The Exmoor Society held their annual conference in Dulverton last week. The theme was ‘Exmoor’s Future Landscapes’ based on the findings of their report “Exmoor’s Moorlands – Where Next?” which was launched at the conference. The speakers provided both a local and national context (including representatives from Natural England, RSPB and National Farmers Union) and agreed with the general conclusion that Exmoor’s future was bigger, better and brighter for all. Taking place just after the publication of the Government’s recent 8-Point Plan for National Parks, Rachel Thomas, Chairman of The Exmoor Society, commented “The success of the day was summed up in a tweet: Thank you @ExmoorSociety for an excellent conference. Good debate, passionate people & a healthy future in sight for #Exmoor.’ ”
Rachel continued: ‘The lively debate was so encouraging and to see that there are many things in common between the different interests involved on Exmoor. Natural England emphasised that the role of farming was vital to future landscapes; the RSPB the importance of collaboration with key groups; and the NFU the role of farming in providing a range of goods and benefits as well as food production.”
The day had started with Natural England director, James Diamond, getting quickly to the point: ‘We have got so many things wrong and have not always raised our eyes to future challenges. Because of poor communications and lack of trust, we have not taken enough notice of local knowledge and combined it with expertise.’ But he stressed the situation has vastly improved, with a recognition of shared interests and developing strong relationships: ‘There is now much better dialogue between ourselves and the farming community and a willingness to explore and adapt management practices that suit Exmoor’s unique environment.’
RSPB Director of Operations, Dr Shaun Thomas, continued the theme of collaboration (calling it “an essential building block”) between all those with a passion for this area so that Exmoor “can become a ‘cathedral’ to nature.” He concluded: “Only landscape-scale conservation of a kind not yet seen on Exmoor would lead to that nature rich future, and stop commonplace plants and animals from becoming rare, and the rare from disappearing altogether.”
Dr Andrea Graham, Head of Policy Services at the National Farmers Union, reminded the conference that resilient and productive farm businesses were at the heart of a successful future for the uplands. “We must make sure that farming, in particular livestock farming, thrives. For farmers this means allowing them to modernise and develop their businesses so they can be viable, profitable and, as a result, more attractive to the next generation of upland farmers.” And a key aspect of this was good internet connectivity – the NFU is actively lobbying government and service providers to push access to digital and mobile services in rural areas up the agenda as a matter of urgency. [See our article Hashtags & Twitter Handles – Exmoor Farmers see the benefits of social media as an example of how digital connectivity made a difference for a local farmer.]
Focusing on the individual experiences, Dr Cheryl Willis, from Exeter University, shared the outcomes of her research findings on the relationship between nature and human well-being. She outlined the importance of differing landscapes, emphasising how these link to people’s physical and mental well-being. She stressed that the benefits of interacting with nature are often ‘non-material’: such as individuals’ experiences ranging from the challenge of wide open spaces to associations and memories of holidays. Much of her research findings were important for tourism marketing.
Peter Heaton-Jones MP, a member of the Environmental Audit Committee, updated the conference on the findings so far on its enquiry into flooding. He said evidence shows there is no ‘one-size that fits all’ solution such as planting trees in the uplands. In Exmoor’s case he acknowledged the results of the Mires Project in slowing down the release of water from the peat soils and therefore helping to protect places downstream.
Stanley Johnson brought the conference to an end by sharing examples of his own experience of farming on Exmoor and when working for the European Commission on, for example, the Habitats Directive.
The Exmoor Society exists to promote and champion conservation and enjoyment of the landscape, wildlife and cultural heritage of Exmoor. Summing up the future possibilities in her foreward to the report, the Exmoor Sciety Chairman offers the positive outlook of what we can do “so that Exmoor continues to provide a spectacular, sublime and holistic landscape for the benefit of everyone.’