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  • Harriet Bell

What are the solutions to making commons agreements work for everyone?

Please consider this an opportunity for a community brainstorm about how/if commons agreements can be made just that little bit easier to manage.


What I've done is taken all the problems I've heard from our ELMs Advisory Team and just chatting to people over a cuppa and listed them here. Then I've gone through and listed some alternative approaches, either ones that have been mentioned or ones that seem logical to me (a commons ignoramus) particularly within the context of ELMs.

Please have a read and if you think I've missed a problem or a solution get in touch and we can add them to the list or just get in touch to share your thoughts hbell@dartmoor.gov.uk


Just to recap about how ELMs may change the way we view the value of things. What we know from Defra is that farmers will be paid on the basis of delivering clean air; clean and plentiful water; protection from and mitigation of environmental hazards; thriving plants and wildlife; beauty, heritage and engagement and mitigation of and adaptation to climate change.


What are the problem areas and what could be the solutions?


Problem: “If you give a pot of money to anybody and say sort it out there’s going to be fall out.”

Potential solutions:


- Don’t give a pot of money to Commons Associations in recognition of the delivery of ELMs, only give it for administration/facilitation and advice in accordance with this Test and Trials existing position on the role of Advice in delivering ELMs. Have a guiding principle about how money should be distributed across commoners and apply is consistently across all commons. Have the money go direct from govt. to the commoners either in association with home farms or as an individual registered in association with a common (i.e. as a farmer your connection to a common is registered so that you receive funding).

- Do give money to Commons Associations but, as per the point above, have a prescriptive system, which they must adhere to, about how the money is distributed so it's not neighbour deciding on neighbour.

- Don’t give a pot of money to Commons Associations have a Dartmoor wide body or something else and hold reverse auctions where farmers bid to deliver specific activities on the common or sign up to deliver activities which come with a fixed value attached (although this rather goes against the payment by results approach).

- Have a Dartmoor wide agreement adjudicated by an independent body which allocates money so that the distribution of funds is not decided neighbour on neighbour.

- Give money to the common owner(s) for distribution.

Problem: “one individual should not be able to hold these agreements to ransom whilst also receiving payments on other commons or good agreements on their home farm”

Potential solution:

- Link agreements to either a home farm or an individual farmer so that as soon as a farmer/commoner commits to either any commons agreement or a home farm agreement they’re considered as being committed to an agreement on any common for which they have rights.

- Make it a majority decision by a Commons Association to participate in an agreement rather than requiring all common rights holders to consent.

- Automatically enroll all commons in an agreement but give people the opportunity to opt out.

- Work on the basis that as long as commoners are supplying evidence sufficient to generate a scorecard result (or other land management plan) for an individual common it doesn’t matter if there’s only one commoner doing that or hundreds, everyone is paid a share of the scorecard value as long as they’re regularly submitting information/evidence which indicates that they’re actively managing the common. Then every individual can choose whether they want to be in an agreement on a common or not based on how much work they’re prepared to put into it.

Problem: That communities/neighbours/families have all fallen out about the historic allocation of grazing rights, which many seem to view as unfairly done, and that those grazing rights are now used to determine payment of BPS and often stewardship funding.

Potential solutions:

- Re-examine grazing rights allocations to see if it can be made fairer.

- De-link payment from grazing rights allocation and assign payment based on a different criteria.


Grazing is a tool by which to deliver public goods but there are other tools and other activities which could attract financial reward under ELMs, such as delivering a farmer led tour of a common, using your farm machinery to restore peat or monitoring a particular species. So grazing rights may no longer be the fairest way of determining payment.


Also, in the context of public goods the value of a grazing animal is no longer equal e.g. if your flock is hefted to an area which doesn't have "thriving plants and wildlife" because it's under grazed and dominated by molinia then your flock is enhancing the value of public goods being delivered on the common by tackling that problem. However, if your flock is in an area which is heavily grazed and experiencing soil compaction and erosion then that flock may be diminishing the value of the public goods being delivered on that common. So it becomes a question of having the right animal in the right place and managed in the right way. In which case a system which recognizes the management skill of the grazier and their knowledge of the landscape may work better then just number of grazing rights.


Plus, one could argue that people with the most grazing rights are already gaining a greater financial benefit from the common, in that they’re rearing more livestock for sale on the common, so this could be an opportunity to support those commoners increasing their income from diversification in order to remain in farming.

Payment could potentially be based on the amount of work undertaken to actively manage the common or on the understanding that the common succeeds or fails, in terms of the value of public goods delivered, as one team and therefore payment should be shared equally across every team member who is actively contributing to the commons public good delivery (maybe set a minimum number of days labour). Rights would remain untouched, still overseen through the Commons Association as a means by which to manage livestock on the common.

- Don’t touch/alter the system for fear of dragging it all up again and traumatizing a new generation.

Problem: “There are always a small number who are difficult whether that’s graziers or land owners”

Potential solutions:

- Link people’s agreements to their home farm so that their home farm payment can be targeted if they do something detrimental to the interests of the commoners as a whole.

- Rather than have a scorecard for the home farm and a scorecard for the common (which could be linked in terms of administration) make one scorecard which covers ELMs from Tier 1-3. This means that individuals will never be able to increase their payment significantly until they take steps of some kind to work collaboratively with other farmers on landscape management, if they have commons rights then commons would be the logical way for them to do this.

- An output based system is more dependent on evidence to deliver payment, if the system requires more evidence might it be easier to prove where there are problem cases and this might allow the Commoner’s Council or another governance body to take action?

Problem: “at the moment a lot of money is paid to people who don’t do anything”

Potential solutions:

- Only pay those who can evidence they’re actively involved in managing the land in that they’re grazing it, actively managing it by some other means or helping to do the monitoring/evaluating for the agreement. If agreements start to be linked to individual farmers/commoners, rather than the commons as a whole, and commoners are paid their share on an individual basis this becomes more feasible. E.g. Use a shared website as management platform for the commons agreement through which (maybe via an app) people can submit photos and other evidence of what they’re delivering on the commons (obviously a paper based alternative would also be required).

- Pay on the basis of farmers “bidding in” (reverse auction), volunteering what they can deliver on the commons in terms of public goods outcomes (catchment sensitive farming model) or doing a minimum number of days work on the common.

- Land owner payment is also based on their active participation.

- Make payment conditional on having an SBI number.

Problem: “stock don’t look at maps” (i.e. they often stray onto other commons which can cause negative impacts for other people’s commons agreements)

Potential solutions:

- Change the geographical framework for agreements on the common e.g. move to a whole Dartmoor approach, use physical features to create new management areas or historic lears.

- Is this where new technology can help? E.g. GPS locators on stock or invisible electric fences etc. Could the use of such technology become a scheme requirement?

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Advisory Team Meeting Notes

The Advisory Team met virtually on the 10th of September with the intention of developing solutions to the problems identified with commons agreements as outlined in this blog: www.dartmoorhillfarmpro

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