Preserved in the peat

This book has recently been published about the excavation of the Whitehorse Hill cist on Dartmoor. I have written about this before – see here, here and here.

It is a detailed and technical book which discusses  the finds in the cist from the bear pelt to the beads and the human remains etc. There is also a chapter on the landscape where the cairn was found which has been determined via pollen analysis. Some of the radiocarbon dating work for this is ongoing but the data appears to show that the area was a mix of bog and oak hazel woodland.
peat
Will be delving more into this book over the Christmas period.

If you want a less technical book on the topic I can recommend this one

WH3Available from the DNPA at Princetown, Haytor and Postbridge Information Centres

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.

References
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.

A new chapter begins – I start my PhD this week

After working for 33 years for environmental charities (The National Trust, The Wildlife Trusts and RSPB) I have decided to do something different! This week sees the start of my work on a PhD at the University of Exeter in the Department of Politics.

exeter-id-card

Below is my research proposal which was drawn up prior to us voting to leave the European Union.

The conflicts on Dartmoor’s Commons
– the politics of farming and the environment

Dartmoor has always divided opinions – to some it is England’s last wilderness, to others it is an open farmed and cultural landscape, many describe it as bleak and dangerous whilst others enjoy nothing more than endlessly exploring it. Overlaying the opinions Dartmoor is internationally important for its wildlife habitats and its historic environment, it provides a home and livelihood to the Commoners and others, it is the source of much Devon’s drinking water and in its blanket bogs is a huge store of carbon.

Dartmoor has been a place of great change since the Neolithic period when the wildwood started to be cleared for agriculture. Today change is driven by economics, environmental policy, the public’s desire for recreation and by climate change.

Trying to accommodate so many disparate objectives against the drivers of change has proven difficult and divisive. This division has often been portrayed as a conflict between farming and the environment – a battle between ‘town and country’. This approach though misrepresents the situation. There are also tensions within the farming community – a modern day ‘ tragedy of the Commons’ and the environmental sector is not united, often holding very different views based upon sectional interests and objectives.

The purpose of this PhD is to research various aspects of these conflicts to understand better the various stakeholders’ aspirations and anxieties.

I will use a range of methods such as literature review, expert judgment, focus groups, and interviews. I will not be setting out quadrats and doing vegetation and soil analysis. In other words, that this is essentially a social science thesis but one deeply infirmed by my own and other’s environmental management experience.

Proposed themes of research

  1. A literature review which contextualizes the Commons’ conflicts and discusses why the current policies, funding streams and plans have not been as effective as hoped.
  1. Moorland Condition. This topic is at the heart of debate. Natural England assess that the majority of Dartmoor’s designated Commons (Special Areas of Conservation and Sites of Special Scientific Interest) are not in ‘favourable condition’ despite a regulatory framework and decades of environmental farming subsidies.

Areas of research to include: Are Dartmoor’s Commons undergrazed or overgrazing, excessively burnt or swaled appropriately? Why is heather such a contentious plant? Why do the Commoners not trust Natural England or their management prescriptions, Is a ‘favourable condition’ approach the right approach?

  1. The Historic Environment. Dartmoor’s historic landscape is as important as its ecological one but many archaeologists are concerned that not enough attention is given to its conservation when compared to the management for wildlife. There are also a range of views amongst archaeologists and paleo-botanists which are seldom heard by a wider audience as they are not so well represented by vocal and powerful NGOs.

Areas of research to include: What do archaeologists want to happen on the Commons, what about bracken and heather, what do the paleo-botanists want?

  1. The Cultural Environment and upland farm economics

At the heart of the debate are 175 farmers and their families who manage the Commons. They appear to feel increasingly threatened and fear that their traditions are being lost as a result of policies driven by various parts of Government and NGOs

Areas of research to include: Detailed analysis of views, what do they want, what is their role / responsibility in delivering ecosystem services, how do they see their prospects in the future, what is their views on subsidies, grazing levels, swaling etc?

  1. Mire restoration

In recent years additional emphasis has been placed on the conservation of Dartmoor’s peat and in particular the blanket bog. Trial projects have been conducted over the past 5 years in partnership with South West Water and various academic institutes. These projects have proven to be surprisingly controversial with some Commoners and some archaeologists.

Areas of research to include: Analysis of need and scope of mire restoration on the Commons, why were the trials so controversial, what needs to be done in the future?

  1. Re-wilding

The re-wilding’ debate on Dartmoor has been fierce and highly contested. Does re-wilding or ‘soft’ re-wilding have any role to play when it comes to biodiversity, farming or flood prevention?

Areas of research to include: What do the various stakeholders think, what do the paleo-botanists think, what might ‘soft re-wilding look like?

