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Stop the Dartmoor Mires Project

August 9, 2013

STOP THE DARTMOOR MIRES PROJECT! – SCIENTIFICALLY UNJUSTIFIED MACHINE INTERFERENCE IS DAMAGING DARTMOOR’S WILD AND NATURAL ENVIRONMENT

Dartmoor National Park Authority is yet again poised to send large digging machines into one of the remotest parts of Dartmoor – this time, in August, to the watershed between the rivers Tavy and Cowsic (a tributary of the Dart).

The site is nearly four miles from the nearest public road, with no existing track leading to it. Since 2010 two other areas have been similarly targeted on Winneys Down, west of Fernworthy and 3 miles from the nearest road. Another area, Flat Tor Pan, 2½ miles into the moor, is due to be subjected to machine work in the autumn.

In each area the surface of previously undisturbed, healthy, deep and still growing wet peat has been (or will be) dug up in approximately metre-square blocks. These are then displaced to form numerous small dams, thus creating a network of small ponds, despite there being, on the surface of the peat, naturally developing ponds with their own ecosystems which have not yet been studied.

The Dartmoor Mires Project (costing £1.1m funded over 5 years by rates raised by South West Water) is claimed to be ‘restoring’ 120 hectares of Dartmoor’s blanket bog (12,000 hectares in all).

This is grossly misleading, as no evidence has been presented which provides a model for a ‘restored’ blanket bog. Even more seriously, no scientifically robust evidence has been produced to show that the blanket bog of Dartmoor has eroded or has dried out in recent or historic times any differently from how one would expect an 8,000-year-old peat bog to respond to fluctuations in climate and its own build-up of peat (6–8m in some areas). The Project Delivery Plan (June 2012, p.10) even states that ‘Reliable and accurate data on the extent and condition [of blanket bog] is not available’.

No hydrological monitoring has been done on Winneys Down so we will never know whether the new ponds are making its two areas wetter or not.

The public expects the highest principles of conservation management to be applied to national parks. One of these is the globally accepted precautionary principle of not interfering with natural ecosystems unless there is overwhelming evidence to justify doing so. No such evidence has been presented for the Dartmoor Mires Project.

No evidence or arguments have been presented to justify moving from one area to another, on the basis that new data will be forthcoming. For the work proposed in August the project officer states merely that it will ‘explore the logistical and practical aspects of working’, rather than any specific scientific aim.

Christopher Loughlin, the Chief Executive of South West Water, in a letter of 26 March 2013 to Geoffrey Cox MP, said that the work is being done to ‘reverse interventions of previous generations’. This statement, from the man in charge of the company funding the whole scheme, is entirely erroneous – the areas where work has been done and is planned shows no evidence of human interference such as peat digging, probably because the peat is too wet.

In summary:

  • To claim ‘restoration’ is scientifically meaningless, as no relevant evidence-based justification has been presented.
  • the naturally developing ecosystems of healthy mires are being interfered with, counter to any precautionary principle.
  • the absence of hydrological monitoring (except at Flat Tor Pan) negates any claim of the benefit of ‘rewetting’.
  • no data has been presented to justify moving from one area to another.
  • the current areas subject to machine work show no evidence of human intervention such as peat digging.
  • the machines cause unsightly and sometimes damaging tracks.
  • the wild and tranquil character of the wildest landscape in southern England is being compromised by the appearance of large modern machinery, which affects people spiritually and emotionally.

The Dartmoor Society urges all reasoning people, interested in the proper conservation management of Dartmoor, based on scientific principles, to call for an immediate halt to the machine activity of this project which is changing the face of Dartmoor and altering our blanket bogs with unknown consequences.

Dr Tom Greeves, Chairman of the Dartmoor Society, said, ‘We consider the machine work associated with the Mires Project to be the most damaging and pointless activity generated by Dartmoor National Park Authority and its project partners on the high moor of Dartmoor since the creation of the national park more than sixty years ago. A pause will allow time for rigorous assessment of what has been done so far. Until this has been undertaken no further machine work should take place. The heart of wildest Dartmoor is being changed, in the face of fundamental conservation principles.’

I am grateful to Dr Tom Greeves of the Dartmoor Society for alerting me to this. I spent nine years as chief executive of the Dartmoor Preservation Association (DPA). If I was running the DPA today I would be opposing this potty tinkering with Dartmoor’s mires. Dartmoor is not some experimental kit for ecologists, but a precious and irreplaceable landscape. It is time to call a halt to this nonsense today!

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