Farmers on the Land’s End peninsula, West Penwith, have managed the land without outside interference for millennia.
But that is all about to change after the Defra body Natural England (NE) confirmed a stretch of land from St Ives to Land’s End as a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) on 28 June.
NE says the designation is necessary to help the government achieve its “statutory targets and international commitments to halt biodiversity decline by 2030”.
See also: Natural England accused of ignoring own rules on Penwith SSSI
Writing in a blog post on 4 July, NE chairman Tony Juniper said he recognised the central role farming had played in forming the character of Penwith and vowed it will continue to play that role “in shaping this magical landscape”.
Since NE revealed its plans to designate West Penwith as a SSSI it has insisted it wants “to work in partnership with farmers”.
However, local farmers and land managers have publicly stated they are being ignored and marginalised.
They particularly warned of management restrictions, named Operations Requiring Natural England’s Consent (Ornecs), that control daily activities with criteria such as species, density and numbers of livestock, the use of any vehicles or craft, spreading of manure or lime, among many others.
The 25 Ornecs applied to Penwith were selected from a master list, therefore it remains to be seen what restrictions NE will apply in other areas of the country as part of the designations programme it has since announced.
In addition to Ornec, NE can exert control over land through the imposition of byelaws. While it has said it will not do this in Penwith, it retains a legal ability to do so, as it does across its entire SSSI portfolio.
The SSSI series currently spans an area of 1.1m ha in England, including 23,448ha in Cornwall.
Farmers and farming organisations have stated they have little faith that, by designating large areas of land, NE will achieve its commitment “to achieve the best possible outcome for nature”.
This point was taken up during the 28 June hearing in St Ives by Ann Maidment, director for the Country Land and Business Association in the South West.
She pointed out that NE had failed to achieve its own targets, saying: “In 2011, Natural England committed to achieving favourable condition in 50% of SSSIs by 2020.
“Three years after this deadline under 40% of SSSIs are in favourable condition.”
In fact, at the time of the confirmation hearing, NE’s own figures stated only 37.1% of sites were in a “favourable condition”, including 214ha that NE described as “fully destroyed” and 362ha described as “partially destroyed”.
Ms Maidment underlined the point by stating “it is abundantly clear that SSSIs are not delivering for nature”.
NE’s own board minutes for April 2017 give the CLA’s assertions considerable credence as they stated that NE was, at that time, “on target” to achieve 46% of SSSIs in “favourable condition” by 2020, reaching their target of 50% by 2024.
Six years on, not only did NE fail to meet its own targets, but the percentage of sites in “favourable condition” has decreased since the initial targets were set in 2011. At the time of the confirmation hearing at which the point was publicly made, NE was 13% below its 2024 target.
Elsewhere, Natural England is seeking to reduce grazing numbers due to what it claims to be the “unfavourable condition” of habitats on Dartmoor.
In April, the government body was criticised at Westminster over reductions in grazing it intends to impose, and failures to achieve its own published targets.
Contrary to NE’s claims of “partnership” with farmers, during a parliamentary debate MPs from all parties raised individual concerns regarding the attitude of NE staff and the tone of its correspondence.
Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron described the correspondence as “terrifying letters”, stating that “if the threats in the letters are carried out, that will be the end of many of those upland farms”.
During the same debate, Conservative MP Sir Geoffrey Cox said: “The fact is that those letters were written without consultation or warning,” continuing, “not a single organisation on the moor was consulted”.
With their concerns about the handling of the matter officially recorded in Hansard, MPs voted to hold an independent inquiry into the Dartmoor affair, which is in the process of being established.
Affected parties in West Penwith are particularly aggrieved that the only legal recourse which remains is a judicial review at the High Court in London and they are calling upon their local MP, Derek Thomas, to push for a similar independent inquiry regarding Penwith.
The situation has arisen after a transcript of the confirmation hearing at St Ives revealed that NE admitted that its own data, which it had used to support the designation, was several years old and that NE had frequently diverged from SSSI selection guidelines.
In the example of Penwith, bird surveys were undertaken for only one year and not the three-to-five years specified in NE’s own guidelines. With invertebrate surveys, also supposed to be undertaken over three years according to the SSSI guidelines, NE again relied upon a single year’s data.
The guidelines for the selection of SSSIs are set by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC). In addition to NE’s board adjudicating SSSI designations under JNCC guidelines at “confirmation hearings”, NE board members are also responsible for those same guidelines due to the fact that some members also sit on the JNCC.
Farmers and MPs have questioned the interplay between NE statutory roles. They have raised concerns that the body can determine its own rules for granting an SSSI and decide whether to follow them or not, without further oversight.
During the Penwith Moors confirmation hearing, NE officers said socio-economic factors could not be considered when forming an opinion as to whether an area of land is of special scientific interest.
CPRE Cornwall, MP Derek Thomas and even two of NE’s own board members have taken to social media platform X (formerly Twitter) to criticise Defra and the UK government for a complete lack of financial support for farmers within the Penwith SSSI.
Faced with the prospect of restrictions to their daily activities, the increased burden of regulatory compliance – with the threat of criminal sanctions for breaches – some farmers in Penwith have decided to hand back tenanted land or sell up and farm elsewhere, with a number leaving the industry altogether.
Sites included in NE’s designations programme
Natural England (NE) published its most recent programme for its designations pipeline in December which, if fully implemented, will see thousands more farmers and landowners subject to land management restrictions.
These include 22 proposed SSSIs across the country, four areas of outstanding natural beauty, six national nature reserves and plans to widen and lengthen the King Charles III Coastal Path. There is no indication of size for any sites yet.
Farmers Weekly asked NE to provide information on the size of each proposed SSSI designation, the reasons why they had been chosen, and the timeline, including whether surveying had started.
NE was unable to confirm the exact area of sites, and said each case would be assessed against differing criteria and the time this takes can vary significantly.
Extensions to existing areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs) and National Nature Reserves (NNRs) are expected to take less time, according to sources familiar with the designation process. However, plans to designate two new AONBs at Yorkshire Wolds and Cheshire Sandstone Ridge will almost certainly take longer.
Penwith board meeting transcript reveals tensions
Following repeated enquiries by Farmers Weekly, Natural England (NE) has released the transcript for the Penwith Moors SSSI confirmation hearing, held on Wedneday 28 June at St Ives.
The 166-page document reveals tensions played out between NE board members and attendees.
Lord Blencathra, the deputy chairman of the organisation, voted against confirming the SSSI. He said: “In the five years doing this, this is the first time I have voted against a designation.”
It should be noted that NE’s board has never voted against confirming the designation of a SSSI, making the deputy chair’s position regarding Penwith a marked departure.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) Cornwall also formally objected to the designation.
Stephen Horscroft, vice-chairman of CPRE Cornwall, told the board that hydrological issues were “very complex and far from clear”, a key point in the deputy chairman voting against the confirmation of the designation.
A fifth of the consents that NE has imposed on owner-occupiers in Penwith concern the control of the flow of water.
Farmer Sam Nankervis, who manages a herd of suckler cows at Zennor, also spoke at the hearing about concerns on the future viability of his business.
“There is the potential for me being prevented at any time from carrying out the maintenance on my cattle’s water supply,” he said.