depart from the old-fashioned “income foregone” methodology for payment rates. I would like the Minister to say explicitly today that income foregone will no longer be followed and that there will be a margin for farmers in the new environmental schemes, as we always intended.

The third solution is that the Agriculture Act 2020 made provision for ways to reward farmers other than through the conventional agri-environment schemes. In particular, payments can be made to farmers on a headage basis, for instance, if necessary for higher welfare outcomes, or indeed for rare and native breeds. We made explicit provision for wider payments to be made, acknowledging that, in some landscapes, different public goods might be pursued over and above the environmental ones that people tend to associate with them.

In that context, the Minister will know that I have made the case for a new coronation fund to support rare breeds and native breeds in this country. The King has been passionate about our rare breeds in particular, but also our native breeds, throughout his life. The year of his coronation would be a fantastic opportunity to open a fund to support rare breeds such as the Greyface Dartmoor and others that can be found on Dartmoor. The National Sheep Association has called for this and can see an opportunity to add greater value to some of its produce through such a scheme. I hope the Department will take that forward.

I looked at arm’s length body reform during my tenure at DEFRA, and the truth is that the structure we have was designed for an EU era. Many of these agencies were given powers to, effectively, implement EU law directly, and they were specifically designed to bypass democratic structures. In a post-EU era, we really need to think about how we change this. There is a consultation sitting somewhere in DEFRA—it was due to be published shortly before I departed in September and is still sitting there, should the Minister want it—that basically argues that we should change the function of Natural England when it comes to SSSIs, in particular. It is not sensible for Natural England to have to make the decisions on SSSIs. Instead, Ministers should take such decisions having taken advice from Natural England and others, which would restore accountability.

The Minister will shortly have submissions coming his way, asking him to agree certain licences—for instance, for heather burning on blanket bog. That is because I explicitly made it a legal requirement that the Minister should make that decision based on advice, not that Natural England should make the decision on its own without seeking the advice of Ministers. I hope the Minister will return to that system of accountability and publish the consultation because, in its absence, I am afraid he will be condemned to have episodes similar to this, where things take him by surprise simply because he does not have the powers he should have in the post-EU era.

I credit my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Sir Geoffrey Cox) for securing the debate. It raises questions about the role of Government organisations such as Natural England, which operate under the extraordinary powers in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The Act and Natural England demonstrate a lack of understanding of the significant transformation that is taking place in the countryside, where landowners whose families have farmed and cared for our countryside for generations understand more than ever the value of the natural environment and the need to protect and enhance it.

When I meet farmers and landowners, it is clear to me that the countryside and landscape we enjoy is in a good condition only because of decades of care and good management. What we have heard today, in relation to Dartmoor and the similar experience of landowners on Penwith moors in west Cornwall, is that Natural England is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

In October 2022, Natural England wrote to landowners in west Cornwall informing them that Penwith moors had been notified as an SSSI. It has 7,700 acres of countryside, 995 acres of which are described as clean land that is used for productive grazing and food production. The decision will affect up to 50 landowners. Some will not be able to run viable farms if the notification is not amended, in keeping with evidence that has since come to light following the SSSI notification, which was poorly drafted and poorly communicated. What is most frustrating is that the landowners do not object to the need to continue to protect and enhance the moors, but, as my right hon. and learned Friend clearly established in his speech, they deserve to be around the table, working with Natural England and DEFRA to draw up plans to continue to nurture the countryside that we enjoy so much.

A landscape recovery scheme may be the tool to use. Whatever it is, the SSSI notification as it currently stands must be amended to recognise that viable farms with decades of experience, which have ensured that Penwith moors is worthy of designation, may be lost rather than protected and enhanced. Along with Members across the Chamber, I appeal for consideration to be given to how Natural England can be reformed to nurture a better, more constructive relationship with landowners, who the Government and our constituents ultimately rely on to support a healthy and flourishing countryside.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Hosie. I, too, congratulate the right hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Sir Geoffrey Cox) on securing the debate, as it gives us an opportunity to discuss the crucial challenge of balancing our objectives with regard to food production, conservation and mitigating climate change. It is also an excellent opportunity to talk about a place as unique and exceptional as Dartmoor.

