Why a special society is needed to protect Exmoor's landscape
Special places need special levels of care and attention – it is a well known fact that saw the setting up of national parks in this country over 60 years ago – but the publicly-run bodies aren't always enough when it comes to keeping an eye on unique landscapes. If Exmoor, for example, were a beating heart, then the national park authority would be its team of doctors, while the Exmoor Society might be seen to act as a cardiac consultant.
Such analogies may well have been discussed after the society's annual general meeting this weekend when chairman Rachel Thomas delivered a speech declaring: "At the core The Exmoor Society is a conservation body – and the purpose of all its activities is to campaign to protect Exmoor in a positive and rounded way."
Thoughts like these are being made public with greater urgency nowadays as the government continues to talk of relaxing rural planning boundaries in the interests of economic development – and the Exmoor Society knows what such ambitions could mean more than most environmental pressure groups...
It was formed 55 years ago to fight plans which would have seen half the national park area being turned into one giant dark conifer forest.
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"Exmoor is a small, intimate landscape of both gentle and dramatic landforms, partly semi-wild, partly cultivated and managed by people interacting with the harsh natural conditions," Mrs Thomas told the packed meeting at Dulverton. "It contains important wildlife and habitats, and provides natural resources managed by people for others, such as peat soils and carbon capture, water storage and quality, pasture for food and woodland for building supplies and alternative energy.
"It has a long history and fascinating story of land use managed by people for over 8,000 years, resulting today in a local rural culture still connected with the land and the seasons. These are rare assets in our crowded island and much changed countryside elsewhere," she said.
After the meeting Mrs Thomas was asked by the Western Morning News why an area like Exmoor required a special society to help protect its needs when it had a dedicate national park authority?
"One of the things we can do is say things national park authorities can't," she replied. "There are subject areas where they're not in agreement with organisations like Natural England or the Environment Agency – as in the management of moorland areas."
Mrs Thomas said such organisations tended to rely only on peer-review evidence (from its own experts) whereas the Exmoor Society believed that the authorities should also listen to "anecdotal evidence – or local knowledge."
"Moreover, national park authorities don't always have time to think about things for as long or so fully as we do," she added. "Take our recent moorland report for example – and also what we're doing now with our woodland report that comes out soon. We can nudge them further in things..."
Which is why, in her annual report, Mrs Thomas said: "To carry any weight in influencing opinion on how the national park is managed, we must provide reasoned knowledge of landscape, wildlife, historic environment, access, and education, and a balanced approach to integrating these with the community's socio-economic concerns."
Continuing the theme of local knowledge, guest speaker Graham Harvey – former agricultural editor of The Archers and author on food and farming – told the meeting that he believed agriculture had moved too far away from the benefits produced by the kind of traditional mixed farming once seen on the Exmoor.
He was pleased that pasture farming and natural grazing still occurred on Exmoor with traditional breeds such as the Exmoor Horn sheep and Red Ruby cattle being popular. And he concluded that the national park's special landscape and its unique wildlife owed a great deal to the traditional hill farming system.