A move to reduce the number of cattle grazing on National Parks through winter has been met with anger as farmers feel it is part of a wider destocking agenda by conservation groups.
Farmers blamed mixed messages from Natural England (NE) which they said had led to significant numbers of cattle being removed from land across Dartmoor and Exmoor.
They are now being forced to foot the bill for feed and housing costs, which they say is eating into already paper-thin margins.
Fairfax Luxmoore, who has 50 years of experience managing suckler cows, feared the move was taking away years of tradition, suggesting many traditional breeders had been forced to take on heavier continental breeds.
Mr Luxmoore said: “Many Dartmoor commoners, including those on the Commons Council, have elected to put cows in small herds of 30 mature spring calving cows back on the moor in winter.
“This has been prevented by NE, which has asked farmers to remove stock from the commons. It is negligence.”
The impact on the environment has been substantial, with Molinia (purple moor grass) having completely taken over the moors, he said.
It came as a report, commissioned by the RSPB, National Trust and Wildlife Trusts, recommended destocking upland areas to increase farmers’ profitability.
Exmoor National Park Authority chairman Robin Milton said there was a widely reported feeling that certain organisations did not want moors and uplands grazed.
He said: “We are definitely getting a feeling down there that we might as well just shut the gate and forget it.
“But once it is gone it is probably gone forever. Do we want to lose that opportunity by not being willing to listen to some of the few people left there?”
NFU uplands chairman Thomas Binns agreed recent changes to land management were ‘not fit for purpose’.
He said: “As we move and take on the carbon agenda, we know that actively grazed grasses, and that includes moorland, can contribute to maintaining and enhancing the carbon storage capacity of grazed grassland, rather than land which is left to go wild and manage itself.
“We need to try and sort out the fake news on these stories [about red meat and cattle]. As people move to net zero positions, the truth will come out.”
Natural England said it was ‘not stopping winter grazing’ and that it was ‘willing to look at individual sites in Dartmoor and discuss changes in stocking regimes to meet shared outcomes’.
A spokesperson added: “All derogations are considered on a case by case basis.
“Winter grazing is possible on two commons on Dartmoor as a part of the Dartmoor Farming Futures Project, which is looking to strike a balance between the environmental impacts and the benefit for farmers.”