  1. Conclusions

Professor Michael Winter, Professor of Land, Economy and Society in the Land, Environment, Economics and Policy Institute in the Department of Politics  has agreed to be my supervisor. Dr Duncan Russel, Associate Professor in Environmental Policy is my second supervisor.

Over the coming weeks and months I will be refining this especially in the context of the post Brexit world we now live in.

 

 

The curious case of the Dartmoor Forest Plan

I like to think I know what is going on, on Dartmoor but sometimes I really don’t. The curious case of the Dartmoor Forest Plan is one such occasion. The Forestry Commission issued a consultation document in March on how it intended to manage its forest estate (Fernworthy, Bellever, Soussans and Brimpts) into the future. Comments had to be submitted by April.

You can download and read the Plan here – part 1here – part 2here – part 3here – part 4 and here – part 5. There are also 4 appendices which you can read here for 1here for 2here for 3 and here for 4 – the consultation comments and replies.

I only found out about it a couple of weeks ago after being contacted by Matthew Kelly, the historian and author of Quartz and Feldspar who has written a blog about it (see here) and was seeking my view on it.

I think it must have been a pretty low profile consultation – nothing has appeared on my social media feeds about it for three months and it is often by that route I discover what is going on. I suspect that the FC sent consultation documents to their formal consultees and a select band of NGOs.

In essence the documents set out the FC’s plans up to 2046. Greater thought will be given to wildlife and archaeology, access will be encouraged  but the primary plans centre on the Forests as places where commercial timber will be grown predominantly from conifer crops. There is a small increase of broadleaved species especially around the edges and there is a diversification of the species of conifer that will be planted.

From BelleverBellever
Bellever Forest from Bellever Tor

The coming years will see the current crop (predominantly Sitka Spruce) mature and be clear felled. At Fernworthy for example 40% of the forest will be clear felled by 2031. Sitka Spruce monocultures will not be replanted as it is now considered that due to climate change the Forests need to be diversified to make them more resilient. Instead a mix of Sitka Spruce, Noble Fir, Pacific Silver Fir, Douglas Fir, Norway Spruce and Wellingtonia, plus in a few places Willow, Birch,  Alder, Wych Elm, Swamp Cypress and Sycamore will be planted.

The 4 Dartmoor Forests in question were planted up (largely) in the 19th and early 20th centuries and managed by the FC (it is a complicated story which I have simplified here – see Quartz and Feldspar pp244-265 in the paperback edition for the full details). As well as being productive forests they have also become important places for wildlife in their own right harbouring a number of rare species such as goshawk, hobby, nightjar and for a short period of time Britain’s only breeding location for the red-backed shrike.

The FC acknowledges (and is indeed proud) of this wildlife asset and the plan addresses it. The Plan also takes steps to undo some of the brutalism of their earlier plantings where conifers were grown on top of Scheduled Ancient Monuments (SAMs). Once the trees have been felled the SAMs will be left open and managed for their archaeology. This is a step forward but isolated SAMs within a forest environment is not the same as an open historic landscape from whence they came.

Sousson's Stone Circle
A stone circle adjacent to Soussans Forest.

The Plan also acknowledges the impact that forestry has on water quality. Conifers acidify the soil and therefore the water and when fellings occur sediment / soil ends up in the water courses and ultimately in the rivers. Acidified waters with a peaty sediment load are not good for river wildlife such as salmon, dippers and grey wagtails along with their invertebrate prey.

These issues are potentially significant at Fernworthy with its adjacent reservoir which many of us rely on for our own drinking water. There are lengthy comments from the Environment Agency and the Devon Wildlife Trust on this topic (in appendix 4) which the FC have taken on board in addition to their own initial mitigation plan.

The other comments from the conservation bodies (RSPB, DWT and DNPA) largely consist of advice around how the existing Forest based wildlife can be enhanced along with a few words urging a higher proportion of broadleaved plantings.

Interestingly the comments don’t include anything about the potential species the FC are proposing to plant. The FC have invested a lot of time and money into producing a database which enables foresters to select suitable species to plant against the backdrop of a changing climate – see here. You simply type in a number of site variables and the database provides you with a long list of suitable exotic trees to plant to make the forest / woodland more resilient to climate change.

I have been a long time sceptic of this approach. The FC (and the rest of Government) use the UK Climate Prediction 09 dataset (produced by the scientists at the Hadley Centre and the Met Office in Exeter) – see here. This model compared to the previous version acknowledges the considerable uncertainties and as a result provides a probabilistic approach to future climate scenarios. Firstly there are 3 emission scenarios Low, Medium and High – which one of these is the Earth currently embarking on regarding its emission of greenhouse gases? You have to choose one. You then choose a climate variable e.g. Summer Mean Maximum Temperature.

