The Future of Britain’s Uplands: Thinking through History

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Herry Lawford
Dartmoor is one of the most celebrated of the British uplands, and its history has been shaped by human activities.

At first glance, Britain’s uplands appear to be among the United Kingdom’s (UK) most natural places. But it takes only the briefest encounter to realize that this is at best a relative claim activities. Here nonhuman nature and culture have produced hybrid landscapes of an uncertain ontological status. As such, they are frequently the focus of political controversy, particularly when human activities seem liable to undermine their apparently natural qualities. In 2015, the uplands are again under such scrutiny. How should they be used? What should we expect of them? And, in particular, should their populations be maintained in situ, pursuing traditional ways of life, or should they be put to new uses? Dartmoor, one of the most celebrated and mythologized of these British uplands, offers some historical context to our current dilemmas. Understanding Dartmoor’s past can help equip us to think about upland futures.1

Dartmoor, in the county of Devonshire in the southwest of England, tends to be celebrated as ‘unspoiled,’ or a wilderness. It is still possible to provoke a fierce reaction by observing that the denuding of Dartmoor’s woodland in prehistory made it the site of a man-made ecological catastrophe: the boggy upland we encounter today is as much a scene of ancient devastation as extraordinary natural beauty. Not so long ago Dartmoor was considered a ‘waste,’ an affront to God’s great generosity. In response, the agricultural improvers of the 19th century looked not to restore woodland and forest but to enclose and transform it into arable land. Entrepreneurs and the state found new ways of exploiting Dartmoor’s natural resources.

During the 19th century, quarrying replaced tin mining as the major source of Dartmoor’s geological wealth. On Dartmoor’s great upland commons, grazing regimes based on transhumance were transformed by the introduction of hardy breeds that allowed year-round grazing. Dartmoor also became host to a notorious prison, a military training ground, and the first of several reservoirs—to this day, water is Dartmoor’s most important natural resource. In the 20th century, these developments were augmented with commercial forestry, which introduced non-native conifers to the moorscape and, goaded by government incentives, the clear-felling of ancient woodland for replanting also with conifers. Tourism added significant footfall to the mix and by the middle of the 20th century, Dartmoor was heavily exploited, often in quite novel ways.

This pattern of exploitation intensified after Dartmoor became one of the first National Parks in England and Wales in 1951. National Park creation in the UK did not involve the eviction of residents, land expropriation, or for that matter, particularly strong protection against new developments. Instead, National Park status was principally a planning designation, obliging the new National Park Authorities (NPA) to seek to protect the ‘amenity value’ of the parks. The NPA negotiated with landowners to enhance public access, as well as provide guidelines to help people make the best use of the parks for leisure purposes. Much of this had a strongly paternal bent and was bound up with both the midcentury cult of fresh air and the social democratic turn in British politics. Labour governments initiated the first significant investigation into whether National Parks were suitable for the UK in 1929, but didn’t make the first designations until 1949–51.

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James Martin
Dartmoor became one of the first National Parks in England and Wales in 1951.

All sorts of controversies animated the politics of Dartmoor National Park in the second half of the 20th century. Proposed new reservoirs, an expanding forestry sector, and the needs of the military proved particularly contentious. Public enquiries and heated parliamentary debates often culminated in a government minister making a decision that divided public opinion. These conflicts were often marked by the tension provoked by differences between local needs and the national purposes of the Park. Most complex were questions concerning the use of the common land that forms the core of the National Park and remains Dartmoor’s most striking environmental feature. In the postwar period, agricultural subsidies incentivized increased production and harvesting, causing many to decry the damage done to heathland by overgrazing. Many were also concerned about the animal welfare issues raised by ‘outwintering,’ the practice of allowing animals to spend the entire winter in the Park. During the notorious winter of 1962–63, Ministry of Agriculture reports suggest that the sight of malnourished and dying stock as well numerous corpses shocked even the most hardened agricultural officials.

