A debate is being held in Parliament, Westminster Hall, on Tuesday 18th April at 2:30pm, about Farming on Dartmoor.


The basic issue on Dartmoor is whether the current grazing management, particularly as required under the HLS agreements, is achieving the desired outcomes.  We appreciate that views differ on this, but strongly suggest that the objective of any grazing strategy should be to ensure the right breed, in the right place and at the right density.

Moreover, as the government confirmed by signing up to Goal A of last year’s Kunming /Montreal COP 15 agreement, there is the need to ensure that the UK’s livestock genetic diversity is maintained. 


We propose two ways forward.

  1. There should be a pause during which current HLS agreements are rolled over, which should include an assessment of the need to conserve the genetic diversity of the species, breeds, and populations on the moor.
  2. Financial support should be provided under s.2 (1) (g) Agriculture Act 2020 to incentivise the use of environmentally appropriate native breeds and populations, so helping meet the UK’s international obligations to conserve livestock genetic diversity.

Grazing on Dartmoor

Grazing on Dartmoor was traditionally done through a system known as levancy and couchancy, whereby rights holders could graze on the common during the summer months those animals which they could keep on their holdings during the winter. In addition, farmers off the moor could, in return for payment, graze their stock on the otherwise unused “surplus” areas moor during the summer months.

Traditionally the main breeds of cattle on the moor were the North Devon (also known as the Ruby  Red) and the South Devon. The sheep were mainly Whiteface Dartmoors. There are also two varieties of pony found on the moor, the Dartmoor breed and the Dartmoor Hill populations.

However, in the late 19 century Scottish Blackface sheep and Galloway Cattle were introduced, both of which could be overwintered on the moor without the need to bring them inside for lambing and calving.

This maximized productivity, but the shift to year-round grazing, which undermined the levancy and couchancy approach, had a direct effect on the ecology of the moor. As the competition for grass increases, the sheep turn to the heather, reducing the overall richness of the habitat.

There is a further issue in that historic drainage practices on the moor have led to a proliferation of Molinia, which sheep will not eat, so increasing the pressure on the grazing they will eat. 

The situation was exacerbated by the introduction of headage payments in the mid 20 century, which significantly increased the number of animals grazing on the moor to the extent that supplementary feeding became a common requirement.

As a result, over the years, the Scottish Blackface came to dominate the moor, replacing the Whitefaces Dartmoor over much of it.  There are now only a few farms on the moor keeping Whiteface Dartmoors, approximately a third of the national flock.

Dartmoor is therefore left with the situation that the breed of sheep which, most financially attractive for its owners, is undesirable environmentally, and the most environmentally appropriate breed is less attractive financially.

In addition, to tackle the Molinia, the number of cattle on the moor should be increased at the expense of the numbers of sheep. Ponies also have a role to play in Molina control, as well as having wider historic and cultural benefits.

Incentivising the use of appropriate breeds

We very much suspect that a return to summer grazing, using Dartmoor’s traditional breeds in accordance with traditional common rights would resolve much of the problem.

Fortunately, policy tools and legislation are available to do this.

  • The obligation to maintain livestock genetic diversity.

As a signatory to the UN Biodiversity Convention the UK agreed the following at last year’s Kunming Montreal COP15


  • Goal A “The genetic diversity within populations of… domesticated species, is maintained, safeguarding their adaptive potential.


  • Target 4 to maintain and restore the genetic diversity within and between populations of native…and domesticated species to maintain their adaptive potential, including through in situ and ex situ conservation.


As a signatory to the Sustainable Development Goals, the UK agreed, in Target 2.5 to “maintain the genetic diversity of … farmed and domesticated animals”.


We suggest that one of the clear implications of these obligations is that any large scale destocking proposal should take account of the impact on the genetic diversity of the species involved, which in this case means the impact on the conservation of the different species breeds and populations found on Dartmoor. 

  • Financial incentives

The Agriculture Act 2002 provides a mechanism for encouraging farmers to keep native breeds which could be used to underpin a wider HLS agreement. S. 1 (g) states that The Secretary of State may provide financial assistance for “conserving native livestock, native equines or genetic resources relating to any such animal”.

This is what the explanatory notes said on the objective of the power:

Subsection (1)(g) enables the Secretary of State to provide financial assistance for measures to support the conservation and maintenance of UK native Genetic Resources relating to livestock or equines. These measures could, for example, be used to incentivise farmers to invest in rearing rare and native breeds or species, because these genetic resources may offer a way to sustainably increase food production and improve our capacity to adapt to climate change or the emergence of new animal or plant diseases by providing a breadth of genetic traits.

There is currently a native breeds at risk option in Countryside Stewardship, the Native Breeds at Risk Supplement – SP8 – but it is not available on common land.

Christopher Price - RBST CEO

April 2023