Sum_Tmax_Med_2080s_large
© UK Climate Projections 2009
And this is the outcome – so on Dartmoor under the medium emissions scenario by 2080 the change in maximum summer temperature is very unlikely to be less than 3 degree C and very unlikely to be more than 9 degrees C. That is quite a range!

The maps also come with a health warning from the Met Office. “These maps are useful to communicate the main results of UKCP09 and raise awareness about climate change. When presenting UKCP09 projections using maps you should use a series of maps to show the range of possible outcomes. Here we have put together maps in series of 3 (showing the 10%, 50 % and 90% probability levels) for a range of climate variables. They are available for the 2020s, 2050s and 2080s and for low, medium and high emissions scenarios.”

DEFRA however in their document ‘Adapting to Climate Change – UK Climate predictions’, download here, present the data in a very different way which gives the outcome a much more predictable fate.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 12.15.31
They have decided to use the 50% probability estimates (calling them ‘central estimates’) i.e. there is a 50% chance they will be lower than this and a 50% chance they will be higher.

This data is what is used in the FC tree species selection database which could be interpreted as meaning there is a 50% chance the right species have been selected and 50% chance they might be wrong! Foresters from the FC have got ‘previous’ on this – during their fanatical campaign to plant up the Flow Country in northern Scotland Sitka Spruce and Lodgepole Pine were planted over tens of thousands of acres damaging internationally important peatlands until it was discovered that it was too wet and the tree wouldn’t grow. Conservationists make fun of foresters by saying they don’t need to be accountable for their decisions because by the time it is discovered that a mistake has been made they will have either retired or died. The question for me therefore remains have the FC chosen the right species?

Another curious thing about the Dartmoor Forest Plan in addition to the fact that very few people have heard about is who wasn’t formally consulted. On the surface this may seem a very innocuous matter – the FC is consulting with its close band of stakeholders to sharpen up its thinking. However the history of forestry on Dartmoor tells a very different story which is beautifully described by Matthew Kelly in Quartz and Feldspar. In essence decades of the 20th century saw huge battles between the FC and various preservationists led by the Dartmoor Preservation Association. Had it not been for their efforts the conifer plantations may have stretched continuously from Bellever to Fernworthy! It was really only in the 1980s that things calmed down as the FC metamorphosed into a more environmentally friendly organisation.

I have looked at the websites of the Dartmoor Preservation Association’s and the Dartmoor Society and can find no reference to the Dartmoor Forest Plan. I get the feeling that like me they missed the consultation because I am certain that if they had been consulted they would have had something to say!

I am also surprised that Chagford Parish Council didn’t respond to their formal consultation – over the next 15 years 40% of Fernworthy will be clear felled – that is around 570 acres of conifer plantation and all of the vehicle movements will go through Chagford……. It isn’t easy negotiating Chagford and the subsequent road up to Fernworthy in a VW Golf let along a double six wheel forestry wagon.

I am also intrigued by the DNPA’s position. The comments from them in appendix 4 are from their Senior Ecologist and are specific technical issues relating to nature conservation but the section starts “our Senior ecologist has some additional comments to add”. However the DNPA’s comments which apparently precede this are not published! I wonder what their view is? A previous head of the DNPA Ian Mercer in his Collins New Naturalist book ‘Dartmoor’ said the following regarding Hawns and Dandles conifers – “wholesale removal of a living eyesore (to moorland devotees) has happened at public expense…..“. The DNPA as an organisation don’t like the conifers on the high moor!

I wonder whether the DNPA urged the FC either to not replant or replant with broadleaved trees opposed to alien conifers?

It is also interesting that no comments were received from the Woodland Trust or the National Trust – their partnership project at Fingle Woods would surely have been relevant?

As a result the FC have managed to carry out a very low profile consultation on how they should replant and manage their Forest Estate on Dartmoor without stirring up a debate about whether there should indeed be conifer plantations on the high moor in a National Park, the conservation bodies appear also to have been compliant to this by sticking to their consultation brief.

A couple of months before the consultation George Monbiot was on Dartmoor proselytising about re-wilding. I’m sure if George or Rewilding Britain (the charity he helped form) had known about the Dartmoor Forest Plan they too would have had something to say.

Ironically, whilst the conservationists have been compliant or caught napping or living in blissful ignorance it has taken a historian to come up with a more exciting future vision. In his blog entitled The Dartmoor Forestry Plan. Questioning Conventional Thinking he says:-

This is a moment of opportunity for Dartmoor. The Dartmoor Forestry Plan, despite its progressive gestures, suggests this will be missed. When conventional thinking no longer chimes with the public mood it should be challenged.

Could not at least one of the FC’s Dartmoor holdings be dedicated solely to native broadleaf planting? It is hard to exaggerate what an exciting development this would be for Dartmoor nature. My vote goes to Fernworthy.

The curious case of the Dartmoor Forest Plan indeed!

