Some different sheep at the magical Challacombe

I was up at Challacombe Farm yesterday afternoon for a site visit to see and discuss the work of Naomi Oakley and Mark Owen who farm this Duchy Farm. It was a field visit which was part of a 2 day workshop entitled ‘Locally led agri-environment schemes – from a farmer’s perspective.’ I’ll report back on the workshop at a later date – in the meanwhile here are a few photos I took at Challacombe.

Naomi showing the extent of her farm and its large number of associated archaeological features.

Reporting back on the bracken management project

The slopes of the valley showing the Mediaeval lynchets – see here for more details on these.

From the barn up the valley to Hameldown Tor

In the barn Naomi shows of three different breeds of sheep which are being kept for their wool – the little dark one at the front is a Black Wensleydale – a very rare breed – see here. The white sheep at the back are Wensleydales – see here.

The sheep with the black and white faces are Zwartbles – famous for producing  an excellent fleece – really good to see wool coming back into profitability again (assuming you use the correct breeds) – see here for more details.

Here are a few Wensleydales out on an in-bye pasture.And this a hardy Welsh Black Mountain Sheep – small but very efficient at grazing around the Scheduled Ancient Monuments.

We also visited the amazing Rhos pastures at Challacombe –  wet valley mires – in the summer they are buzzing with life – I’ve written about these before – see here and here.


Finally …. can really recommend this book – tells the amazing story of sheep in Britain – from the times when wool created the country’s wealth right through to the dominance of sheep for lamb. The last chapter won’t be to everyone’s taste as Philip Walling is clearly very angry of the recent controversies regarding ‘overgrazing’ and the subsequent reduction in the national sheep flock. The book though does give a wonderful introduction to sheep breeds, where they came from and where they now survive.

A great afternoon at a magical place.

We need to talk about nitrogen

Plantlife in association with a number of botanical and conservation organisations including the National Trust, RSPB and the Woodland Trust have today published an important report ‘We need to talk about nitrogen’. You can download it here. This is a quote from the report.

Amid the clamour about climate change and carbon emissions, another alarm bell, largely unheard, has been sounding for some time. Global pools of reactive nitrogen have been building in the atmosphere, soils and waters from the burning of fossil fuels and intensive farming. This excess of reactive nitrogen is now being deposited throughout the biosphere, significantly impacting our most precious semi-natural habitats, changing their plant communities and the very functions these ecosystems provide.

We need to talk about nitrogen deposition, to raise awareness of its causes and consequences, to agree on solutions, and to work together to integrate these solutions into policy and practice now.

It is a topic that I have written about before – see here. I have been surprised by how few people are aware of this issue. In my view nitrogen deposition especially in the uplands is one of the main factors involved with the changes in vegetation that have occurred over the past few decades. I am certain that nitrogen deposition is highly implicated in the rise of Purple Moor Grass (Molinia caerulea) in the uplands of the UK, including Dartmoor.

This map produced by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology shows the extend of the problem in the UK. Nitrogen deposition is acidifying your soils and saturating them with fertiliser.

Some species of plant respond well to high nitrogen levels and grow vigorously e.g. Molinia, however the majority of plant species respond poorly, in some cases they die out and in others they are outcompeted.

I recommend you read the Plantlife report.

Common Quaker and Small Quaker

The Common Quaker is the commonest moth in my trap at this time of year.

The adults are on the wing from March through to May and the caterpillars feed on a wide variety of broad-leaved tree leaves.

By contrast this is the Small Quaker – on the wing from late February to May – the larvae feed mainly on oak

Side by side – good size comparison – Small Quaker on the right!

A rainy weekend on the Moor

Our first two day walk with an overnight camp of the year with the National Trust’s Wild Tribe teams and those from Torquay Boys Grammar School …..

This was the view when I arrived at the car park – only a mile walk to our wild camping site but nevertheless…

At the back of Foggintor Quarry – at least it stopped raining for a few minutes whilst I got my tent up – it then rained all night –  a mixture of wind blown drizzle and heavy rain – I was soaked as was the inside of my tent by 6.30pm – a long night ahead. Apparently this was Storm Ewan but I didn’t know that at the time!

Teams started leaving camp at 4.30am

In view of the continuing poor weather and the forecast predicting more heavy rain from 3pm we convened a meeting in the Fox Tor Cafe at 8am to review routes.

Our teams were intending to go from the Princetown area through the centre of the high moor right up to Okehampton camp via Great Knesset i.e. a route which was a long way from anywhere hospitable.

We re-routed all the teams up the west side of the moor closer to roads in case anything went wrong and decided to end at 3pm at Meldon instead of 5pm at Anthony Stile.

This is the Tavy – despite all the rain flowing low

We went up to Nodden Gate to checkpoint some teams through – the dome of Great Nodden in the background.

Most of Dartmoor is made of of granite which is an igneous rock formed from molten lava – in contrast Great Nodden consists of metamorphic rock (i.e. older rocks which have been transformed by heat or pressure or both) – thus its very different shape

The River Lyd

The Lyd with Brat Tor and the Widgery Cross to the left

Somewhat surprisingly – very low water levels at the Lyd Stepping Stones

Safely back at Meldon just as the 3pm rain arrives

A big well done to all the young people (and the team of adult leaders) who made it to the end – a character building weekend

All my kit bar my tent is now dry – my tent will be by the end of the day