Devonshire Association AGM and Tom Greeves’ Presidential Address

I attended the 136th AGM of the Devonshire Association yesterday afternoon. This venerable organisation has late Victorian origins, can boast some 1344 members, with the longest-serving first elected in 1948, and is structured through semi-independent local branches and sections. Each year a different branch hosts the AGM and this year it was Tavistock’s turn, home branch of Tom Greeves, the DA’s newly-elected president.

The DA organises an annual conference, of which the AGM is a part, publishes a newletter and, through its branches, organises lots of local events. It also publishes an annual Transactions, a weighty journal of great importance to Devon’s local history, which I made much use of in Quartz and Feldspar in the sections on Druidical theory and its opponents.

AGMs are not necessarily occasions to relish, but as an outsider attending as a guest, this was all very enjoyable. Suffused by good humour and warmth, only the barest hint of impatience could be discerned from the audience. A succession of affable chaps delivered their reports, the dominant note being self-deprecation, the jokes good and the approbation paid two members elected to honorary life membership was moving even to the stranger in the house. It was hard not to note the age profile of those attending, which I’m sure is of concern to the committee. I think I was the youngest person in the room.

Tom’s address was titled ‘Dartmoor and the Displacement of Culture. Analysis and Remedy.’ Tom is a archaeologist by training, but he draws on a lifetime’s experience of work, whether as an academic (supervised by the great Stuart Piggott at Edinburgh), an employee of the National Park Authority, and or a worker in what’s now called the heritage industry. Wendell Berry is a touchstone and his approach to the moor is shaped by his determination to close the ‘divide between felt and analytical responses’, which in many ways makes him a pioneer of the present zeitgeist. Much of the new generation of nature writers have been trying to do the same.

Tom’s critique of the National Park Authority is well-known and his lecture touched on some issues he’s written and spoken about before. In particular, he rejects the NPA’s systematic attempts, which began in the 1950s and only came to an end recently, to remove ‘disfigurements’ from the moorscape. Where old-school preservationists see ugliness, be it relics of modern Dartmoor industry or 1930s bungalow blight, Tom sees a part of Dartmoor’s rich cultural history, modern quarrying works no less significant to Dartmoor’s history than the Neolithic stone circles. His perspective and sensibility is at odds with the old preservationist view, particularly that of the Dartmoor Preservation Association, who shared W. G. Hoskins’ dislike of pretty much everything that had happened to the British landscape since the industrial revolution. Tom drew particular attention to the fact that numerous buildings were destroyed without systematic records being made. That is indeed a travesty.

Tom has also long questioned what he regards as the democratic deficit on Dartmoor and in the other National Parks. NPAs are appointed and are not subject to local democratic control. They must consult, of course, as modern stakeholder culture requires, but ultimately decision-making power lies with a kind of professional oligarchy tasked with protecting the ‘national’ importance and ‘amenity’ value of the moorscape. Much could be said about this and it goes to heart of the tension between local and national needs, as well as between various kinds of expertise.

And this brings us to the present focus of Tom’s discontent: Natural England. The lecture will be published in the Transactions in the new year, so I’m going to tread carefully here, leaving it up to Tom to decide who he wishes to name in print, but his broad critique can be summarised.

The current conservationist orthodoxy doesn’t work. It incentivises destocking, drastically reducing the amount of livestock on the moor, and is predicated on the restoration of heather cover at the expense of grassland created by grazing and swaling (burning). Certain keystone biodiversity species  have been made the overriding priority, with all activity on the moor made subservient to whether particular bird, butterfly or insect numbers increase or decrease. The unintended consequence has been scrubbing up – ie the growth of gorse and light woodland cover – and sharp for Tom’s purposes is that much ancient archaeological evidence, easily visible twenty or more years ago, is now obscured by growth. This, he suggests, is surely evidence that Dartmoor has been closely grazed for thousands of years. It’s a striking surmise, for it challenges the view that much contemporary nature conservation and restoration seeks to reverse the worse effects of modern agricultural intensification rather than the benign, less chemically dependent practices of a much older vintage.

Destocking, the argument goes, is actually destroying the common as grazing ground, the commoners being forced to adopt practices that undermine the future viability of the common as an agricultural landscape. This is where the argument gets particularly interesting in terms of current discussion. Tom’s defence of traditional ways of extracting an income from the moorscape comes up against Natural England, that is for sure. But it is also – not something he talked about – at odds with the rewilding agenda, no friend of Natural England either. As I listened to Tom’s lecture, I thought of two current best sellers: James Rebanks’ stratospherically successful The Shepherd’s Life. A Tale of the Lake District and George Monbiot’s Feral. It is hard to see how the view of Britain’s uplands offered by both can be reconciled. I wonder to what extent their readers, of which there is surely much crossover, are experiencing significant cognitive dissonance. It’s a subject I will return to.

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