Wednesday, 28 February 2018

A focus on the future... funding and finance

A failed Dartmoor venture: Financial and stone ruins of Rattlebrook Peat Works, which shut in the 1930s depression.

We live in austere times.  Uncertainty, stagnation, a response to the great recession, political ideology, "Brexit", whatever the reasons, the UK's national parks are experiencing a purse-string-tightening unlike any other witnessed since their creation.

Central government - through DEFRA - fund our National Parks, and they provide the Park Authorities an annual budget in the form of a grant.  For Dartmoor, this grant was cut by 25% between 2010 and 2016.  Although it did rise slightly by just over 1.7% in 2017 to a total of around £3.6 million.  

Parking fees, other charges, external grant support and interest boost this figure by a further £1 million.  The National Park Authority are proud of their ability to source additional and external funding.  They have consistently delivered, albeit small, budget surpluses (leftover cash).  The park authority does though rely on partnerships and external funding sources to fulfil it's statutory requirements.  By joining forces with the 14 other National Parks, Dartmoor can sign commercial agreements (signed by Colombia sportswear and Air Wick air fresheners in recent years) which mutually benefit them all.

A host of partnership agreements are in operation: tackling invasive plants, promoting hill farming, supporting community well-being.  Butterfly Conservation, MOD, South West Lakes Trust, Sport England, Devon Wildlife Trust all provide knowledge and finance for ongoing projects.  'Moor Than Meets The Eye' is a partnership with the Heritage Lottery Fund that has provided a 5-year, £4 million deal intended to help promote understanding of the landscape and 4000 years of Dartmoor history.  Paths and archaeological sites are being regularly maintained by volunteers.  The British Mountaineering Council and Devon County Council are fundraising to fix or create Dartmoor paths.  

In recent years, we have seen the prospect of pay and display car parking replacing honesty boxes, a decline in Tourist Information services, reduced public transport options, and an economy drive including a 25% reduction in National Park staff.  Via the Steering Group, we have seen how MOD austerity has prevented much of the landscape work connected to byelaw reviews from taking place such as flagpole removal and Holming Beam hut replacement.

Last year, the National Park Authority set aside £140,000 worth of reserves for a Public Arts Initiative titled Moor Otters.  100 giant ceramic otters were individually painted and displayed on an 'Otter Trail' around the Moor.  It was hoped that through sponsorship, donations and the eventual auction sale of the 100 otters, a healthy return could be made on the investment.  Project goals included attracting new visitors to Dartmoor, supporting the local economy, and bringing an environmental message to local schools through a 'Mini Otters' initiative.  The whole scheme generated a £62,000 surplus.  Perhaps the future will be through many more innovative projects as this.

We return to the first line of this post: Central Government fund our National Parks.  DEFRA have pledged funding until 2020.  Beyond this, and in light of loss of EU financing following 'Brexit', it remains to be seen how our National Parks will be paid for.  Commercial agreements and partnerships will continue to play a part of course.  Yet will groups such as Letterboxers be expected to contribute time (through volunteering) or money (through Park entrance fees) to enjoy Dartmoor?  Ten Tor teams are encouraged to pay up as they participate.  Have Letterboxes been considered as a potential income stream by the DNPA?

The begging bowl is still out there!  The Park Authority's own Donate for Dartmoor webpage is still live, and welcomes any sum offered.  Get your purses and wallets out!

More here:
Key Financial Systems Review, October 2017, Dartmoor National Park Authority
Audited Statement of Accounts - 2016/7, Dartmoor National Park Authority.  

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

A focus on the future... flora and fauna

My 12 months of Letterboxing challenges is over.  I've challenged myself, and I feel more motivated than ever.  I've thought a great deal, and considered the hobby and it's place in my life a lot.  I've seen places, people, and 'boxes in a new and refreshing light.  I can focus firmly on the future.  I'm planning new series and new blog posts.

But what of this future?  What is Dartmoor going to look like?  What do the experts and the authorities say?  First up:

A changing climate

In the latest minutes of the Dartmoor Steering Group (from last November's meeting) the question was raised on how a changing climate was affecting vegetation on the Moor.  Vegetation which can both help and hinder Letterboxers and Letterboxing in equal measure.  Just witness how Wistman's Wood has doubled in size in the last 100 years.  See how the flora and fauna of Tavy Cleave has become impenetrable in places.  How gorse is flourishing in more favourable conditions.  

A Climate Strategy document produced by Devon County Council in 2005 shows trends for temperature and rainfall for years between 1920 and 2000.  A mean average temperature rise of 0.8 degrees since 1900 and a significant rise in precipitation since the 1970s are shown.  Does this information appear a little out of date?  Whilst no further charts have been produced by the council, the upward trends have continued, with local, national and international records being broken on an almost annual basis, according to the NOAA.

According to Met Office projections: by 2050, even when using the most optimistic greenhouse gas emission estimates, Western Dartmoor will experience around a further 20% increase in Winter precipitation, though Summer precipitation will decrease by a similarly large amount.  Summer and Winter mean temperatures will increase by between 1.8 and 2.5 degrees respectively.  In summary, this will result more droughts, more flooding, and inevitable changes to levels of vegetation.  Ferns and grasses will see considerable growth under these circumstances.

Bracken is one plant which will spread extensively in a changing climate.  The DNPA has tried (and generally failed) to use aerial photography since the turn of the 21st century to witness how climatic change (reduced late frosts and extended growing seasons) has aided Bracken's spread.  Bracken does have it's benefits: it is great as a wildlife habitat.  Ring ouzel, High brown fritillary butterflies and 11 unique invertebrates are among some of the key species that rely on bracken on Dartmoor.  However, on the down-side, it is a carcinogenic plant, it can be poisonous to livestock, is associated with tick numbers and Lyme disease.  It reduces grazing land, reduces access to the Moor in Summer and Autumn, damages archaeological sites, and crowds out other vegetation, such as heather.

The Park authority have admitted that the distribution of bracken on Dartmoor is little studied.  The last study was in 1994.  A briefing document in 2009 coincided with the 2008 release of Natural England technical documents.  None of these provided data on the extent of bracken's spread, the condition of which remains unsubstantiated. 

As a general principle, Natural England affirm that it is unlikely that bracken could ever be eradicated from a site.  Chemical treatment often poisons watercourses, and never lasts longer than 10 years.  Mechanical treatment is difficult in rocky, uneven terrain.  Cutting or rolling bracken reduces it's density but doesn't tackle it's vigour.  Ploughing is often impossible, leaving just trampling as the only remaining control tactic.

Bring on the Letterboxers!

I mentioned that the subject was raised in the latest Steering Group minutes.  The Steering Group - you'll remember - is a working party of stakeholders who annually review the impact of the military on the Moor.  The Duchy of Cornwall's Bailiff (of 12 years) David Marino was asked what steps were being taken to monitor changes in Dartmoor vegetation.  In reply, he indicated that he "had been looking into the matter and had come to the conclusion that although some areas had changed [he] did not consider it too serious to require monitoring".  Lt Col Crispin d'Apice, new Ten Tor's chief, and Training Safety Officer for the MOD in the South West, "suggested that the Dartmoor training estate had not identified any impacts from the changing climate".  Apart from - one presumes - the rapid pace of erosion repair, improving conditions for Ten Tor's weekend, and the MOD-funded breeding bird surveys which he mentioned earlier in the Steering Group meeting.  A case right there that an opinion or conclusion formed on the basis of incomplete information is merely a statement lacking rigorous proving.

What will rigorous proof require?  There's a contentious subject.  Next up in my future of Dartmoor focus: Money.