The grazing war comes to Kingwood Common


One day I will fully trace and document the point in recent history where a small number of people were able to set in motion one of the most widespread, dogmatic and damaging pressures on marginal landscapes in England. These landscapes, no longer grazed in the second half of the twentieth century, were quietly recovering from having had the life sucked out of them by hundreds of years of agriculture. The shock that awaited them at the turn of this century was a re-imposition of that agricultural pressure, but not for any productive purpose.

It was in 1997 that the Grazing Animals Project (GAP) was formed after a meeting took place at Liverpool John Moores University on 'The Use of Rare Breeds in Conservation'. The intention of setting up GAP was to ensure there was no lack of capacity to meet this burgeoning imposition of “conservation grazing”. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust and the National Trust were significant players in the founding of GAP (now called the Grazing Advice Partnership (1)), but a chunk of funding for setting it up came from the Forum for the Application of Conservation Techniques (FACT), a partnership of organisations in the conservation industry that was co-ordinated by Natural England (English Nature as was) and I believe was funded by DEFRA (or MAFF as it was then).

FACT also spawned the VINE (Values in Nature and Environment) Project, a hand-holding group for conservation professionals who felt they had lost touch with their inner affinity for nature, needing to come together to explore the role of feelings, senses and intuition in nature conservation” (2). I joined VINE, knowing I would be out of step with most of its participants, but I was willing to engage if only that an alternative view could be heard. I left because these people were major landscape destroyers, but who traded on some pathetic notion of their sainthood, failing to recognise their unenlightened vulnerability.

Any evidence of the existence of FACT, other than archival references, has disappeared now that its website homepage is awash with adverts from domain parking, but we have its legacy of conservation grazing firmly embedded in conservation dogma. With the formation of Natural England in 2006, and in its taking over of the role of the Rural Development Service in handling farming stewardship subsidy, it now has total control of the multimillions of the Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme funding, allowing it to be used to advance their chosen agenda of “bringing biodiversity priority habitat in[to] beneficial management” (3).

So much for the presumed benefits of government-from-a-distance by a non-departmental public body like Natural England. We have to wonder too, at the use of a stewardship fund that is meant to mitigate the effects of farming being also used to reapply a farming pressure. Natural England just makes it up as it goes along. As many have found out recently to their cost, this way lays unaccountability, the foreseen pressure being from Natural England using HLS funding to tick-box their way to the PSA target on SSSIs by 2010 (4). But Natural England have gone further, dangling HLS funding for wherever they can remotely tie it in to some sort of biodiversity agenda – heathland being a particular favourite. The cynicism that has labelled the current rate of churning out of HLS agreements as “one-a-day” is backed up by the Chief Executive’s report to the Natural England Board that the shortfall in their target for completed agreements “presents us with a significant challenge” (3).

The harsh reality

I document the fallout from this damaging agenda wherever it treads, or I should say wherever the fences go up and the cattle or sheep are pushed in. I have yet to live with it on my own doorstep, but HLS funding-driven fencing and then felling of birch has recently struck four miles away from me on the publicly owned Harden Common, ungrazed in my memory and where I often walk as it has developed a wonderfully wild and scattered woodland cover, spreading out from its ancient woodland core. The publicly owned moorland common on my doorstep is also developing woodland cover, once the sheep grazing ceased after FMD, but the lure for the council of many more thousands in HLS funding is putting that spectacular recovery at threat.

I get angry along with those whose unhappy experience of this agenda is more direct. This from the Blacka Blogger, who tirelessly documents the wildness of Blacka Moor and its magnificent red deer, and the damage being done by Sheffield Wildlife Trust (5):
“My scepticism about the conservation people's promotion of cattle grazing grows greater by the day. I've requested details of how they plan to evaluate the success or otherwise of the cattle and so far seen no evidence that they have the least idea how to differentiate between what the cows do and what the deer do. So what story will they tell? I'm sure they are working on it but I'm just as sure it will be an effort devoted to producing more paperwork than genuine evidence. Their hope will be that this weight of words will be impressive and anyway how many will read and scrutinise?”

I wrote last year about objections to the re-imposition of grazing on the Scilly Isles by the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust (The craze for conservation grazing (6)). The issue has rumbled on since then, before exploding back into the local media after a petition started by David Badcock very quickly drew in 900 signatures (7). At issue is the burning of headlands, the amateurish imposition of electric fencing so that grazing can take place but which is restrictive to path use, and the paths themselves being churned up and spoiled with dung. It is not just the destruction of favourite walks based on an unsubstantiated dogma, it is that the "beauty of Scilly's headlands is being destroyed” as is shown by the many comments to the petition and the level of disgust at the actions of the wildlife trust (8).

