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

Time to go wild with George Monbiot?

National Parks in the UK recently held their biennial national conference on Dartmoor. One of their invited speakers was George Monbiot – the Guardian environmental journalist, author of Feral and founder of Re-wilding Britain. Peter Harper, Chair of the Dartmoor National Park Authority has kindly sent me a link to Monbiot’s presentation which has been posted on You Tube. You can watch the whole talk below. It is pretty hard hitting and well worth watching – it is around 30 minutes long.

George’s talk was covered by the Western Morning News and attracted quite a lot of media coverage – see here.

The basic premise of his talk is that the upland areas of Britain have been devastated by sheep grazing (which he called the ‘white plague’) and over burning. In Northern uplands he also turns his vitriol on the rearing of grouse and the stalking of deer. He goes on to say that these practices are made possible as a result of farming subsidies. Monbiot suggests that organisations such as the National Parks  have turned a blind eye to the damage caused, instead focusing on the importance of the cultural aspects of upland farming.

Sheep and lamb 3A Scottish black face or a member of the white plague?

Peter Harper, who invited Mr Monbiot, said he believed 90 per cent of upland farmers would not be there without the subsidies. “Upland farming isn’t sustainable in its present form. We have a very challenging job ahead of us to change the status quo. But it’s all about working with people, not demonising them.”

So how does all of this relate to Dartmoor? Interestingly I have recently been working on a report on our 3000 acre Upper Plym Estate. This site is of European importance for its wildlife habitats but is considered to be in ‘unfavourable condition’ by Natural England. I have spent much of my 11 years on Dartmoor trying to work with the Commoners (who graze the moor with their sheep, cattle and ponies) and Natural England who regulate the management of the moor for wildlife to improve matters.

I have prepared a series of maps which show the changes on the Upper Plym since 1990.

Blanket bog 1990Area of good quality blanket bog in 1990

Blanket bog 2006Area of good quality blanket bog in 2006

Heathland 1990Extent of heathland in 1990

Heathland 2006Extent of heathland in 2006

Heather in cats 1&2 1990Heather in good condition in 1990 (NB heather also grows on the blanket bog as well as the heathland)

Heather in cats 1 & 2 2006Heather in good condition in 2006

Heather condition 1990-2006Areas where heather quality has declined between 1990 and 2006

These maps do not tell a happy tale. Our land is now in far worse condition than it was in 1990 as a result of overgrazing and burning (known as swaling on Dartmoor). We have recently  commissioned a further vegetation survey – I have yet to receive the document but has spoken to the author who confirms that the overall situation has probably not deteriorated further but neither has it improved. Since around 2002 the entire area has been subject to either an Environmentally Sensitive Area agreement or a Higher Level Stewardship agreement which has paid the Commoners and the NT (as landowner we get 10% of the payments but have no specific input into the management) to manage the land in a way which will be beneficial to its special interest (i.e. the blanket bog, the wet and dry heathlands). It has failed to deliver those improvements but it probably has halted the declines.

Monbiot has merely articulated in his own inimitable fashion what conservationists have known for a long time. The difference is that we have been trying to work with Natural England and the Commoners to give time to allow the reduced stocking numbers and revised and reduced burning schedules to yield their benefits. Our pending 2015 report shows that this approach isn’t working. Major change is needed.

So if the current system isn’t working what might? Monbiot recommends ‘re-wilding’ the removal of the sheep and the cessation of burning which will then allow natural processes to occur and the open moor revert back to the woodlands they once supported 6000+ years ago.

Farming on Dartmoor (and all the other UK uplands) is on a knife edge – without the subsidy many, if not all upland farmers may go bankrupt. The grazing and burning might cease and trees could grow, the farming culture could be lost, access might be changed and the historical landscape (for example the relic monuments from the Bronze Age such as stone circles, rows and huts) could be smothered by scrub.

SAM mapOur land in the Upper Plym is as important for its historic landscape as it should be for its wildlife

As Peter Harper said earlier in this blog “We have a very challenging job ahead of us to change the status quo. But it’s all about working with people, not demonising them”.

How true that is – but we have got to the point where the status quo, however must change, for wildlife, the historic environment, the Commoners and local communities.

This is the most important issue facing Dartmoor and I will be returning to it over the coming weeks and months – new economic models and management prescriptions are needed if we are all to move forwards.


A few Tors in the Upper Plym

It was a gorgeous spring day yesterday as I visited our Upper Plym property – here are a few photos – if you have never been to this part of the Moor it is well worth a visit. Easily accessed from Cadover Bridge (take a map and compass though).

Shell Top 1The view from Shell Top looking back to the China Clay Works

Trig 492Up on the blanket bog at Trig 492 – you can just see Shell Top to the right

Hen Tor panHere is a panorama of Hen Tor – double click to enlarge

Hen TorA more classic view looking down into the Plym Valley

Hen Tor 2From the top of the Tor looking back up to the blanket bog

Little Trowlesworthy panThe quarry on the end of Little Trowlsworthy Tor

The PlymLooking back up the River Plym

Dewerstone Cottage – open for business

I went down to the Dewerstone Cottage yesterday and met  Spirit of Adventure who have spent a few months completely refurbishing and redesigning the place. It is now open for business as a residential outdoor activity centre.

