Ancient boundaries can maintain a vital link to the past; across Devon there are many miles of earth banks with different characters. Some stand stony-faced while others are draped with a display of wildflowers. Some have a shrubby hedge running along the top and others remain bare-backed. Some may be hundreds of years old while others began their existence back in the mists of history, maybe even thousands of years ago but, for all of them, their original purpose in life was to make a claim on a patch of land, a statement of ownership to say, “this side is mine, that side is yours!”
Throughout the following years that definition may still apply or could have been lost in time but, in many cases, these old boundary banks have taken on an entirely new function. For the wildlife of Devon’s meadows and woodlands these linear lifelines provide a narrow strip of diverse wild habitat, a symbiotic spine, connecting favoured feeding places with creatures’ homes, all sheltered among the rocks and plants.
The network of old boundary banks at Pullabrook Woods initially played their part in dividing up the land, keeping the grazing livestock out of the neighbouring woods. Then, in the mid-20th Century, during the Forestry Commission’s push for homegrown timber, a new tree arrived. North American Douglas firs were planted in blocks within the woods. Overshadowing the broadleaved trees and shrubs below, these fast-growing timber trees found the temperate climate suited them perfectly and felt at home in the Dartmoor woods. The evergreen foliage grew fast and covered the ground with shade, gradually slowing down the abundance of life along the woodland banks.
Sheep still graze the pasture but under the tall trees, the landscape had slowly changed. As the mighty totems to the timber industry grew, the ancient boundary suffered below. Shrubs along the bank have struggled and the structure of the bank has been washed, blown and tumbled down by decades of Dartmoor weather. Down there in the dark and looking depleted, their function as a wildlife corridor had also been diminished.
But, after years of careful forest management, the best of the Pullabrook Douglas fir were felled, fulfilling the purpose they were planted for in the early 1960s. The fine quality structural grade timber would be hauled away to timber mills, leaving the woodland floor looking decidedly different. More sunlight poured in through a big space in the sky to breathe some life back into the ancient boundary bank.
The management work this winter was captured on film. You can watch this footage by clicking on this link – Pullabrook Wood Felling 2018
Below is a still from the film – capturing the moment one of the Douglas firs was felled
After the initial work there will be many stages of restoration to come and many good conservation reasons why. Stone banks provide shelter for mammals to nest and run; voles, mice, weasels and stoats prefer to call these old walls home. Wildflowers can be abundant on hedgebanks and a whole world of pollinators can thrive there too but, along this bank at Pullabrook there is one really special species that will benefit. The white-letter hairstreak is a rare butterfly; a specialist that uses the few remaining clusters of wych elm trees in the valley as its favourite food plant. Some stranded examples have hung on to this boundary for many years and reinstating eroded soil and rebuilding collapsed stone banks will, with a good dose of sunshine, revitalise the wild flowers and shrubs and trees.
After the Douglas fir trees were felled, a few stranded oaks, rowan trees and hazel shrubs were left standing and a new chapter in the story of the Pullabrook boundary bank can now be written. With helping hands from a team of willing workers a new generation of broadleaved trees were planted in the spring of 2018. Staff from the Premier Paper Group work with their clients and customers to “capture the CO2 emissions from their paper purchases by planting native woodland” and on their day in the woods this year they planted hundreds of saplings along the bank and in the woods where the Douglas fir stood only weeks before.
Species in the planting mix included the expected oaks, rowan and hazel with the addition of some wych elm which in time will provide more habitat for the white-letter hairstreak along the old woodland bank. To preserve the local genetics of the elms of the Bovey Valley, some have also been grown from seed collected in the nearby woods.
The whole conservation task was completed with some careful restoration of the remnants of hedge along with parts of the bank itself. Sections where some tangled stems had survived in the shade were laid into a hedge and, where the stone had tumbled down, it was reconstructed to maintain this wildlife super highway for years to come. A new post and wire fence provided the final touch; keeping the grazing livestock away from the new shoots of recovery, giving this ancient feature and wildlife haven the time it needs to recover.
Written by Matt Parkins
Video by Tom Williams