THE Government has agreed to an independent review into how Dartmoor is managed following an appeal from MPs including West Devon and Torridge’s SIr Geoffrey Cox.

The guarantees were given by the Minister for Farming, The Rt Hon Mark Spencer MP, during a House of Commons debate yesterday, April 18. 

They follow concerns about plans by Government department Defra to require farmers to remove large numbers of sheep, cattle and ponies from the moor in the name of wildlife management.

Last summer, the MP held a Dartmoor Farming Forum at Two Bridges to which, among others, he invited the Chief Executive of Natural England. Some 200 people attended. 

He said he hoped it would mark a fresh start in the approach of the agency to Dartmoor’s complex environment, rebuilding trust and cooperation. 

However, last month, Natural England’s announced, just as the lambing and calving season was beginning, that it wanted dramatic reductions in grazing, for both livestock and the famous Dartmoor ponies, as part of the new Higher Level Stewardship agreements for Dartmoor due to be renewed in the next few weeks. 

These are agreements which pay farmers to manage the moor.

The announcement has caused widespread consternation about the impact on Dartmoor’s 900 farms. 

Sir Geoffrey, along with fellow Tories Sir Gary Streeter MP (South West Devon) and Anthony Mangnall MP (Totnes), wrote to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs calling for an independent inquiry into the management of Dartmoor and at the MP’s request, the Speaker granted a debate in the House of Commons, which took place yesterday (April 18).

The MP for Torridge and West Devon urged the Minister for Farming to appoint an independent person to conduct a review into the management of Dartmoor and the right balance between its competing public interests — farming, recreation and conservation management. 

Sir Geoffrey said: ‘I am very glad the Government has acceded to this urgent and necessary request for an independent process. It is essential that there should be a partnership between all those involved in managing Dartmoor’s precious heritage and it is clear the relationship between our farming communities and Natural England requires urgent repair. I am determined to support our local farming families to sustain viable businesses on the Moor, which are vital to the wellbeing of our communities on Dartmoor, while enabling the condition of our natural landscape to be improved.’

The call for an inquiry has been sparked by friction with Government body Natural England over commoners’ rights to graze their stock.

Natural England says that three Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) on the moor are in a poor state and wants to make changes to how and when commoners graze their stock.

The MPs claim that Natural England’s proposals could ‘destroy’ commoners’ livelihoods on Dartmoor. 

The Devon MPs joined forces to make the appeal  Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Therese Coffey for an inquiry.

Farmers who are members of the Dartmoor Commoners’ Council have also spoken out in recent weeks, stating that they are being asked to remove 90 per cent of their sheep from the moor next winter.

Dave Slater, South West regional director for Natural England, has suggested removing both ponies, sheep and cattle from the moor is necessary to protect important wildlife habitats, including the Dartmoor Forest common around Princetown and Postbridge.

‘Dartmoor contains three of the largest moorland SSSIs in the country, but none of these are in a ‘favourable condition’ with rare moorland birds all but disappearing from the area and precious peatland habitats damaged,' he said. 'The right type of grazing is fundamental to restoring the health of these moors. Society needs thriving nature as part of our farming systems and that is especially important in our national parks. Getting that right takes time but can be done.

‘With many of the voluntary agri-environment agreements, that pay farmers to deliver for nature, held by Dartmoor’s commoners due to expire this year, we’re supporting the commoners and landowners to help them make any changes to timings and patterns of grazing that might be necessary over the coming five years.’