Keeping sheep out for the winter

Our aim of allowing oaks to re-establish throughout the copse – or at least wherever there is enough light for them to thrive – depends in part on keeping the sheep out through the winter. This is easier said than done. We’ve rebuilt all the breaches in the boundary wall and also top-wired it. Where the wall is a bit low, we’ve put netting along as well. That has kept out cattle and ponies for some years now. It would also be enough to keep out hill sheep. However, the neighbouring flock of Scottish blackface are mountain sheep, and they are pretty good at climbing walls.

This flock is leared (or hefted) on the surrounding part of Harford Moor, from Bullaven Hill, over Piles Hill, Sharpitor, the western flank of Three Barrows and up to about the Leftlake Brook. Some of them are the ones let into Higher Piles to graze during the summer. They were all cleared off earlier this month for the annual clearance. However, after being let back out on to the common, a few made a beeline straight back over the wall.

As a result, I’ve been improving the defences last Sunday and today, adding more wire along sections of the wall that are still accessible for sheep. The picture below shows a bit of today’s work, just as the sun was going down. There are still a few areas to do, and then we can try to clear the sheep out again.

Mindless unnecessary long term damage

On 17 October 2020 we found that someone had created a new fireplace close to one of the restored areas. Trees had been damaged to provide the firewood (a criminal offence in a SSSI) and the grass destroyed. Rubbish was left among the ash.

What sort of person thinks they have any right to do this? Who is so arrogant that they think they are entitled to damage an area of national conservation importance and leave it for others to clear up? What sort of sick society do we live in when people with so little understanding of personal responsibility have a right of access on to this land? And why do we (a) have to clean this up and (b) have to face the consequences of Natural England telling us that we are not upholding our legal responsibility to protect a SSSI on our land?

After all the work through this year, this is nothing short of sickening. We are angry and demoralised. Anyone found doing this sort of thing will be met with a hostile reaction.

But why did no one else report it? Lots of responsible people visit Piles every day. Did no one see this happening? Could no one have told either us or the National Park rangers? Piles does not stay nice by magic; it needs you to stand up for its protection. If you are worried about accosting people, let us know what is happening as soon as possible. We can go there with back-up and authority.

Acorns and future trees

The oaks are seeding prolifically this year. Here is a picture of acorns on one tree, in late September 2020.

We have picked up a lot of acorns (see below) for seeding into the higher exclosures above the wood, and for use elsewhere. More news in due course, once we start sowing them!

Restoration of fire-damaged areas is looking good!

We cleared and seeded eight large fire-damaged areas and a number of smaller fire sites in the early spring. For this we used a moorland seed mix provided by the Dartmoor National Park Authority. We roped them off to stop people walking on the germinating and young grass. In several cases, the rocks were used to rebuild the walls from which they had been looted over the years.

Here’s a picture of one site in February 2020.

It was then dry for the best part of several months, Although the grass mostly germinated, it did not grow particularly well in most of the sites. However, being mostly shaded, the site pictured above did quite well. Here’s a picture of it after three months, in May 2020.

Summer was quite wet, so we reseeded areas that were still bare and continued protecting all of the sites. Here it is in June.

It’s now looking better again, but we don’t seem to have a recent picture.

We are planning to remove the posts and ropes from most of the restored areas, in the hope that they will continue to thrive over the next few years, and with the consideration that the roping is unsightly. However, the most damaged areas remain still quite worn, so we will need to continue the protection there.

More progress and less blog posts

We’ve continued to be busy at Piles and several months have passed since we found a moment to write a blog post.

So here’s the bit of wall repaired in July. The grass has now grown along the top, but for some reason walkers are using it as a path, so we’ll need to put something there to stop that happening. It hasn’t been damaged yet, but it will be eventually if people keep using it.

We’ve also repaired another sizeable section of wall, plus some smaller collapses, near the downstream end of the copse. This is near the ford that is sometimes used for watering by cattle on Stall Moor, which them come across the river and into the copse. This work makes the copse cattle-proof from the west. That said, there haven’t been cattle on the adjacent part of Stall Moor for some years, but that could change any time.

Here are before, during and after pictures of this section. We seeded grass on the backfill and on the disturbed ground in front, and that has germinated and is now growing.

Mixed results in restoration

In the even light during the rain yesterday, it was easier to photograph how the grass is growing in some of our fire place restoration sites.


However, the sites that are most compacted or get full sunlight (where grass germinated but then died in the recent drought) are not doing so well.  We have started reseeding those again, hoping that we’ll get enough rain over the next month.

Really frustrating, though, is the fact that in the last week someone has had another fire, close to a “No Fires” sign, and destroyed nearly a square metre of grass.  It is hard to understand the mentality of people who think that they can damage a beautiful place and that it is someone else’s responsibility to get it looking nice again before they come again.

Worse, there are also little piles of toilet paper and wet wipes in places.  As COVID-19 remains active in faeces for some time, we are reluctant to clean these up quickly.  And, as long as COVID-19 is with us, we don’t see how we will be able to give permission for people to camp in future since we know that illegal campers are doing this (and by giving permission we are raising our legal duty of care).

Any suggestions welcome!

Restoration work starting to show success

As explained in March, we have embarked on a campaign to restore the areas of the wood damaged by fires and associated damage. We have now made some progress in repairing the walls using the rocks removed from them to make fireplaces. We have also cleaned out and reseeded a number of fireplaces, using a moorland grass mix provided by the DNPA Ranger.

Here’s a general view of one area roped off for restoration, and the rebuilt wall near it.


And here’s another site. It’s a bit difficult to see with the dappled sunlight, but the grass is growing quite well despite the lack of rain.DSCF6687

All camping suspended

We are unfortunately obliged to forbid anyone to camp at Piles during the coronavirus restrictions.  This is mainly because, if you had an accident or became ill while you were there, you would cause unnecessary risk to the rescuers.

Meanwhile, the good news is that the growing season is coming, and reduced footfall will hopefully allow the ground to recover more quickly.  After a very wet autumn and winter, path and general sward damage has been exceptional.  Increased numbers of walkers when it has been very wet has led to unprecedented wear on many routes.  Also, someone rode a horse through the copse when it was very wet, leaving hoof marks depressing the turf by around 50 mm.  It will be years before these disappear.