I have made the point before that it is a surprise to me that journalists haven’t recognised the extent of disagreement across England on the fencing and re-imposition of grazing, and begun to ask the hard questions as to why it is happening. There is at least now one journalist on the Western Morning News, Martin Hesp, that is attempting to do this, characterising it as “the grazing wars” and calling it “one of the most hotly contested issues in wild Britain today” (9, 10). I suspect that this journalist became interested because of the dogged pursuit by Ian McNeil Cooke of the Save Penwith Moors group, who has likened the protest in the Scilly Isles to the nonsense of the fencing and grazing on the West Penwith Moors in Cornwall (11). They too at SPM have realised how HLS is now driving the grazing agenda, and are finding ways to hold the National Trust and Natural England to account for the breaches of planning in the ditching, fencing and cattle grids, and the misuse of public funds.

Calls for an inquiry

A press report at the turn of this year alerted me to a contentious grazing scheme on a common in Oxfordshire, owned by the Fleming family as part of their Nettlebed Estate. Local people were calling for a public inquiry into the plans of the Nettlebed and District Commons Conservators to fence off and graze cattle on Kingwood Common. It will be of no surprise that this is another heathland restoration, as explained by Nigel Wooding, a parish councilor and a Conservator (12):
“This is a hugely important conservation project to protect our precious common land and, in particular, the rare lowland heathland”

The hyperbole of this justification for grazing rings exceptionally hollow as I will in due course explain, but before analyzing the absolute fatuity of what Wooding said, lets look at how the Conservators, ably supported by the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) have bullied it through. Terje Johnasen, who lives on the edge of the common, said (12):
“At no point did a consultative process take place. Alternative plans were never considered or presented to the users of the common as being viable. The 2006 Commons Act says the national authority should show regard for the interests of the neighbourhood and the public interest. I believe that this has not been done. There has not been due process. What the conservators should have done is conduct a comprehensive household survey in order to find out what we think about the present state of the common, how we use it and how often and how we would like it to look in the future”

It gets worse. The newspaper article reported that last October, the Conservators had made the claim that out of 59 people who had attended public drop-in sessions in July, 27 people were in favour, 18 were against and 14 didn’t have a view. But they were challenged by some who had been at these drop-in sessions, and then had to admit that the views of visitors were not recorded (and see (13)). This cavalier attitude to the truth seems very much to have characterised the process of developing the grazing management plan, and thus the words of Tony Cotton, also a parish councillor, pretty much sum it up (14):
“I am amazed by the amount of obfuscation with the facts. If we drill down into what people object to, it is the fence. There are people for and against the maintenance but without exception they are against the fence. Out of 36 hectares, a fifth is glades, poor-quality grass, bracken and brambles. They won’t be eaten by cattle. To put up 3.3km of fencing and 23 gates to keep six cattle in does not pass the common sense test”

It is of course the money from external funding that drives out common sense, and the prospect of the riches from HLS for the Conservators to fence off the commons and put cattle in to graze it, would have been the reason why the other alternatives, such as mechanical management and its potential funding sources, were not seriously explored. But it gets worse again because the Nettlebed Conservators were given a £50,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, plus money from the Esmee Fairburn Foundation and (allegedly) from the Fleming Charitable Trust to make it up to a total of £95,000. The money was to be used in a two-year Nettlebed Commons Project with the express purpose of developing management plans for the commons that could be accepted by local people (15). A project officer was employed by BBOWT, considered by local people to have been out of her depth, and the project appears quite quickly to have morphed into a single direction, of justifying a grazing management plan for Kingwood Common alone. The project officer is thought to have left without completing the documentation for the application that would be needed to the Secretary of State for permission to fence the commons. I along with many others wonder how all that money was spent, and whether it would have been better used on what management may actually be needed on the commons.

Remnant heath or gardening for heather?

After initial research I got in touch with the Kingwood Common Preservation Group (KCPG (16)) formed to oppose the enclosure fencing, as I needed to get local confirmation of the bizarre mismatch between what BBOWT and the Conservators were saying about the common, and what information I was turning up. Thus in one glossy leaflet from BBOWT, Kingwood Common is represented to have remnant heath in its open areas, and that “bigger and better-connected open areas will support larger populations of nationally important species” (17). We then have the big hitting assertion of the conservation industry in heathland restorations, with the stake-raising mantra that “expanding the existing areas of heathland could encourage birds such as the Dartford warbler, stonechat and nightjar to breed on Kingwood Common”. Is this really likely?

