Gathering cattle from South Tawton Common

I was out on Belstone Common today when I saw three hill-farmers gathering in their herd of Galloway Cattle. I first spotted them on  South Tawton Common on the slopes of Cosdon Hill, they then crossed the Taw at the ‘horseshoe’ ford and followed the track back to the village of Belstone.

Unfortunately only had my phone with me opposed to an SLR so the the pictures aren’t brilliant but nevertheless I like them and it was a great spectacle to watch.

Crossing the Taw

Back to the Moor Gate

Off the Common now for the winter

And home

Kivells livestock market

I haven’t been to a livestock market since I was a teenager when I used to go to Holsworthy market with my Uncle. Today I went to Kivells market in Exeter on the Marsh Barton Trading Estate. To the non farmer they can appear pretty intimidating.

Listen to the auctioneer

This short clip is of the auctioneer selling a single animal!

The selling of the sheep is much less frenetic

Sheep gathering – Buckfastleigh Common

By law each year all sheep have to be removed from the Commons of Dartmoor to help control ticks – this happens during November. The ewes are also put to the ram – known as tupping. This year on Buckfastleigh Common, Russell Ashford invited the public to come and watch him gather in his sheep. Here are my pictures from the day.

One man and his dog

BBC Spotlight were there to film the gathering

This quote from James Rebanks – the Lake District hill-farmer and author of the Shepherd’s Life is very appropriate to Dartmoor as well

“Our farming way of life has roots deeper than five thousand years into the soil of this landscape. Taking my sheep down those lanes is what people have done here since the land was first settled. That is what these lanes are for, to let the little farmsteads access the mountain grazing. I am walking in the footsteps of my ancestors, and living a life they lived.”

Explaining to the public various intricacies of Scotch Blackfaced Sheep

We were also treated to a mini sheep dog trial run by Kenny Watson, a Dartmoor hill-farmer and highly respected shepherd from Postbridge

Hill-farming faces many challenges in the months and years to come – not least because as a result of Brexit the system for paying subsidies to farmers is going to change. Hill-farmers rely on the Basic Payment Scheme and agri-environmental payments as the moors are marginal land but without Commoners the Commons can’t be managed for their ‘public goods’ (wildlife, archaeology, water supply, carbon storage, access and recreation).

This event was a celebration of culture and tradition (tradition on a quad bike)

Thoroughly enjoyable – I suspect in the future we will see more of these types of event. I hope so.

Beating the Bounds of Gidleigh Common

Every 7 years the boundary of Gidleigh Common is walked and the marked boundary stones are re-found and cleaned. 150 people attended and had a pasty and a pint under Wild Tor. The traditional ‘races’ were then held before everyone continued on to Throwleigh. We started at 10am and finished at 6pm. A celebration of Commons at a time when they have never been under greater threat. Here are some of my photographs and thoughts from yesterday.

Apparently Gidleigh has one of the the smallest areas of in-bye on Dartmoor but has one of the largest Commons. Today there are just four active Commoning families left – the largest on the Common being the Jordans. Here are John and Robert Jordan at the Kes Tor moorgate.

Cleaning the boundary stone

An important social event for the Commoners and the Parish

Up to the Stone Rows – almost enveloped in Purple Moor Grass …. (Molinia)

Onto the Standing Stone – with Chagford Common beyond and Fernworthy Forest in the distance

Some cattle and Robert Jordan

Crispin Alford – to quote Julia Aglionby from the Foundation for Common Land ‘iconic people looking after iconic places’.

Crossing the North Teign

And up towards Watern Tor – note the two most common plants in the picture Purple Moor Grass and Western Gorse!

Robert Jordan cleaning a boundary stone

I’ve been to Watern Tor many times before but never seen it like this!

The gap in Watern Tor is called Thirlestone – to mark the bounds a pony is lead through

Crispin Alford at Watern

The Jordans

Coming down from Watern

The picnic under Wild Tor – the walkers being joined by 4 trailer loads of non walkers

After the pasty and the pint we were treated to dog racing – Emma Cunis and Marylou North

Various people racing events – not everybody made it!

2018 or 1960 or ……  Tradition runs deeps.

And a three-legged race

After lunch – onwards back to Throwleigh

Quite a scene!

Riding through the Western Gorse

The ‘key’ Gidleigh Commoners – proud people worried about their future and the condition of their Common – something we should all be worried about too – is it time we again trusted ‘local knowledge’ and facilitated the hill-farmers to help sort the Molinia and gorse mess out which the English Nature and Natural England prescriptions created?

John Jordan

Crispin Alford

Crispin Alford and Penny Warren cleaning a marker on Kennon Hill – history in the making. I love the fact that the horse paying attention too!

And back down to Throwleigh – look at all that gorse – oh my goodness.

A celebration of culture and tradition…..