Dewerstone4Mike and John from Spirit of Adventure who have taken a long term lease on the building from the National Trust

Dewerstone1A lovely log burner will keep everyone warm

Dewerstone2Amazing view from the living room

Dewerstone3Amazing view from one of the bedrooms

If you are interested in booking the Dewerstone Cottage or attending a course click here.

Looking after a rare clean air loving lichen in the Plym Valley

 A couple of my colleagues AJ Bellamy (Lead Ranger South Dartmoor) and Janet Lister (Wildlife and Countryside Consultant) have been looking at a rare lichen in the Plym Valley in North Wood and working out how we can manage the site better to ensure it survives into the future.

The species is one of the lungwort lichens Lobaria virens. Lungworts only survive in the west of Britain where the air quality is very high. Here is some more information on Lobaria virens from the British Lichen Society’s website.

Lobaria 1Lobaria virens is the green fleshy species in this picture (virens is from the Latin viridis = green)

Lobaria 2Here is a picture of the  tree which supports the lichen – it is found nowhere else in North Wood. It is on the bark of an ash tree near a stream which flows into the Plym – it prefers the alkaline bark conditions of ash.

National Trust staff and volunteers will do ‘crown reductions’ of nearby trees to ensure survival of the tree and to encourage ash tree regeneration near by – we may even translocate small samples of the lichen to donor ash trees to increase its chances of survival .

The Lobaria was found by Tony Harwell 15 years ago and Bob Hodgson (in the picture above with Janet Lister) has been keeping an eye on it ever since.

(Both photos by AJ Bellamy)

Another scarce animal in November on my Plym walk

Whilst on my visit to the Upper Plym earlier this week (when we had sunshine) I found this hoverfly on Hen Tor. It has got very distinct yellow quarter moon markings on the abdomen. It is not a species I have seen before so I consulted my hoverfly book and a couple of colleagues and it appears to be Scaeva selenitica. This species is pretty scarce in the UK and lives in conifer plantations where the larvae feed on aphids. A bit of a mystery …..

Hover flyScaeva selenitica 

Scaeva selmapHere is the UK distribution via the National Biodiversity Network

Scaeva pyrastriIt looks very similar to this species which is Scaeva pyrastri – but in this species the markings are a buff white and not yellow

It turns out that Scaeva selenitica is also a migrant – so it is possible that ‘my’ specimen has come from the continent on the southerly airflows we had a week or so ago. Hen Tor has got some form when it comes to migrant insects – a few years ago a biological contractor we employed found dozens of harlequin ladybirds along with the rare migrant moth the speckled crimson there.

So it may be November but interesting things can still turn up. I also saw a hornet at Hen Tor …….


A walk around the Upper Plym

I spent yesterday on the National Trust’s Upper Plym estate carrying out a vegetation monitoring survey – really good to see the heather returning to the blanket bog! Last time I had a really good look there was hardly any heather to be found.

The route I took also makes a really good walk if you want to explore a relatively unknown part of Dartmoor – it is the high moor without footpaths so you need walking boots, a compass and a map but on a day with good visibility it is an good safe walk.

Plym WalkHere is the route I followed – start at the car park by the Blacka Brook, up to Little Trowlesworthy, then to Shell Top, along to Trig point 492, down to Hen Tor, over to Shavercombe Tor and then back to Great Trowlesworthy Tor and to Hexton Tor before back to the car.

Shell TopShell Top looking down to the Plym

Trig 492An isolated place high on the blanket bog

Hen TorHen Tor

Shavercombe TorShavercombe Tor looking north to Sheep’s Tor

Little Trowlesworthy 2The abandoned flag pole base looking towards Little Trowlesworthy Tor

Up the PlymOn Hexton Tor looking up the Plym Valley to its source

Bronze Age HutIt is an area very rich in archaeology – here is a Bronze Age Hut

Pillow moundAnd here is an 18th century ‘pillow mound’ – that is a farmed rabbit warren

The River Meavy – where?

The River Meavy is perhaps one of Dartmoor’s lesser known rivers. Its source is close to Black Tor on Walkhampton Common south of Princetown. The river then flows south into Burrator Reservoir before emerging and  heading south through Meavy and on to join the River Plym at Shaugh Prior.

The following set of photographs show the Meavy as it weaves through the National Trust’s Dewerstone Woods. The full photo set can be seen here.

To visit Dewerstone Woods find Shaugh Bridge, north west of Shaugh Prior,  right at the bottom of the hill, where the road crosses the River Plym. There is a National Trust car park here where you can leave your car. Cross over the footbridge (just up from the road bridge) – keep left and you will walk up the Meavy – keep right and you will walk up the Plym and underneath the mighty Dewerstone Rocks.

River Meavy 3The Meavy joins the Plym at Shaugh Bridge

River Meavy 1Just up from Shaugh Prior Bridge

River Meavy 2Casualty from the winter storms

River Meavy 5Stream below the Dewerstone Cottage

Wood sorrelWood sorrel on a trunk

River Meavy 6By the Dewerstone campsite

River Meavy 7Primroses by the river