Photographs in the leaflet showed the open areas, but every mapping system I used implied Kingwood Common to be an unusual target for heathland restoration as it is a WOODLAND, relieved only in woodland cover where there is an area of hardstanding that is used as a council salt depot. Ariel photographs do show some very minor openings in the woodland canopy, but these appear to be less than a tenth of the wooded common area.

Another glossy leaflet from BBOWT says that the mixture of heathland and woodland on Kingwood Common represents an important area for wildlife, which they say is why it was designated a Local Wildlife Site in 2005 (18):
“Heathland is extremely rare in this area, and the glades on Kingwood Common represent a remnant of what was once a far more common habitat”

This is just blatant nonsense, given in justification for what clearly is the intention of BBOWT to play a significant role in the future of Kingwood Common. There is no BAP Priority Habitat for heathland shown by Natural England on Kingwood Common, but there is on the nearby Peppard and Nuffield Commons (19). Thus it is an exaggeration too far to say heathland is extremely rare in the area. Moreover, there is no target for heathland restoration in the LBAP for Oxfordshire (20) and thus it is disingenuous of BBOWT to imply a need for restoration of heathland on Kingwood Common. Like most of the conservation industry, they make it up as they go along. In the case of Kingwood Common, it has to be asked whether it was their overweening influence that had the common designated a local wildlife site since BBOWT themselves admit that they have a key role in the Oxfordshire Wildlife Sites Project (21)). This is the cosy world of the conservation industry personified when a wildlife trust can invent a heathland site, which they can then claim is rare and thus in desperate need of the care that only they can give it. It is tempting to speculate that BBOWT are keen to have a heathland reserve at Kingwood Common as they have no other heathland reserve in Oxfordshire.

Local knowledge in KCPG tells me that Kingwood Common has been woodland for at least 40-50 years because agricultural use ceased back then and trees began to naturally regenerate, subject only to the fluctuating populations of rabbits. The glades were hacked out of the woodland only 15 years ago after a volunteer conservation team were let loose by the Conservators. It has often been observed that natural heather regeneration in old heathland sites drops with each year of afforestation, and reaches zero potential after 40 years of woodland cover. It’s a combination of falling seed viability and the trees reconditioning the soil from its impoverished state (22). Thus when the usual practice of scraping topsoil in the glades on Kingwood Common did not result in any residual heather seed germinating, they had to bring in seed to the created glades, reintroducing the very little amount of heather coverage that there is now on the common.

It really is a small area, and I do wonder about the likelihood of these miniscule areas of heath isolated within the woodland being recolonized with heathland species, unless of course more gardening is intended and BBOWT drop a few things from their pockets. Thus what are we to make of a scheme that proposes now to fence off and graze 25ha of the 60ha of woodland on the common, when less than 5ha of that proposed enclosure is open space (23)? And why is Natural England seemingly so keen to provide the Conservators with HLS funding when Kingwood Common is outside of their target area of the Chilterns for HLS funding (24)?

The careless prejudice against woodland

I went for a walk in the woodland at Kingdown Common with a couple of members of KCPG. Although a high canopy woodland, it still shows a relative youngness as would be expected from the natural regeneration over recent decades. It is nevertheless a rare example of a wildwood in our modern times as every tree and shrub there – such as the oak, birch, beech, willow and holly - had seeded in itself, and had grown where it had wanted to be. What I found delightful was the very low incidence of non-native trees and the presence of many woodland specialist plants in large numbers, such as dog’s mercury, bluebells, lords and ladies, celandine, wood sedge, honeysuckle, and many mosses and liverworts. There was also the fluffy tufts of old man’s beard, which suggests to me that not all the woodland is on acidic soil, and there must be some alkaline areas as well – which of course is not where heather will grow.

These woodland specialist plants are perhaps the more mobile species, but surrounded as it is by ancient woodland, there is the likelihood of it being colonized by the full range of local woodland indicator plants. It’s thus a woodland that is 40-50 years nearer to being a mature woodland, but sadly I found myself mentally blocking out the things that will be carelessly destroyed when this woodland is grazed by cattle. The woodland spurge was a thrill to come across as I don’t have it in my northern woods, but it will be gone as will many of the others, either grazed or trampled away. The wood is already browsed by fallow deer, as I saw them within the wood, but their pressure is diffuse since they, unlike the intended cattle, are free to move through and around the wood, their browsing accommodated within the carrying capacity of the wood. It is thus not even remotely common sense to put such woodland value as I see at Kingwood Common in jeopardy just for the sake of a small amount of artificially created heathland in the hacked out glades. This is not protecting “our precious common land”. It's a backward looking nonsense that shows no grasp of the contemporary and future reality of access lands no longer viable in the farming economy. It denies the obvious that Kingwood Common is a woodland, and any management should be based on it being a woodland and not a heathland landscape.

