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HLS agreement recognises the vital role of commoners to the future of Dartmoor

The much-loved natural landscape of The Forest of Dartmoor will benefit from a landmark conservation and farming agreement officially launched by Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, at the Devon Show yesterday (Thursday 17 May).

Over the next 10 years, an Environmental Stewardship funding package will provide a £13million boost to the area by enhancing habitats for wildlife, safeguarding vital public benefits, and helping the continuation of the traditional farming method of ‘commoning’ that has shaped Dartmoor’s unique landscape for hundreds of years.

The agreement is one of the largest and most complex Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreements ever undertaken by Natural England and covers the ‘Forest of Dartmoor’ – an area of more than 11,000 hectares (27,000 acres) at the heart of The Moor and one of England’s largest areas of common land.

Officially launching the ‘Forest of Dartmoor HLS Agreement’ at the Devon Show yesterday, Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State at Defra thanked everyone involved in drawing up the agreement and in particular praised the achievements of the more than 300 Dartmoor ‘commoners’ involved for their hard work and support for the project.

Speaking at the Show, Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman, said:  “Dartmoor is a unique area and this agreement, that puts traditional farming methods hand in hand with nature conservation, will help continue a way of farming that has existed for centuries. It’s great news all round for the people who live and work in Dartmoor, the thousands of visitors that come to the area every year and the wildlife that it is home to.”

Under the historic practice of ‘commoning’, sheep and cattle have grazed freely over much of Dartmoor for hundreds of years.  This new HLS agreement provides financial support for the commoners to graze their livestock in ways that will maintain and enhance important natural habitats and help Dartmoor’s special wildlife and plants to thrive.  It will also support habitat restoration projects on the mires and the preservation of many archaeological features in this historic landscape.

Poul Christensen, Chair of Natural England, joined the Environment Secretary on a tour of the Showground to meet some of Dartmoor’s farmers.  He said: “This is a significant new chapter in the long history of the Forest of Dartmoor.  By securing a major source of funding for the Moor’s traditional agricultural practices and a decade of support for Dartmoor’s farmers, this agreement will help to preserve this area’s unique farming traditions and enhance its natural environment.

“The commoners have a vital role as the custodians of Dartmoor and we are delighted to be working with them to ensure they have the support needed to continue looking after this wonderful place for future generations to enjoy.  We are especially grateful to Colin Abel as Chair of the Forest of Dartmoor Commoners’ Association for all his work in championing this agreement.  I am absolutely delighted that so many farmers have joined the Forest of Dartmoor HLS scheme.”

The Dartmoor agreement is one of the largest agri-environment agreements in Europe and is part of Natural England’s Environmental Stewardship Higher Level Scheme, which is funded by the EU and UK Government.  The annual payments will help to safeguard a viable future for the commoners on Dartmoor, as well as delivering habitat enhancement of blanket bog, upland heath and species rich grassland habitats.

The HLS agreement provides an incentive to the commoners to manage the area to maximise the wide range of public benefits provided by The Moor; including food production, environmental protection, biodiversity enhancement, recreational value, carbon storage and water quality.

The carbon stored in Dartmoor’s peatbogs amounts to the equivalent of one year’s emissions from UK industry.  The source of many of the South West’s major river systems is on The Moor’s blanket bog and habitat restoration work makes a valuable contribution to improving quality and quantatity of drinking water supplies.  The work will also reduce the amount of expenditure required on flood defences and water treatment downstream.

The Forest of Dartmoor has been part of the Duchy of Cornwall estate since the 13th century.  The term ‘Forest’ dates back to the 11th Century when ‘Forest Law’ was introduced by the Norman Kings and it refers not to woodland, but to areas that were used as Royal hunting grounds.  Yesterday, Dartmoor supports many rare and threatened plants and animals and its importance is recognised by its status as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a National Park.

For further information (media enquiries only) please contact:
David Hirst, Natural England press office on 0782 7821679 or

Additional notes:

  1. The new funding agreement involves a number of organisations who already work in partnership managing and protecting The Moor.  Alongside Natural England and the commoners other organisations involved in the HLS include the Duchy of Cornwall, Dartmoor National Park Authority and South West Water.

  2. The 10 year agreement will also support the work of a multi-agency blanket bog restoration project - Mires on the Moors - taking place on Dartmoor, which is part funded by South West Water. See Mires on the Moors case study below.

  3. The HLS agreement options will deliver improvements in the condition of 9,000 hectares of the Forest of Dartmoor which is designated as SSSI and SAC (Special Area of Conservation).  The main focus of the agreement has been to ensure that livestock numbers are set at an appropriate level on The Moor.

  4. Natural England offered the Dartmoor commoners and graziers the opportunity to replace an existing Environmentally Sensitive Area agreement with the larger and more wide-ranging Higher Level Scheme.

Mires on the Moors
The Dartmoor Mires Project is a five-year pilot to carry out restoration on areas of internationally designated high quality blanket bog that is currently threatened by erosion.  The project recognises Dartmoor’s importance as a grazed landscape, its recreational and military use and its historic importance.

The Mires project aims to achieve benefits for:

  • Biodiversity - restoration of a globally important habitat benefiting species such as dunlin

  • Water - evaluation of the effects of restoration on the supply of water, in turn benefiting the wider population of Devon.

  • Carbon Storage - Dartmoor’s peatlands store the equivalent of one year’s emissions from UK industry.  Eroding blanket bog lose this carbon, whilst restoration work for growing bog mosses will gather and store more carbon indefinitely.

Environmental Stewardship

Environmental Stewardship is administered by Natural England on behalf of Defra and funds farmers and land managers throughout England to deliver effective environmental management on their land.

The objectives of Environmental Stewardship are to:

  • Promote public access and understanding of the countryside

  • Maintain and enhance landscape quality and character

  • Protect the historic environment and natural resources

  • Conserve biodiversity

Environmental Stewardship has four elements: Entry Level Stewardship, Organic Entry Level Stewardship, Uplands Entry Level Stewardship and Higher Level Stewardship

About Natural England
Natural England is the government’s advisor on the natural environment. Established in 2006 our work is focused on enhancing England’s wildlife and landscapes and maximising the benefits they bring to the public.

  • We establish and care for England’s main wildlife and geological sites, ensuring that over 4,000 National Nature Reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest are looked after and improved.

  • We work to ensure that England’s landscapes are effectively protected, designating England’s National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and advising on their conservation.

  • We run England’s Environmental Stewardship green farming schemes that deliver over £400 million a year to farmers and landowners, enabling them to enhance the natural environment across two thirds of England’s farmland.

  • We fund, manage, and provide scientific expertise for hundreds of conservation projects each year, improving the prospects for thousands of England’s species and habitats.

  • We promote access to the wider countryside, helping establish National Trails and coastal trails and ensuring that the public can enjoy and benefit from them.

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