I was saddened to learn today of the death of Ian Mercer. As Kate Ashbrook, author of his obituary (here), has said, he was one of the ‘giants’ of modern Dartmoor. I didn’t know Mercer personally and it is for others to write about what it was like to work or walk or go birding with him; I really only knew him through the archive, an unusual claim to make of someone so recently among us, but one which testifies to his importance.
Mercer was probably the most significant single individual in the recent history of Dartmoor National Park. If he has a rival, it is his old sparring partner Sylvia Sayer, a generation older and already toughened by many a battle when Ian became the revamped park authority’s first chief officer in 1973. This period saw the authority gain greater independence from Devon County Council, but it was still relatively weak and had a small staff. The upside of this was it gave a dynamic leader a real opportunity to make his mark. Mercer recognised from the outset that the way to get things done was to get out and talk to people. In 1975 he addressed the Dartmoor Preservation Association, an organisation long doubtful that the park authority could do much to protect Dartmoor, observing that ‘the whole satisfaction and pleasure perceived by modern man as an attribute and value of the countryside was a spin-off from a primarily food-producing process’. To Mercer, there was no fundamental tension between farming and nature conservation, but there were problems with how Dartmoor was farmed in practice, particularly with respect to the volume of stock put out on the commons and concomitant questions this raised about animal welfare and conservation. People had been saying for decades that Dartmoor was overgrazed and that stock and the common suffered as a consequence, but no one had succeeded in doing anything about it. Mercer recognised that only by getting Dartmoor’s many competing interests to cooperate could agriculture, animal welfare, amenity and nature conservation be served. It was his job to ensure they did.
Above all, Mercer was determined to bring the commoners in from the cold, reconciling them to the park authority and the amenity and conservation interests. To this end he hoped, as the Dartmoor Plan of 1977 stated, to help the commoners ‘achieve a sound management system, incorporating safeguards for the maintenance of vegetation appearance.’
I’ve described the ins and outs of what eventually led to the Dartmoor Commoners Act of 1985 in Quartz and Feldspar, but what comes through that story so strongly is the instrumental role played by Mercer. Few people outside formal politics can claim they were the driving force behind an Act of Parliament, but I think this can be said of him. Throughout the long process, Mercer worked with Devon County Council, the Nature Conservancy Council, the Department of the Environment and, of course, the commoners. He formed a particularly effective working relationship with Herbert Whitley, the not always diplomatic chair of the Dartmoor Commoners Association.
Mercer’s first attempt at a bill ended in failure. Although in control of his brief and impressive throughout, during a tough few days before a Lords Select Committee in June 1979 he watched his bill slowly unravel. The provisions of the bill had to be narrowed and strengthened. Any reference to the dread word ‘improvement’ had to go, for no one at the time wanted Dartmoor to go the way of Exmoor, and extraneous clauses which antagonised influential lobbies like the caravaners but diverted attention from the true purpose of the bill had to be dropped.
The redrafted bill was a lesson in pragmatism. It was slimmed down and strengthened where it mattered. Much was made at the time about how it struck a balance between the interests of the commoners and the interests of conservation and amenity. What’s more, a full fifteen years before the passage of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, it established the legal right of access on foot or horseback to Dartmoor’s commons, until that time only customary. The government backed the bill, the amenity societies and conservation organisations gave it their approval and, shepherded by Anthony Steen, Conservative MP for the South Hams, it worked its way through parliament.
The passage of the Act was a personal triumph for Mercer. It provisions might now seem rather cautious, a little orthodox, particularly in the emphasis it placed on the absolute necessity of grazing to the ecological health of Dartmoor, but the conservation clauses were hard won, ending the time when farmers faced few constraints with respect to what they could do. To put it bluntly, prior to the Act, there was virtually no legal impediment to the commoners getting their act together and ploughing up the common to convert it from rough grazing into sown grassland. That might have been unlikely, but the future is always unknown, and Mercer’s Act provided the strongest safeguard then possible against that dreadful prospect. More immediately important, it created the basis for a new system of management in which commoners placing stock on the moor had to take full account of its ecological health. As such, the debate accompanying the passage of the bill was a crucial moment in the development of contemporary thinking about the relationship between farming and conservation.
Quite how successful the Dartmoor Commoners’ Council has been in practice is a big question, but its continued functioning, with Mercer in the chair in recent years, says much about the sound thinking and workable provisions underpinning the Act.
More recently I’ve been looking at the consultations preceding the drafting of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981. Archival research can be a slog, but my spirits never fail to lift when I come across the headed notepaper of the Dartmoor National Park Authority. For there, I can be sure, will be a letter from Mercer and it will be cogent, lucid and focused, clarifying what to that point had often been obscured by people who just weren’t as good at making themselves understood. We owe him much.