Many called for outwintering to be banned, agricultural subsidies to be rethought, and the commons to be made subject to closer regulation. Little lead came from government. The Ministry of Agriculture had no intention of restoring traditional grazing regimes which would have disrupted Dartmoor agribusiness, and it was ideologically wary of greater regulation. Nonagricultural opinion was often confounded by the simple truth that there was little the Ministry could insist upon with respect to how farmers exercised their rights. Instead the Ministry encouraged voluntary action, taking the line that the commoners knew best how to protect the land and their stock.

The mood changed in the 1970s, when there was a palpable, if somewhat vague environmental turn in British politics. The National Park Authorities were strengthened and the Dartmoor NPA set about establishing a new management system for the Dartmoor commons. The passage of the Dartmoor Commoners Act in 1985 was accompanied by intense objections to clauses in the draft legislation that made it the ‘duty’ of the Council to manage, improve, and regulate the common. For a new generation of environmentalists, the term ‘improvement’ carried significant negative political baggage. It unleashed fears that the moorscape would become subject to reseeding and the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, which would endanger an ancient agricultural ecosystem.

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Natural England / Paul Glendell
Park Wood National Nature Reserve in Cumbria.

The redrafted bill forbade any management technique that was ‘detrimental to the flora, fauna, or geological or physiological features’ of any part of the common designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, which by the early 1980s was most of it. If this left room for maneuver because what was thought ‘detrimental’ was open to debate, the likelihood that any intervention might be subject to delays was itself a likely deterrent against significant change. As such, the passage into law of the Act was a significant moment in the history of British nature conservation, generating debates that brought to the fore concerns about the effect agricultural intensification would have on upland flora and fauna.

Before the law’s passage, no one was talking about biodiversity, but this changed in 1992 with the UK government’s positive response to the Rio Earth Summit. In 1994, the publication of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan heralded a new approach to landscape management, particularly the management of marginal agricultural uplands. Most emphasis was placed on protecting 391 threatened species, each of which was soon given its own individual species protection plan. As Jamie Lorimer argues of the general approach, the panoptical aspirations of biodiversity were translated into a series of agri-environmental schemes that sought to “maximize the production of biodiversity” by creating environments in which ‘target species’ might flourish.2

Thereafter the Dartmoor Commoners’ Council oversaw the common for grazing purposes according to the agri-environmental agreements now attached to agricultural subsidies. The technicalities of this component of European Union and British environmental policy are complex, but the consequences have become increasingly evident. Fewer commoners than ever extract a living from the moorscape by grazing stock, and relative destocking has led to significant ‘scrubbing up’ as bracken growth is known on the moor. Visitors encounter a noticeably more verdant moorscape. Active heathland restoration projects have made a difference, too. Long-time visitors, used to a more grazed upland, are beginning to find a Dartmoor that looks like somewhere else.

For some commoners, these developments have been distressing. As stock levels are reduced and restrictions on ‘swaling’ (annual burning) take effect, the ecological make-up of the common has begun to change, with some parts ceasing to provide good grazing. To some commoners, it seems that Natural England, the latest government agency tasked with overseeing environmental policy, is purposefully transforming the landscape into one where grazing will cease to be viable, forcing the last of the active commoners out of business.3

Some think this a good thing. The proselytizing of the journalist George Monbiot has seen the “rewilding” agenda attract popular attention in the UK, with a new charity dedicated to the cause established in July 2015. Much of the focus has fallen on agriculturally marginal uplands like Dartmoor and the Lake District, notoriously described by Monbiot as ‘sheepwrecked.’4 Like the conservationist William Adams, though with rather more polemical force, Monbiot sees failing upland farming as creating a new environmental management opportunity, and there has been much talk of woodland regeneration and the introduction of wolves, lynx, and non-domesticated ungulates.5

Some nature conservationists, at least in private, take a hard-line view, observing that just as the miners vanished in the 1980s, so might the upland grazers go in the 2020s, representing another set of outmoded economic practices that are unable to survive once state subsidies are removed. Monbiot is not shy of castigating graziers as recipients of subsidy, but he does not fully embrace the neoliberal line, arguing instead that this process should only be undergone with the cooperation of the stock-raisers. Ideally, they might be retrained as rewilders, charged with managing new reserves whose main business would be ecotourism.

