Jonty Denton intuitively answered the question he asked in the title of his article Conservation grazing of heathland – where is the logic? (BW 24: 339-346) when he wrote ‘Indeed, it could be argued that grazing is simply being used as a quick fix to get politicians off Natural England’s back’.
On 4 May 2004 my MP tabled a written question (Question No: 201) in the House of Commons on my behalf asking the Secretary of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) what guidelines she issued to English Nature (EN) prior to its recent assessment of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The answer I received was that EN assesses the condition of SSSIs according to common standards agreed for the UK through the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) and not on the basis of Government guidelines.
As is so often the case with Government answers this was palpable nonsense. In his letter dated 14 May 2004, EN’s Regional Director told me that in August 2000 ‘the internal methodology of site unit condition assessment was being revised’. There was no scientific research underpinning this revision. EN was simply responding, in a panic, to the Government signing-up to the EU’s Public Service Agreement, and that part of it which required 95% of all nationally important SSSIs to be brought into favourable or recovering condition by 2010. The only tangible evidence that EN could produce to convince the Government, MPs, and local councillors that this was being achieved was to fence off these SSSIs and graze them with ponies and/or cattle and to declare the resulting enclosures as being in a ‘favourable condition’. It was not done for the benefit of wildlife but as an attempt to try and meet impossible Government demands. In the process, not only has it done severe damage to serious wildlife conservation, it has also wasted huge sums of public money.
Two examples from Hampshire alone serve to illustrate the latter point. In 1998 EN rushed through a public enquiry, with little or no public consultation, which allowed the fencing off of Odiham Common (280 acres) as a five-year experiment. In 2003, as a result of another public enquiry, the fence had to be removed. One of the reasons given by the Inspector in making her decision was that EN had made no formal survey of the site and had relied instead on data that was decades old. The cost to the public of this fiasco was in excess of £250,000. In 2006, in a volte-face (perhaps reverse-ferret is more appropriate in this context), EN took one of its landlords to court because he had taken it upon himself to fence-off a very sensitive SSSI on his land in the New Forest to protect it from damage by the public. EN lost, at a cost to the public of £50,000.
To return to my own experience, in 1997 I received a letter from EN’s Hampshire and Isle of Wight Team Manager in which he wrote of ‘the excellence with which your land has been managed for nature conservation, and how proud we would be to achieve a comparable quality on one of the National Nature Reserves which we manage’. In 2004, even though EN were still paying me £200 per acre per annum towards the maintenance costs of my site, because of a change in EN’s methodology and my refusal to fence off my SSSI and graze it, the site was declared to be in an unfavourable condition. The reason I was given was that because of the ‘scrub development, and local dominance of Deschampsia and Molinia’…English Nature does not believe that the management regime you operate will sustain the scientific interest of the SSI in the long term’. In 2006 EN brought in one of its National Nature Reserve managers to ‘independently’ assess my site and he gave it a glowing report and found it to be in a ‘favourable condition’, much to the chagrin of EN’s Lyndhurst office that had insisted on the survey. Meanwhile, my site is being sustained in the long term, while EN and its Hampshire staff and headquarters at Lyndhurst have long since disappeared.
It is not so much a case of NE’s Panglossian view of the past, as it is the complete distortion of the cultural-historical land-use history of heathlands/commons that has brought about the present management issues that Jonty Denton rightly questions. Here is a sample taken from one of EN’s publications: Common land [was] created by centuries-old livestock farming practices. In the lowlands, under-grazing and scrub invasion is the problem because there may be few or no practising commoners, and owners choose to run stock on cultivated grasslands for better productivity.1 As EN were aware, such cynically simplistic and totally fallacious statements, cobbled together for purely political purposes, required a PhD thesis in repudiation. As one who has spent the last thirty years researching the landscape and land-use history of the north Hampshire commons and woodlands. 2. I have found contemporary evidence that in 1798 its heathlands were a ‘wide extent of heath and scattered furze, with wide boggy bottoms; very little interrupted by enclosures and quite free from the fir plantations, which have now swallowed up so much of it’.3 Of the latter, Cobbett was complaining in 1826 that in north Hampshire ‘Plenty of fir trees and other rubbish have been recently planted but no oaks’.4 Initially the conifers were used for hop poles, and then for pit-props.
In Hampshire, records confirm that whilst the heathlands owned by the Crown were a supplementary source of fodder for livestock at a time when all such sources had to be utilized, the physical presence of the commoners’ livestock, when coupled to their oral testament, also provided the evidence needed to strengthen their claim to prescriptive common rights over the heathland. But both of these uses were of secondary importance and almost insignificant by comparison with the primary use of the heathlands, which was as a source of fuel, that included birch, blackthorn, sallow, gorse, heather, turves, bracken, and peat, used by the community at large. It was the interaction of all these uses, not to mention spontaneous or controlled burning, that maintained the flora and fauna on the heathlands that survived until at least the 1950s. In that decade the cessation of those disparate land-uses led to the heathlands being covered in the dense growths of birch, gorse, and heather that have been abundant ever since, and that a few fenced-in cattle are failing to control.
1. English Nature, For the common good, in Sitelines, Issue 44, Summer 03, p12.
2. Alan Albery, Woodland Management in Hampshire, 900 to 1815, in Rural History (2011) 22, 2, 159-18, (CUP 2011).
3. A Sexagenarian, Recollections of the early days of the Vine Hunt, (London, 1865), p35.
4. William Cobbett, Rural Rides, (Aylesbury, 1983), p. 65.