As we have heard, Dartmoor has a rich natural history, an iconic landscape and an impressive cultural heritage, often related to commoning. It also contains three of the largest moorland SSSIs in the south-west and is an extremely important area for conservation—not just in the region or even the whole country, but in the world. Of course, it should be and is treasured by the nation.

The tragedy is that none of the areas of scientific interest—not one of them—is in a favourable condition. The upland heathlands are now patchy and in poor ecological state and the peatland bogs degraded. The wildlife that once thrived is no longer as rich or resilient as it was just a generation ago. Their habitats are seriously threatened and in some cases have been destroyed. That has negative consequences not just for wildlife and nature but for the surrounding rural communities.

We cannot simply stand by and watch this irreplaceable moorland deteriorate even further. I am afraid that what has been tried in the past clearly has not worked, and Natural England, whatever its shortcomings, has a statutory duty to take steps to halt the degradation and restore the health of the moors. However, as we have heard from many excellent contributions—I was particularly taken by the comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard)—it is important that we work together to urgently tackle the causes of the damage. From the evidence that has been presented to me, it is fair to say that we are looking at a combination of factors—it is complicated, exactly as has been said. There is a mixture of environmental change, pollution, some overgrazing perhaps, particularly by sheep, and possibly large-scale burning. However, I also think that the role that pollution and environmental change are playing in environmental deterioration is worthy of further investigation.

The impact of those factors can be complex and variable, as we have heard. Grazing is not inherently positive or negative. Livestock grazing can be good for biodiversity by keeping the grass sward down and sustaining insects such as dung beetles, which punch above their weight in terms of their positive contribution to the ecosystem. As has also been said, it is about getting the right animals in the right place at the right time.

I absolutely understand why there is huge concern among the farming community, which has been eloquently expressed today. I understand why farmers are concerned about the proposed measures. They are already working on tight margins and are understandably worried about their livelihoods. It is not just about the finances but about the culture and tradition. Many come from families who, as has been said, have been farming on Dartmoor for generations.

Farmers have plenty to cope with—eking out what is in many cases a very modest living from what they do. It is not an easy job, and the mental health pressures are well documented. I think that it has been made harder by the very rocky transition from basic payments to ELM schemes, particularly for the uplands, with all the attendant uncertainty, instability and delay. They are also having to work within a system that does not yet seem to provide the right balance of incentives. That needs to change. We need a system that properly rewards hard-working farmers for all their efforts to conserve nature and help in the battle against climate change.

There are alternative models that are worthy of serious consideration. Harriet Bell led the first Dartmoor test and trial project, and I would like to thank her for providing some invaluable information. One of her recommendations was for DEFRA to build on the work she conducted on developing a payment-by-results system. That is not without problems, but I think it has much to commend it.

Another approach is to develop a much more strategic, finely tuned and proportionate plan regarding land use—a strategy that takes much more account of the qualities of land and the nation’s overarching objectives regarding food production, climate change and conservation. Government should then incentivise activities that are most appropriate for the land in question and that can help achieve those broader goals. I very much echo the comments made by a number of earlier contributors that a one-size-fits-all approach is hardly likely to work, but that is what we have now. I am grateful to Dustin Benton and his colleagues at Green Alliance, who have developed a compelling argument along those lines, and I thank him for his advice. What could that mean for Dartmoor? Green Alliance has calculated that if farmers were paid a fair price for the carbon value of their land, average incomes could rise by at least 20%. In cases where a farm is on actively eroding peat, farm incomes could rise by a factor of two.

