Concerns have arisen on some moorlands over a change of stance by Natural England (NE) about how HL15 – Seasonal Livestock Exclusion supplement - should be interpreted.
This supplement is for excluding livestock over winter and NE's original interpretation of it,asapplied on Dartmoor, was that cattle should be excluded but that sheep were not part of the supplement's requirement andcould remain on the moor over winter. This is further corroborated by the stocking calendar.
On Dartmoor, where the issue has arisen in the South West,nine commons have been receiving money from HLS for this supplement with sheep on the moor over winter. The moors have been complying with the cattle exclusion requirement.
NE has now said this interpretation is, in their opinion, incorrect and they now believe livestock should mean ALL livestock including sheep (but not ponies).
They have said they will not require repayment of any monies paid out. They are also giving a choice to agreement holders (mostly commons associations) as to whether they wish to keep the supplement or not. The supplement is worth £10ha per annum.
Whilst in many ways NE can be seen as being fair (they are not reclaiming monies and they are giving a choice) there are issues with what has happened.
- Our understanding is that no common on Dartmoor would have taken the supplement if it had involved the new interpretation of no sheep.
- In taking the supplement each commoner involved has developed their stocking to take into account having sheep on the moor over winter.
The issues that arise include, but are likely not to be limited to:
- Some commons are not taking the supplement as the removal of sheep would not fit with traditional management including learning. This has created tension with graziers who only have cattle.
- In some commons there is a divide as to who wants to take the supplement and those who don’t. Taking sheep off the moor has the potential for impacting on lears (hefts) and also the added cost of keeping them on other land. In addition any additional land the sheep might go onto would likely impact on other ewes already on farm.
- The cumulative cost is high. Whilst the loss of the supplement is perhaps not massive, although not insubstantial given the nature of livestock and hill farming, added to cost of taking the sheep off the moor for an extra month (in addition to tupping and lambing), reduced stocking rates, and potential need to swap in by ewes with moorland ewes and the loss of income. The cost becomes high.
- The potential impact on learing. As all will say “nature abhors a vacuum”. Removing moorland sheep will create a vacuum that will be filled by other livestock from other grazing units. NE claim that good shepherding will prevent this but the issue is that the system developed on Dartmoor has relied on this abutting of stock to create a lear. If a common decides to take the supplement, which some likely will, then stock from another common will have a vacuum they can fill. If this happens, it will put the common with the stock removal option in place at risk of penalties for breaching the agreement.
The NFU is working very closely with Dartmoor Commoners Council (DCC) and our members and NEto try and resolve this issue.
DCC and the NFU believe that NE were correct in their original interpretation. Keeping sheep on the moor is traditional and no one would have agreed to the supplement had this not been the case.
The question is therefore whether NE can change their interpretation and therefore change the agreement. This is based on the facts of the case and the law. Our legal team our looking at a number of agreements on behalf of members and will provide guidance soon.