 

 

 

 

The Merrivale Stone Rows

After I had checkpointed a 10 Tors team last Sunday at Great Mis Tor I had a bit of time on my hands before meeting them again so I went and had a look at the Merrivale Stone Rows. This is an impressive Mesolithic / Early Bronze Age structure consisting to two parallel double stone rows.

Much has been written about the purpose and function of the stone rows on Dartmoor and elsewhere. There are many more questions than answers and it is likely that many of the answers we seek will remain a mystery. They  are part of a ceremonial  / ritual landscape.

 

Merrivale 4
Looking west – you can see the two rows with the larger so called ‘blocking’ stone at the eastern end.

Merrivale 1
Looking down the southern row with the hills and moors of Cornwall in the distance

Merrivale 2
The blocking stone of the southern row

Merrivale 5
Looking down the northern row with its blocking stone

Dartmoor Sun

Jack Walker is a scientist and an engineer from Tavistock who has studied various stone rows and circles (including Stonehenge) – in his book he shows how the Merrivale stone can be used to determine the Solstices and the Equinoxes.

Dartmoor Sun 2

Spring Equinox (21st March) – line up the southern blocking stone with the western end of the northern row – that is where the sun will set (marked 1 on the diagram)
Summer Solstice (21st June) – the sun will set over the a line from the southern blocking stone and the northern blocking stone (marked 2)
Autumn Equinox (23 September) – as per the spring equinox (marked 3)
Winter Solstice (21st December)  the blocking stone on the northern row line up with a burial cist to show the position of the setting sun (marked 5)
The alignments marked 4 and 6 show where the sun will set on the 19th October and the 25th February – significance unknown
(At the equinoxes day and night are the same length, at the winter solstice the night is the longest of the year and at the summer solstice the day is longest)

Walker speculates that the neolithic farmers who built this structure would have needed it as a calendar to help them plan their farming activities. Maybe, but a structure to determine these dates only needs 4/5 stones not a huge structure consisting of two double stone rows, burial cists and a stone circle. It is most probable that it had a complex ritual significance and function  and presumably specific ‘events’ happened at the Equinoxes, the Solstices and on the 19th October and the 25th February. You can speculate to your heart’s content as many have done before.

The Legendary Dartmoor website has produced a detailed page on the Merrivale Stone Rows which provides some of the theories and legends- see here for more detail.

 

 

The River Plym near Cadover Bridge

I was at Lower Cadworthy Farm earlier in the week to meet a former National Trust colleague to discuss a project I am working on for the NT. Lower Cadworthy Farm is owned by the NT and run as long term volunteer accommodation. It was lovely bright day and after the meeting I had a short walk down to the river.

Lower Cadworthy Farm
Lower Cadworthy Farm – refurbished and run by lots of green technology – see here

Plym 2The River Plym runs past the house at the bottom of the field

Plym 1Note that the sessile oaks are yet to come into leaf – the green in the trees you can see in the photo is ivy

Plym 3The fringe next to the river shows historic signs of tin streaming

Plym 4And also the remains of a leat used to power a mill

Cromlech stones in Pembrokeshire

Yesterday was a wild, wet and windy day here in Pembrokeshire. Nevertheless we ventured out and went to see some of the National Park’s Cromlech Stones. These are Neolithic (New Stone Age) burial chambers which are around 5000 years old. They have various names around the UK – known also as Dolmen, Tolmen or Quiot Stones.

People of high importance would have been buried in such places. Few remain today.

Carreg Samson
This is Cerreg Sampson high on the headland above Abercastle – it sits in a heavily grazed cattle field looking out to sea. The body of the dead person was interned within a ring of stone which was then capped by the ‘table’ stone and then covered in earth. All have long since been plundered only leaving the table stone and some supporting stones. Carreg is the Welsh for Rock or Stone.

Carreg Coetan Arthur 1This is Carreg Coetan Arthur – near Newport east of Fishguard. Coetan may mean burial chamber or may be the word from which Quoit was derived.

Carreg Coetan Arthur 2It sits with a tiny enclosure above the estuary of the Afon Nyfer – as a result it has sadly lost its landscape context but is otherwise in good condition.

Coetan Arthur 3The final cromlech we visited was on St David’s Head and is managed by the National Trust. It has partially collapsed but is still set in its historic landscape. Interestingly it is called Coetan Arthur (and in some guides Carreg Coitan Arthur) and is therefore very easily confused with the previous Dolman Stone.

Coetan Arthur 2
Perfectly set within a magical land and sea scape which perhaps explains the use of Mythological / Biblical heroes to name them.

Coetan Arthur 1Finally the sun came out and we were treated to a rainbow above the Stone

DSCN8103The only surviving Dolmen Stone on Dartmoor is known as Spinster’s Rock near to Drewsteignton