I appreciate that, while the theory may be compelling, the practical implementation presents real challenges. However, any such system would have to work on incentivisation, not compulsion. If a farmer wants to continue to farm land deemed to be less amenable to food production, he or she should absolutely be able to continue to do so. The stakes have become much higher, so the status quo will no longer suffice. We are asking our land to work even harder in delivering objectives that, in themselves, have become more urgent and important.

In conclusion, the time has come to grasp the nettle and develop that proper land use strategy. It is too precious a resource to leave to chance. Farmers, and particularly commoners on Dartmoor, have not only intimate knowledge of the land but considerable experience of agri-environment schemes and innovations. They are certainly not resistant to change, as the Dartmoor test and trial revealed. We have seen the positive outcomes for nature when farmers take on environmental stewardship. As long as the Government can provide the right framework of incentives and support, there is exciting potential for all stakeholders to work together to achieve our objectives on food production, climate change and conservation, rather than fall short on all of them, which I fear is the danger if the Government continue to get it wrong.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Sir Geoffrey Cox) not only for calling the debate but for the extensive work that he has done behind the scenes, working with landowners, tenants, Natural England and representatives of the moor to pull together his plan. It is worth saying that the Department and I recognise that farming is the lifeblood of our communities. I know at first hand the valuable work that farmers do to keep food on our tables and look after the natural environment for today and for generations to come. It is therefore only right that we take time to duly consider how best we can support farmers—the custodians of our countryside—to be sustainable and productive and have profitable businesses to help manage that moorland and help protect the beautiful landscape that they have created over generations.

Being an upland farmer is pretty challenging. Only last week, I was on Dartmoor with farmers looking at the challenges they face and talking to them about the solutions that we can help to deliver. The Government are listening: that is why we are introducing more than 130 different actions for upland farmers—a huge package of support—through the SFI.

I hear some of the challenges and suggestions put by the Opposition, but there is danger in some of them. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) talks about offering payments for carbon sequestration and carbon management, but there is an inherent danger in that: sheep and tenants are not required to be paid for that action. As a landlord, there would be a benefit in removing those tenants from that land and taking the payment directly. That would have a catastrophic effect on those communities, delivering exactly what the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) suggested: the removal of people—families and tenants—from the moor. We have to progress through this with a little thought and ensure that we get it right for the generations to come.

The purpose of the debate is to get to the detail of how we will move forward, so let me cut to the chase. I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon for the work that he has done on his plan for us to undertake, as soon as possible, an independent evidence review covering the ecological condition of designated sites on Dartmoor. I subscribe to his view. The plan is worthy of support, and I, alongside the Department, will work with him, Natural England and those representatives to undertake that independent review. It should be done rapidly by someone who is recognised as being independent. His “one plus four” model is credible and could move us forward.

At the end of that 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, but I recognise 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. I met many enthusiastic farmers on Dartmoor who were keen not only to show me their fantastic sheep flocks but to demonstrate the ecology available to them and the amount of species and plants to be enhanced and protected for the future.

I pay tribute to hon. Members for taking part in this debate. I look forward to working with colleagues to find solutions, and thank my right hon. and learned Friend for the work that he has done on the challenge. We look forward to working together to resolve the challenges moving forward.

I am immensely grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for what was an unexpectedly full acceptance of our proposals. It is heartening to see how the process we engage with in this House can sometimes lead to positive outcomes so quickly and efficiently. I am grateful to all right hon. and hon. Members who have participated, including those from the Opposition, and I endorse the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice).

We need to look again at the arm’s length agencies. If my right hon. Friend prepared a paper for DEFRA, it would be interesting to look at it. The reality is that Ministers did not have any awareness at all of what was developing on Dartmoor—I know that because I spoke to my right hon. Friend. With deference to the great deal of useful substance in the speech of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), it was what I would call “matter and impertinency mixed”, as the Fool said to King Lear, or King Lear said to the Fool.

May I conclude by expressing my gratitude to all who have attended, to the Minister and to you, Mr Hosie? Let’s make this work now.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of farming on Dartmoor.

Sitting suspended.