Piles Copse is a historically and ecologically important site, and we’re working to make sure it remains a special and thriving place and to address past damage to its ecology. Read on to find out why conservation is needed at Piles Copse and what we’re doing about it.
Why conservation work is needed at Piles Copse
Piles Copse is located within Dartmoor National Park, and it’s also a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest for its diverse assemblage of bryophytes and epiphytes (see our Ecology page to find out more about these). In theory, it should be safeguarded by its conservation and protection designations and by our management, but unfortunately the copse continues to age and decline.
There is now strong evidence that points to possibilities for rejuvenation of the woodland and opportunities to improve its long term sustainability as part of the wider landscape. In this respect it is important to distinguish Piles Copse (the current extent of the oak wood), Higher Piles (the ancient farm in which the copse is situated) and Harford Moor (the surrounding commons).
Through lack of maintenance and in some cases by dismantling, the boundary wall of Higher Piles has not been stock-proof for at least a hundred years. As a result, grazing animals have strayed in from the common land of the open moor and browsed off all of the regenerating seedlings. This has led to a situation where the trees are all very aged and are starting to die back.
Why there is hope
In the 1970s, two small plots were fenced off to see if the trees would regenerate naturally. Not much happened in one very shady plot, but in the other, on the southern side of the copse, a considerable number of trees grew up and are now quite sizeable. This demonstrated that rejuvenation of the wood is possible. However, oak is a pioneer species and generally does not grow under its own shade. This means that young trees can only come up in gaps or on the edges, and in effect the wood will need to migrate to some extent.
The success of the first enclosures led us to make some bigger ones, starting in 2006, all on the southern side of the copse. Some of these were paid for using a conservation grant from Natural England, and some we (the landowners) have done ourselves. As there is no economic return from land like this, it is not easy to find the time and money to invest in conservation, and just arranging grants takes a huge amount of time in negotiation, form-filling and administration, sometimes without success.
Our approach to grazing control
As more young trees started to emerge in the new enclosures, we wondered what could be done to rejuvenate the wood without having fences all over the place. The problem was that the wall was in such bad repair that no one thought it could ever be restored. At the end of 2011, we did a small trial repair to see how feasible it would be. The remoteness of the location and exposure to the weather meant that, although clearly possible, it was going to be a tough task. For some time we thought it might not happen on grounds of cost and labour. Then a young Ivybridge man, Ethan Parsons, came forward and undertook to spend the summer of 2013 working on the wall. He had little experience when he started, but learnt the hard way through a long season of “extreme walling”.
By the autumn of 2013, Ethan had completed the repairs to the whole northern side and shown that it really would be possible to restore the wall. In 2014 he continued and achieved a lot more repairs along the top and in some places around the south-east corner. To help with some really big rocks, Dennis Warley of Plympton brought an excavator up for a week when the ground was hard and dry in August. We also made a new gateway in a completely collapsed section of the southern wall, as many people tend to enter from that side. At the end of 2014 – in low cloud, a gale and pouring rain on Boxing Day – we put a new, specially made wooden gate on the old hangings at Piles Gate (near the southern end of the top or eastern wall) and carried up gates and posts for the other high gateways. Ethan continued with more full seasons of walling in 2015 and 2016, completing the top section of wall. This included some large collapsed sections on the very steep slope below Sharp Tor. By the autumn of 2016, the boundary wall was substantially repaired, although much work remained.
This work on the wall has mostly been funded so far by the last part of an expiring conservation grant (under the Environmentally Sensitive Area Scheme). Natural England were sufficiently impressed by this effort that in 2014 we agreed a further ten years of conservation funding (through the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme). This will cover the completion of the wall repairs and making it stockproof (with gates and top wiring) over the three years of 2015 to 2017. Once that is done, we will start to control the grazing regime inside the whole ancient farm area of Higher Piles and see how rejuvenation of the wood can best be encouraged. Woodland of this nature requires grazing by a range of animals – sheep, cattle and ponies – but so far we have no real idea of the numbers or timing through the seasons. Most of the germinating oak seedlings seem to be browsed off during the winter, presumably because the sheep like the taste or the nutrients in the young bark. The initial grazing pattern will therefore exclude stock in the winter. However, without enough animals present, the place would become a mass of brambles and scrub. Getting the balance right will therefore take quite some years of experimentation.
Other conservation activities
As well as the oaks of the main copse, there are scattered thorn trees on the more exposed upper parts of Higher Piles. These are also very old and starting to decline at a worrying rate, so we aim to try to get more of these growing again. In 2017 we created two enclosures high on the slope, in the areas where the thorns grow, so that we can see if total exclusion of grazing will allow new thorn seedlings to grow.
In the older oak regeneration enclosures, a surprising amount of heather and whortleberry have come back, and so we hope also to be able to restore bigger areas of these. It is also a useful indicator of the ways in which these dwarf shrubs might be encouraged to return to the surrounding Harford Moor.
As we developed our thinking on the conservation of Higher Piles, we created a detailed management plan, which can be downloaded by clicking the link here: Piles Management Plan-05 (Dec 2013). The management plan is updated periodically, but states our understanding of the site and the work we are doing to conserve it. The current version is now four years old and badly needs updating. But for now the conservation works have moved ahead of the planning.