None of this has gone uncontested. The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks, which recounts a year in the life of a Lake District sheep farmer, has been a surprising bestseller, selling thousands of copies. In direct and unassuming, though emotive and sentimental prose, it details the life of Cumbria’s upland sheep farmers, placing particular emphasis on skills and discernment that can only be learned through hard work and respect for elders.6 Any number of sheep farmers—rebranded as shepherds—have taken to Twitter. Photographs of sheep and sheepdogs crop up on many feeds, with hardy upland breeds and their seemingly quirky expressions proving particularly appealing. Few would have predicted that in 2015, sheep would achieve the charismatic affectivity once associated with whales or pandas.

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Andrew RG
A sheep farmer at work in Whinfell, England.

The rewilding agenda and the role played by social media is new, but the tenor of the debate, particularly ‘below-the-line,’ is not. The rewilders, supposedly comfy in their urban redoubts, are accused of not understanding the ways of the countryside but happy to consume cheap meat while the sheep farmers are charged with milking taxpayer-funded subsidies, paying animal welfare little heed, and arrogantly assuming that they have a right to dictate how a precious national resource—the land—should be used.7,8 Almost every conflict over the British uplands, certainly since the rise of proto-environmental politics in the interwar years, has been conducted in this vein. A more constructive approach might emerge if it is fully accepted that historically, Dartmoor is a hybrid landscape, long the product of interactions between natural ecological processes and human activity. Grazing regimes are largely responsible for the landscape we encounter today; rewilding might be (partly) responsible for the landscape we encounter in the future. Either way, Dartmoor will remain hybrid, a place profoundly shaped by human wants and desires and, as such, a place of unending political contestation. If uplands like Dartmoor became new wildlife reserves funded partly through tourism, they will remain governmentalized spaces just as they are today.

Presently, rewilding relies on a combination of voluntary action and enthusiastic private landowners. It seems likely that the rewilders will exceed their current modest achievements. But even with the state’s support, it is hard to imagine the rewilders’ greatest ambitions of an all-natural reserve replete with non-domesticated animals being fulfilled. To its most zealous supporters this might seem defeatist, but in the long term the success of the rewilding agenda will be partly measured by its influence on professional conservation practice. As such, it is likely the sharp positioning and fervent debate of 2015 will give way to a period of compromise and consensus-building. A close eye should be kept on how established conservation agencies respond to the popularity of this new thinking.9 Moreover, significant species introductions and the transformation of upland farmers into custodians of a different kind of landscape should happen only if it receives a democratic mandate.

The rewilding movement has certainly changed how I see and experience Dartmoor and other UK uplands. If Dartmoor never becomes a place where ‘nature-at-will’ is truly permitted, it is equally so that I and many others don’t share the old preservationist desire to fix Dartmoor in aspic. Nature is constantly in flux, as the dominant ecological paradigm insists, and the impact of climate change means places like Dartmoor will change anyway, whether human beings will it or not.

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Gerard Mengerink
Dartmoor’s wilderness has been shaped by human activity and will continue to be transformed by decisions made by people.

Dartmoor has proven malleable and resilient. The improvers did not bring about a radical transformation in the 19th century, but they certainly had some effect. The same can be said of contemporary nature conservation. Our sense of Dartmoor and other British uplands as hybrid landscapes surely means the same will be said of Dartmoor in the early 22nd century: there will be, as historians tend to conclude, change and continuity. But historical understanding must not make us acquiescent in the face of change. On the contrary, historical knowledge teaches us that places like Dartmoor, however wild and inhospitable, have been strongly shaped by human agency, by people like us making decisions, some good, some bad. We must remain vigilant, ready to take responsibility, whether that means resisting harmful vested interests, however sentimentalized, or questioning our own unexamined commitments. This could mean seeking to transform rather than conserve the nonurban environments of the North Atlantic Archipelago, a thought at once empowering and unsettling.