The mystery of clearing the Wildwood on Dartmoor

One of the greatest mysteries for me is how the Wildwood on Dartmoor (and elsewhere) was destroyed by Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age people. Archaeologists suggest that from the 6th and 5th millennia B.C. (or if you prefer 8000-7000 years before the present {BP}) there was an intense period of burning on both the north and south parts of high Dartmoor (Caseldine and Hatton 1993). This has been demonstrated from the paleo-environmental data. This research involves taking peat cores and analysing their contents – the peat contains the pollen of plants that were growing on Dartmoor along with charcoal fragments. The different depths of the peat can then be carbon dated so a sequence of plants communities and evidence of human activity (e.g. the charcoal) can be constricted over the millennia.

Mesolithic (or Middle Stone Age people) lived from 10,000  to 5,500 BP and were hunter gathers. They were hunting deer, elk and aurochsen (a species of wild cattle) and foraging wild food such as berries and nuts. It is therefore these people who were using fire to first start clearing the Wildwood.

Auroch 3

I don’t dispute the evidence – the charcoal is clearly present in the peat but as the late and great Oliver Rackham has said and written on many occasions native British woodlands ‘burn like wet asbestos’ (Rackham 2006 p56). The one species of native tree that will burn whilst alive and growing is Scot’s Pine. However by the time that the burning began pine had all but disappeared from Dartmoor for assumed climatological reasons. If you want to burn native deciduous trees you first have to cut them down, create a tightly packed pile and then ignite it. Is this what happened? That is also implausible – the period we are talking about is the Mesolithic / Neolithic – they would have had to use stone axes and at that time population densities were very low. A true mystery (at least for me).

More recently Ralph Fyfe and Jessie Woodbridge (2012 & see also Fyfe et al 2016) have published a really intriguing paper which includes pollen diagrams for Dartmoor.  You can download it here,  the paper ‘presents palaeo-ecological data from Dartmoor  to test two hypotheses: (1) that vegetation character of moorland is spatially homogenous (i.e. the same across Dartmoor) through the past 8,000 years; and (2) that burning has a significant role in the development of open, grass- dominated, vegetation’.

Their work found that the vegetation on Dartmoor was in fact quite varied, in places woodland on high Dartmoor persisted until the Iron Age (i.e. 2500 BP) and they also concluded that grazing and not fire had played the significant role in producing the open grass-dominated landscape we know today. They concluded ‘Today moorlands tend towards predominantly mono-specific blanket mire communities, of either Molinia or Calluna. Restoration of these landscapes should seek to promote the diverse mosaic that is recognised in palaeo-ecological data- sets, such as those presented here‘. This is a very interesting conclusion – Dartmoor was a much more varied place than we originally thought with high woodland and scrub persisting in quantity until the Iron Age. It is also very significant to hear archaeologists seeking a more diverse series of habitats including woodland and scrub to be incorporated into the restoration plans for the moor – this contrasts significantly with what other historic landscape voices have called for on the moor in recent times.

Of course there were significant areas of open ‘moor’ during the Neolithic (New Stone Age). This is the period of our history when the domestication of animals began along with the start of cultivation. This occurred 5,500 – 4000 years BP and was the time when the stone rows and stone circles were built, structures which whatever their purpose was, needed to in open landscapes to align with the sun etc.

Trowlesworthy double stone row and circle

Next comes the Bronze Age and with it settlements in the form of hut circles and territory markers in the reaves. It is the time of the Whitehorse Hill burial (see here) and now that we know that Dartmoor still contained significant areas of woodland it perhaps gives more weight to the idea that the bear skin that was found in the cist was from a local animal opposed to one that had been imported from afar.

Bronze Age Hut

All of this though still leaves the central question unanswered – how were the trees cleared in the first place?

One final theory may shed some light on this matter but I must caution the reader that this theory is controversial and many more arguments have been put forward to dismiss it than ones supporting it. This is the Dutchman Frans Vera’s hypothesis – the savannah or wood pasture model set out in his book Grazing Ecology and Forest History (you can download the book here)

Vera’s work suggested that the wildwood was not a closed canopy woodland but a savannah with groves of trees spread throughout. The grasslands were maintained by grazing animals such as aurochsen, elk and deer. Tree such as oak were able to regenerate amongst the scrub that formed in less grazed areas and from these areas new groves would form.

This is contested territory see here for a paleo-environmental perspective and here for an English Nature suite of papers on the topic. Rackham in Woodlands (2006) also critiques the hypothesis (pages 90-101) and whilst he is critical he doesn’t dismiss it out of hand.

If Vera is right it would certainly have made it easier for the Mesolithic hunters who would have been able to hide in the groves and launch attacks on nearby grazing animals on the plains. His theory would also drastically reduce the numbers of trees that needed to be removed to create an open landscape. Perhaps also the aurochsen were habitat manipulators rather like elephants on the African savannah? This is all speculation and the distinct lack of multiple fossil records of aurochsen  means that we have no evidence to determine the population densities of the grazing animals during the Mesolithic.

Auroch 2

The question remains unanswered as to how the wildwood was removed, but maybe paleo-environmentalists and historical ecologists will shed more light on it in the coming years.

