Authorities tell families in green-minded co-operative they must leave, claiming they have harmful impact on Devon park.
A community of green-minded co-operative workers are facing eviction from their hillside home after planners on the Dartmoor national park authority decided they were not welcome.
The planners ruled that Steward Community Woodland, which was established at the turn of the century within a conifer plantation, had a harmful impact on the character and appearance of the Devon park – and on rare wildlife including bats, dormice and otters (although there is no viable otter habitat within the community and the woodlanders insist they have hugely improved biodiversity on their 32-acre plot).
“We’re feeling under huge pressure, it’s very intense and very worrying,” said Daniel Thompson-Mills, a founder of the community, which came into being as an experiment in permaculture. “It’s amazing living here. We’re surrounded by nature and are able to interact with it in a beautiful way.”
Dartmoor hunter gatherers – Daniel Thompson-Mills. https://t.co/riGnVrNpfh
— steven morris (@stevenmorris20) March 3, 2016
The homes, made of timber produced on site or nearby and of other recycled bits and bobs, blend within the landscape, even at this time of year when the trees are bare. They have wood-burning stoves and some have turf roofs. Solar and hydro power provide the electricity – a community stalwart called Merlin is the whizz behind the site’s sustainable energy schemes.
“This community is about taking responsibility for our environment,” said Thompson-Mills, a bushcraft teacher and storyteller. “We grow as much food as we can; we generate power from water and the sun; we gather firewood for our stoves. I believe we are much more in touch with what it means to live on this planet than living in a conventional way.”
It hurts that the planners suggest they are harming the environment. “We have a very positive influence on this woodland through our active management of it. We see ourselves as guardians or caretakers of this land. Humans are part of the ecology, not separate from it. We’re enmeshed within this woodland.”
But this is no hippy-dippy community. Many residents have “conventional jobs”, ranging from primary school teaching assistant to photographer to woodturner.
At the communal fire pit, Sonia Parsons, who has brought up three children at Steward Woodland, said she would be heartbroken if they had to move on. “The children would lose their whole way of life. They consider the other children who live here their family; they consider the birds and the animals their family, too.”
Dartmoor hunter gatherers – Sonia Parsons https://t.co/a9W3sgXeSe
— steven morris (@stevenmorris20) March 3, 2016
Parsons said her children had never craved television. “They get so much out of watching the birds, the insects, the flames from the fireplace.” She recalls when hornets built a nest on their home. The children watched fascinated at the interplay between the insects and birds. Parsons has never had to give them antibiotics. Instead, as the resident community herbologist, she turns the plants she finds into syrups, balms and tonics.
The park authority is unimpressed. Though the community owns the land and has twice been given temporary planning permission, the development management committee has refused to grant permanent permission.
As well as making general comments about the harmful effect it felt the site could have on the character of the area and the wildlife, the planning committee expressed concerns over what would happen if the site was hit by larch disease and the trees had to be felled. “The visual impact of the development could be substantial if large areas of larch had to be removed,” it said.
Committee members also appeared to have little time for the residents’ attempts to live differently. “The land use by the community has been experimental and lacks coordinated and robust evaluation,” the committee concluded.
John Elsworthy and Sonia Parsons with their daughter, Asha, and son, Marley
John Elsworthy and Sonia Parsons with their daughter, Asha, and son, Marley. Photograph: Jim Wileman
The 14 adults, five children and four teenagers who live on the site were given until this summer to move. But they have not taken the decision lying down.
They have appealed and a public inquiry will take place next month. They have also launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise the £38,000 they say they need to fund a legal team to fight their cause. As of Thursday they had raised £25,000 within nine days.
The fact that it is not a closed-off community has helped the fundraising effort. Local residents come and help work the communal growing area; others arrive from further afield (a South Korean helper may have been the most unexpected visitor). Schoolchildren are invited in to learn woodland and growing skills.
There are a few local naysayers but most seem supportive. Tom Greeves, the chairman of the Dartmoor Society, a group that aims to promote the wellbeing of the area, said: “We admire the tenacity and dedication over 15 years of this small group of men, women and children who have opted for a very different lifestyle to that enjoyed by most of us.”
Eighteen-year-old Marley, a musician and chef, was to be found strumming his guitar at his family’s cosy wooden home. He said growing up in the woods had made him feel more creative, more in tune with nature. “I don’t feel I’ve missed out on anything. I’ve met so many great people by living here. I can’t imagine growing up in an ordinary house. We all like it here. We want to stay.”
They’ve raised £41,933 in just 20 days after media attention from UK news sites.
Last week was a whirlwind. The degree of media attention (not to mention press cameras) that we experienced was overwhelming, and the fact that we reached our first target of £38,000 in the crowdfunder caught us drop-jawed and amazed. We’ve taken stock this weekend and after all the high drama, are back to the business of trying to save our community from eviction, to save our homes and this existence on the land we own and love.