Protecting the Sward and Soils

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.

Severe sward wear and the start of peat erosion on Harford Moor, above Lower Piles on the most popular walking route to Piles Copse

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.

Route damage control measures at the southern end of Piles Copse: the sward and soils just cannot sustain the level of foot traffic they are currently receiving

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.

Spring at Piles Copse

The winter has flown by and spring is with us again. What have we been doing at Piles?

Our main activity has been to alter the fencing of two of the large oak regeneration exclosures at the southern edge of the copse. These were created in 2006, and now show good regeneration. One incorporated the original 1970s exclosure. By joining the plots together, we have created a much larger contiguous unit, while reducing the overall fencing.

In doing this, we also found that some of the 2006 fencing posts had rotted and needed to be replaced. This we did by re-using the sound stakes from the now redundant 1970s fence, and we have completely removed the 1970s fences.

We have also done repairs to the boundary wall, and have put more wiring in to exclude sheep during the winter. This was too late for this year, but we will continue improving the boundary through the year, so that we can completely exclude stock during the 2021-22 winter.

The other activity has been to put in erosion controls along popular routes, but that’s another blog post.

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.

DSCF6738

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!