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?

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.

 

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.

Soil compaction on Dartmoor

I’ve now seen first hand some compacted soils on the moor. We spent some time looking at some soils which should have good drainage qualities opposed to the peat water logged soils higher up.

Richard Smith (Environment Agency), Sue Everett (Sustainable Soils Alliance), Mark July (former Natural England) and Tim Harrod (former Soil Survey of England and Wales) inspecting a compacted soil on Peter Tavy Common

The compaction means that the water cannot flow into the profile as there is a layer of compressed (gleyed) soil which is impermeable – as a result this soil has a perched water table. When it rains hard the water flows across the surface and down the hill side. The Environment Agency are interested in ameliorating this so that flooding incidents in Peter Tavy can be reduced.

Here is a soil from the Moor Gate series which is not compacted – the soil is friable to the touch and shows no signs of compression or gleying. Heavy rain on this soil will flow down through the profile and not across the surface.

The general theory is that the compaction at say, Peter Tavy Common happened between 1960-1990 and main suspects were cattle and ponies.

The question now is do these soils have the capacity to repair themselves or are they permanently damaged? These compacted soils are often very acidic and as a result possess very poor soil faunas which could potentially undo the damage.

I would be interested to know whether the last 60 years of atmospheric nitrogen pollution has lowered the pH of these soils and as a result reduced the soil fauna’s ability to repair the soil structure.

Unfortunately I cannot find anything in the literature to evidence a progressive lowering of pH in upland soils over the past 60 years – does anyone know of any evidence for this?

Soils are now very high on Defra’s agenda and it seems that answering questions like this and finding a remedy for such upland soil compaction is a high priority.

However there is a problem. The organisation that could have answered this question The Soil Survey of England and Wales has been disbanded (1987) and today soil science is a low profile academic discipline meaning that there are very few qualified professionals around to carry out such studies.

This has mean that the publication of ‘Soils in Devon IX Soil Survey Record No. 117 by Dr Tim Harrod has been undertaken pro bono by a retired soil scientist from the former Soil Survey of England and Wales. It is a majestic piece of scholarship which should have been funded by the State and not by crowd funding!

 

Defra undoubtedly needs to invest in soil science and soil scientists as otherwise solutions to problems will all too often be based on speculation (as above and here) and not science.