Nature watch: Dartmoor
After four decades of exploring Dartmoor’s ancient forests, mysterious tors and pristine rivers, Ramblers Trustee Kate Ashbrook takes us on a tour of southern England’s last true wilderness…
Dartmoor is known for its wild and unique landscape, with tors and monoliths, dense heaths, ancient woodlands and a sodden blanket bog all shaped by millennia of climate change and intensive farming. The moor rises out of Devon on a massive plain that was squirted into the surrounding rocks as molten granite 285million years ago, then chiselled into tors by freeze-thaws and acid rain. The first human settlers experienced it as a near-unbroken thatch of oak and ash trees. But 8,000 years later, it had been burned and farmed out of existence, to be replaced by uncultivable moorland and blanket bog that thrived on acid soil and the cool climate of the coming Ice Age. High Dartmoor has been mined and grazed since, but never significantly farmed again. Walkers will find much of the ground soggy, with few waymarked paths and (sometimes) impassable terrain. They’ll also discover that Dartmoor is southern England’s last pocket of true wilderness, with untouched habitats that sustain rare and beautiful wildlife.
Ramblers Trustee and President of the Dartmoor Preservation Association Kate Ashbrook has been walking and riding here for 40 years: “I remember the first time I rode across Dartmoor. Looking west, I could see ridge after long ridge stretching into the evening mist, and I marvelled at the scale and wildness of the national park. “The Association’s land at High House Waste, near Cornwood, is a microcosm of Dartmoor: woods, moorland, wetland, grassland, prehistoric settlement and a possibly medieval farmstead. In early May there’s the sweet scent of hawthorn. Later, white beak sedge will carpet the wetlands. “In autumn, the slopes above the River Dart near Hexworthy are covered in bracken and dotted with rowan trees. “White Tor, above Peter Tavy, is bleak in winter, with wide, windy views, contrasting with the warm grey and brown woods in the valley to the west. And there’s always the possibility of spotting a peregrine…”
For more on Dartmoor, contact the Dartmoor National Park Authority on ✆ 01626 832093 or via www.dartmoor-npa.gov.uk. You can also reach the Moorland Ramblers on ✆ 01647 221260 or visit www.ramblers.org.uk/areas_groups
Click on the image below for a copy of our guide to wildlife on Dartmoor from the Autumn 2009 printed edition of walk.