Our Common Cause

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"We're here for such a short time.
You look after it while you're here, and then you pass it on to someone else."

Having worked closely with farmers and land managers for several years now, we were delighted to have the opportunity to join the team on the project 'Our Common Cause: Our Upland Commons'. This project is convened by the Foundation for Common Land working in association with 23 partner organisations on upland commons in Dartmoor, the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District and the Shropshire Hills. It aims to encourage collaborative working to improve outcomes from common land, to increase public understanding of commons and commoning, and to safeguard the heritage of commons.

Our role has been to gather individual views and carry out a social cohesion study. In the process we've met farmers, land agents, land owners and land managers across the Yorkshire Dales and in Dartmoor. We've spent many hours at kitchen tables, strolling around farm yards, in-bye fields and intakes, and walking in the high land of the uplands; and Rob has used his large format plate camera to create portraits of the people who have been kind enough to take the time to meet us. We've discovered some common themes as well as a wide diversity of views; within the overarching aim of nurturing a sustainable and improving environment, there are, inevitably, different points of view.     

Most common land in England is in the uplands, and a vast amount of this is important for archaeology, landscape and biodiversity. Commons also provide water supply and carbon sequestration, are home to many of England’s heritage livestock breeds, and are visited by tens of millions of people for enjoyment and recreation.

Now is a time of unprecedented change, and the future of land management in the upland commons, and with this the future of the families and communities that are intimately bound with the commons, is uncertain. New policies around agriculture and the environment are now being considered, together with the design of new schemes that are predicted to deliver 'public money for public goods' (described by Defra here as 'principally the work to enhance the environment and invest in sustainable food production'). Individual voices sharing valuable knowledge and insights and wider social cohesion are an important part of the complex jigsaw of common land. Going forward, the hope is that collaboration will enable these areas to evolve to support rich biodiversity, sustainable farming, actively engaged communities, and ease of access for increasing numbers of people who wish to spend time in England's high places.

The images and quotes below are a selection from our work in 2018 and 2019 in the Yorkshire Dales and Darmoor.

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“I think it’s beneficial to have the stock there, I genuinely do, but it’s a balance, isn’t it? I don’t like the idea of over grazing it and I don’t like the idea of rewilding it. I like the idea of us coming up with a management plan which is based on facts and evidence and science. We need impartial studies of where the species are, what they need, and where we’re able to graze more, so people do have access and all the species can live successfully on the moor."

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 "It’s important, the heritage, the connection with our ancestors, and that feeling of being rooted here. But it may change, you know. We’ve been fortunate to be in schemes. If that support goes, then there might be more pressure to farm more intensively. And if making money means you have to find a job elsewhere, then the farming doesn’t get done - there’s no walling going on, there’s no draining going on, and there’s no care.”

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 “It would be nice to see more starter farms. I think a lot of the farms up here will be sucked up, just get bigger and bigger, like Australia, one farmhouse in 2000-3000 acres, two workmen, and the commons included in that. That‘ll be a real shame. How can anybody get into farming if you lose the small holdings?”

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 “It doesn’t actually take very much to increase the conservation value but I think that there is the risk that if we don’t do it fairly soon, it won’t be worth doing at all. We have an opportunity to make it better. And if we don’t have enough vision and can’t achieve that as such a wealthy society, then there’s something wrong with us as a society.”

“For me, common land clearly has value as it allows access: it gives people the opportunity to experience wilder places. Also, without the common land on Dartmoor, biodiversity in the county of Devon would be so much poorer. Some areas of the high moor have become a refuge for wildlife that has come under significant pressure elsewhere. Despite this, our designated landscapes are not in good condition. Within our National Parks just 25 percent of our SSSIs (’sites of special scientific interest’) are in favourable condition; on Dartmoor it’s an even more dismal 16 percent."

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“Twenty years ago, I would have said that a great many members of the public understood hill farming and Rights of Common fairly well. Now I don’t think the school curriculum includes education about farming. Children might learn about factory farming methods but I doubt very much they learn about methods of farming that are historical  -  where farmers are custodians of the environment. It is a shame."

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 "Farming works hand-in-hand with the environment: you need one to keep the other."

“I think the current trend will continue as farmers retire and less people take it on. Post-Brexit, will the British Government support hill farmers? I think it will support uplands for carbon, water storage, sphagnum moss and that sort of stuff but I don’t think it will support farmers for production. It will be more about how we keep biodiversity rather than creating monocultures of heather moorland. There has to be more variety, but I don’t think that has to be to the exclusion of sheep and farming - I think there is a happy medium somewhere."

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 “As a commoner, my input is for my lifetime. My family’s input has been for five generations, and there are things that were passed to me that I can pass to the next generation. I feel quite worried for my son: I think people of his generation will become part-time farmers and will probably need to major an income from somewhere else. That’s kind of alright, but I think the first thing that will suffer, if that’s the case, will be common land."

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“Common land is an amazing thing: a public good that’s better for the whole of society. If you can show that you can cherish something without having to own it, that’s a lovely thing for wider society. That’s how I feel about my common: I care about it, I want to look after it. For me that’s not about having somewhere to graze. It’s about something much more philosophical: I feel a duty to it, I suppose. We’re here for such a short time. You look after it while you’re here, and then you pass it on to someone else.” 

 If you'd like to find out more about Common Land in England's uplands, head over to the Foundation for Common Land website.

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