The wildfire site at Gidleigh

I’ve been back to Gidleigh Common today to see what the wildfire area (April 2018) looks like this spring.

The wildfire area is the green bit. The brown bits are the areas of ungrazed Molinia (Purple Moor Grass) which were not affected by the fire. The rocks on the skyline top right are Watern Tor.

Just to the south is the rest of Gidleigh Common, part of Chagford Common and the new takes up to Sittaford Tor. As you can see the majority of it is dominated by Molinia.

Amongst the green bits were five different herds of cattle – all Galloways or Belted Galloways – the black dots in the picture. The cattle were only grazing in the fire area and none in the Molinia. These cattle are not Gidleigh Common cattle – they have been drawn in from elsewhere – mainly the Forest of Dartmoor. The cattle love the new sweet grass that grows after a fire. That is good for the burnt area but bad for the unburnt areas which simply become more overgrown. It looks there will be no grazing this year (again) in places like the flanks of Hangingstone Hill (see yesterday’s blog – here).

The Gidleigh Galloways (and some ponies) were grazing to the north on an area that was burnt 7 years ago but has been grazed every year since. Again the areas of Molinia to the right are untouched.

Too much Molinia and not enough cattle ….

Gidleigh Commoners are currently trialling winter grazing of Galloways – they won’t eat much of the Molinia in the winter but they do trample it down. The winter feeding of the cattle is being done sympathetically by good shepherding and there appears to be no detrimental effects.

What for the future?

Some hill-farmers advocate new light burns each year in adjacent Molinia patches to lure the cattle onto the new growth. But without more cattle (which hill-farm economics does not really encourage) it is hard to see how the Molinia problem can be ‘solved’ on the Home Commons such as Gidleigh – let alone the massive Forest of Dartmoor Common which is now largely a Molinia jungle.

This whole topic is down for debate at the Dartmoor Commoners Council meeting this Wednesday …..should be interesting but I bet there won’t be a consensus.

 

 

A ray of hope in the Forest?

I went for a long walk on Dartmoor yesterday up into the Forest of Dartmoor. For those of you not familiar with the area it is dominated these day by Molinia – Purple Moor grass. Walking is only comfortable if you follow defined tracks as the vegetation is now very overgrown and under grazed.

Here is the view from the flanks over Hangingstone Hill looking over towards Steeperton Tor and the Belstone Ridge. The light coloured vegetation is Molinia and the darker patches in the middle distance are areas of heather (Calluna vulgaris).

Here is a close up version of the same habitat. As you can see the vegetation is ungrazed. Historically this area would have been grazed and summer grazing by cattle along with their winter trampling would have controlled the growth.

I have been to this area many times over the past 18 months and have never seen any cattle up here, only a handful of sheep and a herd of ponies. The ponies too can make a difference but their numbers are much reduced and there are now few incentives for hill-farmers to increase their pony numbers.

However there is an area between Okement Hill and Hangingstone Hill where there is still an active lear (an area where stock have been shepherded to remain and graze). Here the area has been grazed in the summer and the Molinia growth has been eaten. In addition the heather is thriving.

If only this could be replicated over the thousands of acres of ungrazed Molinia on the moor but sadly the shepherding practices and numbers of cattle required currently aren’t in place and moorland economics make such a prospect remote. Something for the new Environmental Land Management Schemes to address?

The web of life – badgers, bees and bee-flies

So here is a badger foraging in my garden

It digs holes and scrapes in its search for food

And then …. a Tawny Mining Bee (Andrena fulva) excavates her nest in one of the badger scrapes – the entrance looks like a little volcano.

And this is the female Tawny Mining Bee who excavated this nest

And here she is emerging from her nest

Lurking nearby is the Dark Bordered Bee-fly (Bombylious major) which is a parasitoid i.e. it lays it egg in the burrow of the Tawny Mining Bee (and other species) – its larvae then eat the larvae of the bee

Also lurking in the nearby flower bed is Gooden’s Nomad Bee (Nomada goodeniana) – another parasitoid species, but this a bee not a fly and fortunately for the Tawny Mining Bee it lays its eggs in the nests of other Mining Bee species

And all of this happening in my back garden in Exeter over the past couple of weeks …..

