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.

Red kites and white horses

On the way back from the East of England yesterday we stopped briefly at Uffington White Horse Hill in Oxfordshire – the highest point in the county which hosts the 3000 year old Bronze Age stylised white horse carved into the chalk.

Red kite 2
It was glorious weather and a number of red kites were flying, gliding and soaring around the site

Red kite 1
Twenty years ago there would have been no red kites here – one of our conservation success stories

Red kite 3
I never tire of watching red kites – one day soon they will recolonise Devon …..

The Uffington White Horse – carved into the species rich chalk grassland 3000 years ago – a time when Wessex was part of the Celtic nation …..

Uffington-White-Horse-sat Wikimedia Commons

It is hard to see the horse in all its glory from the ground – here is a view from the air – courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
By USGS – World Wind (go), Public Domain,

St George's
Nearby is Dragon Hill – the place where St George slew the dragon!

A magical place for its wildlife, its archaeology, legends and views – from the hill top you can look at six English counties – well worth a visit if you are passing – the site is owned and managed by the National Trust.