No Boundaries – Broader Horizons

The wonderful wildlife of the eastern side of Dartmoor is not just found within the boundaries of the East Dartmoor National Nature Reserve. Species of plants and animals often find places that suit their requirements in the surrounding fields, heaths and woods. The nature reserve managers, Natural England and the Woodland Trust, frequently work with neighbouring landowners to monitor and improve the habitats around this beautiful part of the moor.

For example, in recent years, researchers from the University of Bristol have tracked a colony of rare barbastelle bats to their roosts in the nature reserve and beyond, into the neighbouring woodlands of Becky Falls. Working in this partnership has helped everybody to understand the real value of the East Dartmoor oak woods as a bat habitat and has demonstrated that it is essential to think beyond the usual boundaries.

Last year, Becky Falls Woodland Park was bought by the Richards family and, as part of their plans to support wild woodland species, they have started working with Natural England and the Woodland Trust. Pippa Richards explained that “as well as showing our captive owls, rabbits and meerkats to visitors, we want to treat our woodland as a serious wildlife conservation project”. The Becky Falls woodland makes up part of the Bovey Valley Woodlands Site of Special Scientific Interest due to the quality of their oak woods and the amazing variety of lichen species there, which also makes it a real opportunity to demonstrate woodland conservation to the public. As soon as the family moved in they began to learn the skills to monitor the otter population along the Becka Brook and the smaller water courses on site. Now Pippa is surveying for signs of otter movements four times a year.

The Richards are also making other plans to help their visitors to engage with the wild inhabitants of the woods, using their captive animals as a starting point. Pippa, her daughter Emily and son, Adam talked about their exotic invertebrates, saying “once people have met the giant millipede or the tarantula, they can move on to bug hunting in the woods; they take a bug kit and look for the local creatures, which are probably somewhat smaller though! This way children can learn to appreciate the important role that invertebrates play in the woods in this country”.

Emily and Pippa studying nibbled nuts
Emily and Pippa studying the distinctive gnaw marks on a hazelnut shell – is it a dormouse?

As well as the barbastelle bat, the dormouse is another one of the key protected species in the valley and, with the help of the Woodland Trust, the Richards family are making plans to monitor the wild population in their woods. This autumn, Pippa, Emily, Adam and the Becky Falls animal handler Sadie paid a visit to the adjacent nature reserve, to learn about the Bovey Valley dormice and look into where they could install some nest boxes at Becky Falls. They were all keen to start some training over the next few years to become licensed handlers and to monitor their dormice as part of the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme. As the autumn progresses, dormice build up their weight and prepare for hibernation and, on the day of their visit, they were lucky to see three dormice. Two were still active and one was in the torpid state, curled up in a ball. Hibernation season in coming!

Monitoring these protected mammals; the bats, otters and the dormice will add to their ecological expertise and could make Becky Falls a gateway for many people to understand the wildlife of East Dartmoor and the vital role played by natural species around the world.

by Matt Parkins

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