A walk around the south moor

I’ve been out on the south moor today with Rob Steemson, the DNPA’s longest serving Ranger, great company and glorious weather. We were reccying a few sites, looking at the vegetation condition and looking at a few places suffering from erosion.

We started near Peat Cot and headed down the recently restored ‘yellow brick road’ to Nunn’s Cross and onto the Eylesbarrow Tin Mine and then over Plym Steps and onto the Abbott’s Way and up to Broad Rock.

This is a boundary marker stone between Willing Walls and Hentor Common (owned by the National Trust) and the Forest of Dartmoor.

Plenty of frog’s spawn around

Down to the very impressive Erme Pits

We then followed the Blacklane Brook up to Duck’s Pool (where the mire is soon to be restored using DEFRA funding)

This is the location of the second ever ‘Letterbox’ on Dartmoor (the first being Cranmere Pool)

There is a memorial plaque there in honour of William Crossing

And the box containing the letter boxing paraphernalia tells the story

Duck’s Pool comes complete with ducks …..

Then north up the peat pass to Fox Tor and Fox Tor Mire beyond. The smoke in the middle distance is from a bit of swaling taking place in a New Take near to the West Dart.

Here’s the route – it’s about 9 miles – much of it is pretty remote ….. so ….. make sure you are suitably equipped if you want to try it out.

A January afternoon on the high moor

Just for a change I went up onto Dartmoor this afternoon!

I went in search of the herd of Highland cattle which inhabit the Commons between the Warren House Inn, Headland Warren and Hameldown, spent a lot of time searching but to no avail! Facebook tells me they are still there …. somewhere!

Nevertheless found plenty of other things to look at and photograph – here are a few of my pictures.

A Swaledale near Headland Warren

Scotties near Headland Warren

Down the Challacombe Valley

On the drove up to Great Mis Tor

South Devons at a ring-feeder on the in-bye near Postbridge

A new perspective on the Postbridge clapper bridge

Scotch Blackface sheep under a busy Haytor

Saddle Tor via a Lensball

Take 2

Sunset at Saddle Tor

The sheep i.e. the ewes are now back on the Commons having been tupped (mated) by the rams – the Dartmoor farming year keeps turning.

 

My 25 favourite Dartmoor photographs of 2018

As the year comes to an end I thought I would look back at my favourite photographs that I have taken in 2018 on Dartmoor – I think they capture the spirit of the place along with the people who work there and those who enjoy it.

The day the Commons turned green after some rain and the grass started growing – the sheep and cattle go to the Common

Beating the Bounds at Gidleigh Common – Penny Warren and Crispin Alford clean the boundary stone – even the horse is paying attention

A marsh fritillary at Challacombe – a special butterfly at a very special place

Russell Ashford ‘gathering’ his sheep from Buckfastleigh West Common

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.”

The Reddaways ‘gathering’ their Galloways from South Tawton Common in Belstone

One man and his dog
John Jordan crossing the Teign on Gidleigh Common whilst herding his Galloways – hardcore

A little bit of soft wilding on Lydford Common

Our National Trust 10 Tors Team complete their challenge

Arms Tor across to Bray Tor

A cuckoo at Emsworthy

My friends from the Devon and Exeter Squash and Racketball Club at High Willhays

Sunset at Scorhill on the Solstice with my friend Steph

Kes Tor during the heatwave

The Tolman Stone on the Teign on Gidleigh Common with Dizzy, Nicolas and Annabelle – inappropriate footwear but all was well ….

A Highland cow near Headland Warren

A walk to Wistman’s Wood with friends

Leather Tor from Sheep’s Tor

Stand and Deliver
Widecombe Fair – The Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Ponies: the Dartmoor Hillies Warriors

Swaling on Haytor and Bagtor Common

Lunch during 10 Tors training in the rain in the Forest of Dartmoor

‘Iconic people looking after Iconic places’
Julia Aglionby Director of the Foundation for Common Land

The Gidleigh Commoners – proud people worried about their future and the condition of their Common – too much Western Gorse and Purple Moor Grass (Molinia)

Crispin Alford – a Dartmoor Commoner  who still tends his flocks and herds on horseback

Sheep gathering near Wotter – the quad bike boys

Black a Tor Copse

One of John Cooper’s Herdwicks on Okehampton Common