Caseldine C. J. & Hatton J. (1993) ‘The development of high moorland on Dartmoor: fire and the influence of Mesolithic activity on vegetation change in Chambers, F.M. (ed.) Climate Change and Human Impact on the Landscape, 119-131.

Fyfe R.M. & Woodbridge J. (2012) Differences in time and space in vegetation patterning: analysis of pollen data from Dartmoor, UK. Landscape Ecology 27: 746-760.

Fyfe R. M., Blackford J.J., Hardiman M., Hazell Z., MacLeoad A.,Perez M. & Littlewood S. (2016) The environment of the Whitehorse Hill Cist. In Jones (2016) pp158-181

Rackham O. (2006) Woodlands. Collins New Naturalist.

12 thoughts on “The mystery of clearing the Wildwood on Dartmoor

  1. I’m with Vera on this Adrian and I dont believe there was ever a true ‘Wildwood’ on Dartmoor.

    AS soon as the ice finally retreated humans and grazing animals followed in it’s wake. AS quckly as trees re-colonised so did the grazers and hunter gatherers so only the valleys became densely wooded.

    One source of confusion arises from the term ‘Forest of Dartmoor’ which many people have interpreted quite literally.

  2. I suspect dartmoor was the same sort of dynamic mosaic that we still see in the New Forest, maintained by domestic large herbivores and originally created by the suite of late tertiary megafauna of which we were a part. Vera’s theory is the only one that makes sense in terms of biogoegraphy and ecology, and I don’t confine that to Dartmoor.

  3. I have a lot of sympathy with both Ralph’s and Jessie’s conclusions and the Vera hypothesis as reconstructing the nature of the spatial character of the landscape always proved problematic and indeed still does. The issue with the microscopic charcoal is that it is very episodic in its presence in a way that is difficult to interpret ‘naturally’ so I still favour a human cause but as to what they actually did and its impact that jus likely to remain a matter of some speculation, as are issues like the density of animals/people and hence their impact on the ecosystem. With regard to hunting I was always impressed by work in the Rockies on game drives, quite subdued stone features in the landscape that allowed game to be driven to hunters and always wondered whether they could be found on Dartmoor. Despite the recent research I still would favour the survival of relatively ‘wild’wood especially near steep valley sides, plus an opening up of the summits as peat spread. As to the land in between I feel sure there were more trees that may have appeared, especially times of lower population pressure – we need to remember that the palaeo record smooths out the evidence over long time periods and the time resolution in peats on Dartmoor is very poor, so a potentially complex landscape is very much evened out in the available records

  4. Amazing how often this blog intersects with one’s own lines of thought.

    Just the other day I was sitting looking down at Tavy Cleave and wondering who cleared it of trees, when, how – and why? And then wondering whether it was ever as heavily wooded as, say, the Dart below Dartmeet, or if the “natural” landscape wasn’t always somewhat different in different places?

    I have many questions and no answers. But I do wonder if the answers, if we can ever know them, are perhaps rather varied and localised. What happened in one spot may be significantly different to others quite nearby. Perhaps highly site specific narratives are part of this thing.

    • That’s very interesting BUT it doesn’t explain how they managed to get deciduous trees (‘like wet asbestos’) to burn! Maybe another indication of the Vera theory …… Thanks for the reference A

  5. Whatever the true ancient history of Dartmoor may be – and I have found this post extremely interesting – one thing is very clear. In this country. We have virtually no wilderness left. It is a hugely under-valued landscape and where there are fragments, or even small areas of land that have not been “managed” in the last few hundred years or so, they should be protected with every possible means at our disposal. We change our landscape all the time – doing in days, weeks, years those things that nature does infinitely slowly and surely over aeons of time. Allowing even a few small areas to be truly wild would give us a most precious resource.

  6. Fascinating stuff. I’ve often wondered when and how Dartmoor became devoid of woodland and became the moor we recognise today.

  7. Great article. I came across this when researching bronze age Devon for some fiction I may write but found the ideas quite fascinating. A few things spring to mind (I have a background in environmental biology and agriculture as well as a love of history)
    Firstly not all native trees burn like wet asbestos, hawthorn burns very well and hot, when green. Secondly periodic burning is a feature of many pre industrial farming cultures so its use as a technique is likely to have been widespread from early times.
    Thirdly the demand for fuel during the bronze age especially for mining would have been high.
    Fourthly goats and sheep are fantastic at preventing tree and shrub regrowth in a way that native animals such as aurochs and deer would not be. Where goats and sheep are excluded forest thrives and I would hazard a guess that natural regeneration of forest would take place today without sheep.
    I don’t dismiss the idea that tree cover might have been sparser on some parts of the moor however I think it not so likely. The whole area is suitable for forest, forests will create their own soil over centuries and trees are well adapted to a wide variety of climates in Britain. The grazing animals present in Britain at this time would surely have had to have a vast area of migration to maintain a population in savannah like vegetation. I don’t know if there is the evidence to support that, maybe someone has that knowledge.
    Deforestation seems to be a feature of Mediterranean bronze age cultures (iwood is the predominant item for both fuel and manufacturing) and widespread and long lasting drought in that area was present during the time of the bronze age collapse.I wonder if there were climatic events that contributed to Dartmoor deforestation.
    Lastly all the change takes place over a huge time period, small erosions of forest/wood over each generation would have a cumulative big effect – regardless of burning events.

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