One of Dartmoor’s great features always used to be that there were very few tracks and paths. A few medieval routes remain as rights of way, and some more recent tracks have appeared – such as the former railway to the Redlake china clay mine and the access track to the Erme water intake.
Rights of access to the open moor under the Dartmoor Commons Act 1965, and to enclosed areas like Higher Piles under the CROW Act 2000, assumed that people would wander everywhere and not along regular routes. While the moor was over-grazed and relatively little visited, that worked. But since the early 2000s, the vegetation has increased significantly as a result of the environmental stewardship schemes that were introduced in the 1990s. There has also been a big increase in the number of people coming on to the moor, many of whom follow the same ways because of the modern reliance on guided routes. Routes that are frequently used by livestock, farmers and walkers have emerged through the recovering vegetation; and the more the vegetation grows, the more do people and animals stick to the routes. The result is a changed landscape, where heavily used routes are highly visible.
The problem of this is that the ground simply cannot sustain these levels of concentrated footfall. The Dartmoor swards are mostly not of a robust species mix that will remain healthy under heavy traffic, and the peaty soils in many areas are very weak in themselves, being naturally saturated. Even the organic-rich topsoils of the brown earths around the steeper perimeters of the moor become very weak when wet.
Increased foot traffic between Harford Moor Gate and Piles Copse, and right through Higher Piles, has been an increasing concern. The restoration of recreational damage on access land is the responsibility of the Dartmoor National Park Authority, but it has inadequate resources to do this. As a result, walkers are inadvertently causing an increasing and unresolved level of environmental damage. The compaction of soils and erosion of peat are both direct contributors to the loss of stored soil carbon, and therefore help to drive climate change.
Though not our responsibility, we are appalled at seeing the degradation of our land and so have started to take measures to combat it. We have made signs asking people to keep off worn routes and to spread out. This is in itself disadvantageous in the bird nesting season, but bird populations can recover more quickly than peat and so we have had to opt for the lesser of two evils. Plans to swale above Lower Piles, to remove gorse that is constraining the route in places, were scuppered by a ban on moorland burning because firefighters were driving ambulances and unable to respond if a fire got out of control. So we have cut quite a bit of gorse manually, and placed it in the worst points of erosion.
At Piles Copse itself, we have placed ropes and explanatory signs to ask people to keep off worn routes. Most people have followed this request, though it is extraordinary how many duck under the ropes and ignore our requests. With rights come responsibilities… We spent our winter weekends trying to combat the damage caused by other people’s free recreation, but still people ignore that and go on adding to the burden of damage. There are some strange, over-tolerant aspects to our society.
Obviously, if we cannot manage the wear of the sward, and the compaction and erosion of the soils, then there are two options. One is to limit access and the other is to create paved footpaths and then limit access to all other areas. The irony is that people are currently exercising their rights of access to every part of the moor in such a way that will lead to a necessity to restrict it; but if they did exercise those rights as intended, they would be able to retain them indefinitely.