The big question for me is when the Bounds of Gidleigh Common are walked in 7 years time what will the Common be like? It will have had to deal with Brexit, prescriptions and rules from Natural England, atmospheric pollution and more climate change … I worry. Will it still be dominated by Purple Moor Grass and extensive areas of gorse?  Will John, Robert, Crispin, Penny, Marylou, David and Steven still be there?

Think about it.

Without Commoners the Commons can’t be managed for their ‘public goods’.

It is time to get our collective act together – time is running out.

It is time for some real leadership but from who?

Natural England? Dartmoor Commoners Council? Dartmoor National Park Authority?

Why not all of you …..

Please …. someone…..

Finally found the secret waterfall

Been on Holme Moor today doing a ‘reccy’ and finally found the secret waterfall below Venford Dam. Here are a few pictures. The waterfall is down from the dam but be careful it is a 300m plus walk down the river – the ‘path’ is tricky and there is no phone reception. Unlike me – go with a friend – you could easily end up in the river or twist your ankle or worse. Do as I say, not as I do …

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Beavers – the Roadford project- fabulous

Just had one of those brilliant evenings that you don’t forget – been to the Enclosed Beaver Project north of Roadford Reservoir. As an ecologist and conservationist I was blown away – I had heard and read what beavers do to the landscape and indeed I have seen it with my own eyes in Latvia but now I have seen it in Devon! Not only did we see the work of the beavers, their impact and their benefits we actually saw a beaver too! My first in the UK.  A big thanks to John Morgan, the site owner and Peter Burgess, Director of Development, Policy and Research at the Devon Wildlife Trust for showing us around – feel privileged – this project will prove ground breaking.

At the top of the 3ha site – ie where the water comes in – apparently before the project this was an even aged block of tall willow woodland – it isn’t now!

This may look like a man-made culvert – it isn’t – this is a channel created by beavers as they drag vegetation around the site to make their dams and lodges – wow wow wow. Due to the recent dry weather the site is very dry – this channel will be full of water again when the rains come again.

The front paw print of a beaver.

A wetland pool created by the beavers – this wasn’t here before they arrived – it is very dry at the moment due to the drought but you can see how rich this is for wetland wildlife compared to an even aged dense willow copse.

The Lodge i.e. the beavers’ home – they live in tunnels and under trees where the marsh thistle is growing. You can see even in this photo their footprint are everywhere in the mud.

Then there is the research …. courtesy of Prof Richard Brazier at Exeter University. This is the clincher – this is why we need beavers back in the countryside – they will make a real difference to us and our lives. This picture and graph shows how beaver can reduce downstream flooding. The blue line on the graph i.e. the spike (above beaver) shows an enormous rise in water levels following a rain episode – the red line (below beaver) shows what has happened to that spike once the rain has flowed through the area managed by the beavers – they have removed the spike and massively reduced the chance of a flash flood downstream.

And here are the benefits beavers generate regarding water quality: a reduction of sediment in the river (and eventually in Roadford Reservoir) and a reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus (i.e. fertilisers we dont want in our drinking water). Dissolved organic carbon does increase but this shows that although more carbon is released than from farmland (which is depleted of carbon in the soil = bad), wetland are very carbon rich (= good) and therefore release some to the water. Carbon rich soils help us fight climate change but do lead to browner water which then has to be treated. Overall though the beavers have done us a massive favour here regarding water quality.

Tremendous Devon Wildlife Trust summary report download here.

In my view this project and the research associated with it will see the beaver back in the English countryside as a free living animal within 10 years – it is long overdue, they will save us as a society a fortune in ‘hard’ flood defence works and they will give us huge pleasure when we see them for ourselves doing  their thing.

I really hope I am right – if you agree with me join the Devon Wildlife Trust – they have got us to this point and they want to take it forwards. They are also leading on the River Otter beaver project see here.

The day the Commons came alive

Over night the Commons on Dartmoor turned green. I was at this exact spot on Thursday and the landscape was brown – a bit of rain and sunshine and the grass starts growing. A late spring but nevertheless a natural miracle. Magical Challacombe, magical Dartmoor.

When there is grass – the sheep come – I could have been standing here 900 years ago and seen the same sight. The sheep leave their in-bye (enclosed fields) and head for their summer grazing on the Commons.

Hundreds of sheep passed – Welsh Mountains and Scotch Black faces

Chivied along by two Dartmoor horse riding shepherdesses

Nearly there

Job done for another year (well, at least getting the sheep to the Common).

And right beside the drove are the rhos pastures – Dartmoor’s very, very special wet meadows – the Shire without the Ringwraithes – heaven on earth if you don’t mind wet feet. This is my favourite place on the  moor. I have spent hours and hours here over the years – it is truely magical and it never disappoints.

Marsh fritillary – one of our rarest species – I saw 20 today

And small pearl bordered fritillary – also very rare and threatened

A spider on a cotton grass flower head

The exquisite flower of the Bog Bean

What a day – epic – never let anyone tell you Dartmoor is wrecked – it is fabulous and has a history, which you can see today, going back thousands of years.