Anton Coaker is probably the best-known Dartmoor farmer of our time. He is a regular columnist for the Western Morning News and often contributes to the excellent Dartmoor Magazine. He’s also written a couple of books about his experiences as a farmer that pre-date the current vogue for such things. He’s generally a personable writer, but often pugnacious and opinionated. He’s also contemptuous of rewilding, or at least the parodic version its opponents like to traduce.
In an opinion piece for the Dartmoor Magazine (Spring 2017) he addressed the effect the boundary of Dartmoor National Park is having on the development of Devon. He notes, for instance, ‘the throttling constriction of narrow lanes … and outdated bridges’ inside the park, inconvenient to modern farm vehicles, and the way ‘an almost continual conurbation’ has developed along the A38 corridor, just outside the southern boundary of the park. This, he thinks, is the rather perverse outcome of tight planning restrictions within the park and a relative free-for-all just outside. And crude though his arguments are, he’s not alone in thinking this is a problem. Ecologists, and planners too, have long been concerned by the segregationist nature of planning policy. There is discussion to be had.
For good measure, Coaker also lambasts the ‘pervasive whinging from various bigoted individuals to “rewild” the uplands’. He suggests that their aim is to convert upland Dartmoor into ‘an undeveloped world of primordial forests, climbing up onto empty bleak tops’. (In their wildest dreams…) A sarcastic reference to herds of cantering unicorns follows. Although the use of ‘bigoted’ is insulting and unjustified, taking this beyond good, knockabout stuff, Coaker’s contempt – more pub rant than reasoned opinion – is typical of a debate that often becomes unpleasant. That this is so, doesn’t make it worthy of the magazine.
Coaker then writes:
‘My culture – and never doubt for a moment that you’re going to be hearing a lot more about my indigenous and cultural rights, my “white settler” friends – predates the artificial boundaries.’
Cue sharp intake of breath. There should be no room for sentiment like this in the debate about the future of the British countryside. Here are three reasons why.
First, here, a Dartmoor landholder and, it’s fair to assume, the recipient of taxpayer-funded support over many decades, likens himself to the victims of European colonialism. Whom does he have in mind? Those of North America, Canada, Australia or New Zealand? Perhaps Coaker thinks that to challenge the practices of a fifth-generation Dartmoor farmer is somehow equivalent to the experience of the Aborigines of Australia who lived there for 60,000 years before being virtually wiped out by ‘white settlers’. Or maybe he means black South Africans and sees himself as a Mandela figure. Surely not, but to imply that having a view about Dartmoor without somehow being of Dartmoor makes one a modern-day Cecil Rhodes or Iain Smith is not only preposterous, it’s deeply offensive.
Second, what of this view that some people are of Dartmoor as others may never be? By suggesting that he has ‘indigenous’ rights, Coaker uses the language of the far-right. The English Defence League often talk about ‘the indigenous people of Britain’, suggesting they have special, a priori rights. James Mackay and David Stirrup have convincingly argued that this is not an appropriate way to think about the UK’s population. Can it, then, be any more plausible to claim that some of Dartmoor’s inhabitants are ‘indigenous’ people and have rights that exceed those of their fellow citizens, including their neighbours? If I were in the fortunate position of being able to buy a house or some land on Dartmoor would this make me either a) a colonialist or b) a second-class citizen? Coaker seems to suggest that I would be a) but should be b)!
Third, to imply that Dartmoor’s non-farmers are necessarily ‘white’ takes the polemic a step further. What of the non-white people who take an interest in Dartmoor, including those who are often descended from peoples colonised by the British Empire? How are they taken account of in this worldview? The casual assumption that British people are white is no longer acceptable.
Let me make it clear that I’m happy to accept that Coaker does not seriously think that the Dartmoor farmer is in a similar position to the victims of the European Empires. Nor, I’m sure, does he really want to racialise Dartmoor politics or deny British citizens equal rights and I am NOT suggesting he supports the EDL. We all know, or should by now know, that in the world of blogging and tweeting – or banging out an opinion piece – it is easy to let fly unintended implications and associations. But to give Coaker the benefit of the doubt doesn’t change the fact that words he chose are freighted with historical meaning and political implication. Casually invoking Britain’s imperial past is hazardous and must be done with the utmost care. To put the phrase ‘white settlers’ into scare quotes does not make it any the less repugnant in this context. Coaker threatens to continue making his argument in the future. If so, I hope he chooses his words more carefully, staying on the side of the angels.
The rewilding issue boils down to a debate about the purposes of agricultural support and whether in some places taxpayers’ money might be better spent encouraging a more self-willed nature. No rewilding enthusiast I’ve come across talks about the forcible dispossession of landowners or the dissolution of common rights. Graziers (in contrast to grouse moor managers) may well keep public opinion on their side and, post-Brexit, systems of support that allow sheep or cattle farming to continue largely as it has done over the past few decades might be renewed. Alternatively, a new settlement might emerge. My hunch is that enthusiasts for rewilding will make small gains, but there won’t be radical break with the past. Either way, the question will be decided, as it should be, by the political process, in which all citizens have an equal right to participate.
I shall end with two observations that complicate the picture further, the first is specific to Dartmoor and the second is more general.
Dartmoor’s surviving commoners are already the beneficiaries of the dissolution of the rights of others. Historically, the commoners of Devon had the right to summer grazing on the Forest of Dartmoor. According to the Dartmoor Commoners’ Council, transhumance came to an end in the 1920s, though it’s said the widening of the A38 in the post-war years finished it off for good. As Adrian Colston’s analysis suggests, the decline in cattle grazing the tops in the summer helped lead to the dominance enjoyed by Molinia grass today. Also, in the late nineteenth century, the introduction of hardy, Scottish breeds by Dartmoor commoners made year-around grazing possible, which continues today. This form of agricultural intensification marked a significant break with the past and was further encouraged by post-war subsidy regimes—which were lobbied for by the National Farmers’ Union. No serious commentator doubts that this intensified grazing of the Dartmoor commons caused great ecological damage.
‘Rewilders’ are often accused as having no respect for ‘tradition’. To claim that something is traditional is to make a historical claim. Such claims tend not to survive historical scrutiny and are usually deployed, certainly in the UK, to protect vested interests. As such, it is perfectly reasonable to ask whether year-around grazing with Scottish Blackface sheep or Galloway cattle on Dartmoor is in any meaningful sense traditional. We might ask the same of pumping stock with hormones and other drugs – necessary, perhaps, but traditional? We need to judge the type of farming we support according to the public goods it delivers, which include food, habitat and places of leisure for the whole community, and not on the basis of some spurious notion that the British countryside is unchanging and, more specifically, that its uplands have the peculiar privilege of being outside of history.
Second, if we are going to frame the debate in terms of inherited rights and culture, then let us not forget that the great majority of us don’t own land or have exclusive rights over land. In the main, we are the descendants of those who lost rights to the land: enclosure, economic change and colonialism did its work on the ancestors of most of us, whether in the UK or elsewhere in the world. Today’s landowners, tenants and commoners are either those who have hung on or those who have made enough money to buy their way back in. Theirs is a privilege most of us have lost. The right to roam, in national parks and elsewhere, is our little compensation package, a modest form of restorative justice. Landowners and managers would do well to remember this.
 A significant proportion of the population, though not a majority, own the freehold to a house and, sometimes, a substantial garden.