As we walked the woodland, we talked about how many objections to the fencing would be needed to insure that a public inquiry was held over the application to the Secretary of State to fence the commons (23). Before meeting with KCPG, I had researched the outcome of applications to fence commons going back to 2004 (25, 26). What I found was not good news. There had been 38 applications to fence off commons to make conservation grazing possible, 18 of them for heathland restoration. Only one of these had been rejected, and only two in recent years had gone to public inquiry. What is also depressing is that at least 24 of these commons were ungrazed, either because there were no registered commoners rights or none that were being exercised. Thus land that no longer was viable for the local farming economy, but which often provided a remarkably open (unfenced) and wild landscape for local people to enjoy, was going to have the clock turned back and its access restrained so that it lost its open character.

While I was looking at the applications to enclose commons with fencing to keep livestock in, I also came across 13 applications to fence commons to exclude livestock. These were in upland commons where, thankfully, the trend is to identify “difficult” areas – such as ghylls (narrow valleys, often with watercourses) that have shallow soils of low farming value, and use them to either plant new woodland or for natural woodland regeneration to take place. The presence of grazing sheep or cattle would prevent establishment of this wood and associated ground flora. The applicants justified the exclusion fencing on the basis of improved native diversity and hydrology. This from the application at Mungrisdale Common, above Bassenthwaite in the Lake Distict (27):
“The habitat improvement as a consequence of stock exclusion will benefit a range of species, including buzzard, merlin, ring ouzel and raven. The presence of these species and the improved ecological integrity will be beneficial to tourism and the local economy….These areas have been identified as having a high risk ranking for sources of potential sediment pollution and are susceptible to periodic flooding and land slip. The proposed tree planting schemes will mitigate these problems, reducing the speed of water run-off, stabilising the soils, giving an improvement in water quality and helping towards the reduction in silt loading in the Bassenthwaite catchment and lake. This will be a benefit to all who live in the catchment and will help towards the prevention of flood events such as occurred in Keswick in January 2005”

It is a painful irony to me that land of low farming value in the uplands is having livestock excluded so that native woodland with all its benefits can establish, whereas as at Kingwood Common the native woodland that has established because the land is no longer farmed is being put at risk by this appalling plan to fence the commons and graze it with livestock. The closing date for objections to the application to fence the common is the 14 May. I hope to report in due course on the public inquiry.

Mark Fisher 26 April 2010

(1) Grazing Advice Partnership

(2) Implementing our vision for VINE in 2011: Objectives and activities review, July 2009, VINE

(3) Chief Executives report to the Board, Natural England NEBPU1802 November 2009

(4) SSSI Public Service Agreement (PSA) targets, DEFRA

(5) Cold start, Blacka Moor 22 April 2010

(6) The craze for conservation grazing, Self-willed land 12 May 2009

(7) 900 sign petition against St Mary's fencing programme, this is Plymouth 8 April 08, 2010

(8) Stop the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust

(9) Feelings are running high in battle over wild places, this is Plymouth 7 April 2010

(10) Countryside peace is being shattered by 'grazing wars', this is Plymouth 21 April 21, 2010

(11) Updates - March/April 2010, Save Penwith Moors

(12) Call for inquiry over fence plans, Henley Standard 31 December 2009

(13) Mistakes made over commons plan, Henley Standard, 19 October 2009

(14) Plan to fence off common for cattle-grazing, Henley Standard, 28 September 2009

(15) The Nettlebed Commons Project, Nettlebed and District Commons Conservators

(16) Kingwood Common Preservation Group

(17) The future of your commons: Nebblebed Commons Project, BBOWT June 2008

(18) Kingwood Common, future conservation and sustainable management; a summary report of ongoing consultation, BBOWT April 2009

(19) BAP priority habitats, Nature on the Map, Natural England (search for Peppard Common)

(20) Oxfordshire Targets for 2015 for key UKBAP habitat

(21) Local sites for local wildlife, Oxford Times, 11th March 2010

(22) Establishing heathland, RSPB

(23) Kingwood Common Fencing Application to the Secretary of State, Nettlebed & District Commons Conservators April 2010 (this file is over 60mb)

(24) Agri-environment schemes, Nature on the Map, Natural England (search for Kingwood Common)

(25) Common land: Protection and consents, DEFRA

(26) Common land decisions, Planning Inspectorate

(27) Mungrisdale Common, Cumbria, Application Decison Ref: COM12, Planning Inspectorate