Monday, August 10, 2015

Farming within Dartmoor National Park with Maurice Retallick

Maurice Retallick at Heritage Acres
Toni Lucas

Dartmoor National Park Deputy Chairman Maurice Retallick was the featured speaker at Heritage Acres on Friday evening July 31.  The event was held in the Doukhoubor barn at Heritage Acres during their annual show, and was attended by an appreciative audience.  Retallick said he was in the area visiting family and friends.  Auctioneer and friend of Heritage Acres Sheldon Smithens met Retallick when his tv show Canadian Pickers visited the United Kingdom in 2013 (where the show was known as "Cash Cowboys"). Smithens correctly thought Retallick's talk about the challenges of upland farming and farming within Dartmoor National Park would resonate with the Heritage Acres crowd.

Hound Tor and Moorland, Dartmoor National Park
Lewis Clarke photo, Wikimedia Commons
Dartmoor is located in southwest England.  The Dartmoor Hill Farm Project was established in 2003 with the goal of ensuring a viable future for Dartmoor farmers who face a variety of challenges, including coexisting within Dartmoor National Park, urban sprawl, and weather-related issues. Retallick said farmers are experiencing similar trials and triumphs literally halfway around the world.  His family has been on the same land since 1905.  "We've been around for a few generations."  He and his family raise sheep and cattle within the 954 square kilometres of the park.

Retallick's presentation included a slideshow that illustrated many of his points and also showed off the beauty of the area.  Over half of the park is private land and there are areas of shared and common grazing land.   "Those are enshrined in history, going back to the 1600s.  You can turn out so many cattle, or so many sheep, or so many ponies, on this common land.  The soil is actually owned by the majority, by Prince Charles, or other landowners around."  He said Prince Charles "Is a great supporter of agriculture."

"The national park is for the protection of the landscape.  We work very closely with them to achieve our ends."

According to Retallick, it took some time to balance conflicting conservation and farming goals.  "It is generally a good working relationship nowadays.  It didn't look so good, many years ago." There are a number of protected and endangered species that call the park home.  Living in a protected area also means coexisting with carnivores. "Foxes will kill lambs, just for the joy of it."  Fitting tourism into the balance is also important.  "The tourist business is extremely important for the economy of the southwest."

Datmoor National Park is a hilled area with an elevation that starts at 400 feet,and rises to close to 2,000 feet with moors, mountains, waterways, grazing and cropland, and an abundance of history. There is heavy rainfall of 60 - 80 inches annually, which allows farming opportunities within small footprints. "Grazing at the top, cultivation at the bottom." The history includes bronze age archaeological finds. "Film companies are always wanting to make use of the sets," said Retallick.  For example, Arthur Conan Doyle's 'Hound of the Baskervilles' was set in Dartmoor, and several television and movie productions of the story have been filmed there, up to the present day.

A collaborative project between local farmers and the park is the selling of market beef and lambs that have been raised in the park.  "They are sold as a premium product," explained Retallick, explaining that designation is only applied to heritage breed livestock that has been raised and finished within the park area.  If the livestock is removed from the area for finishing it can still be sold, but those animals are not considered to have met Dartmoor Farmers Association Production criteria. Dartmoor Farmers Association (established 2007) members must have the majority of their farm within Dartmoor National Park.

Dartmoor National Park
Orel Maky photo, Wikimedia Commons
Retallick's family has a relatively large 500 acre farm, with an additional 200 to 300 acres they use to produce hay. "A lot of our families, the succession carries on, the sons and the grandsons are born into the farming business."  The Hill Farm Project offers training courses to maintain traditional hill farming skills..

In several cases six to eight generations of a single family have maintained same land. "They tend to stick, and stay."  Farming alone cannot always be a sustainable business. "The majority of farms have a bit of a second business as well to sustain themselves and stay solvent."  Retallick has created a sideline business buying and transporting hay elsewhere in England and selling it in the area.

"Labour is expensive, and not always available."

Shaptor Wood, Dartmoor National Park
Derek Harper photo, Wikimedia Commons
"We are, as everybody else, trying to foster renewables," said Retallick.  Solar panels are accepted but wind turbines are not in favour.  "The visual impact of wind turbines does nothing for the landscape.  You've got more space than we have," he said, referring to the turbine develpment in our area.  "Solar power is very much in vogue."  Installing the panels can be expensive.  "There is a bit of government support, but it's a struggle these days."

As stewards of the land, Dartmoor National Park farmers help with controlled burns that are coordinated with the local fire department.  The controlled burns reduce fire risk and control certain plants for better grazing.  When it comes to fire, the peat bogs represent a very real danger.  Historically the peat was gathered for heating because it burns so well. The area is estimated to have  millions of tonnes of carbon, much of that being the peat.  Now the peat there stays on the land and acts as flood control.  "It retains a massive amount of water."

Related links
Dartmoor Farmers
Dartmoor National Park website
Dartmoor National Park blog

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