A Tour of East Dartmoor

The Conservation Assistants recently led a guided tour of the National Nature Reserve (NNR) for the Dartmoor National Park apprentices.  This was a chance for them to see what the trainee scheme at East Dartmoor NNR is all about, and for both sides to network, sharing experiences and knowledge.

I was invited to go along as a new volunteer, so I could get to know the National Nature Reserve and also get an overview of the sort of activities going on. Before we even left the office, I had already learnt something new, as some seed husks on the table sparked a discussion on how to differentiate a dormouse nibble, from a wood mouse or vole (dormice leave a flat smooth edge to the rim).

After some coffee everyone was ready to go, and we split into two cars to drive up to Trendlebere Down, getting a good view of Yarner Wood, the course of the old Bovey Pottery Leat and the surrounding habitats.

Trendlebere with DNPA trainees x600px_Jenny Porrett
Far reaching views of the landscape – Trendlebere Down and the woods beyond


Conversations ranged from historical uses of the landscape, to why new habitats are introduced incrementally avoiding sudden changes, and why clear felling of  larch and douglas fir was avoided. This then led onto a chat about the current ‘test sites’ within the woodland.  We saw a couple of these fenced areas, that have been planted with broadleaf shrubs and trees, and have two-metre high mesh to keep the browsing deer out. The Woodland Trust are using them to see how much natural light is needed to encourage native broad-leaved high forest trees to grow.

James talking to group in exclosure 600px wide_Jenny Porrett
The group discuss woodland management in Pullabrook Wood

Solar heated bat box

There were a few stops on the way down the Old Manaton Road, firstly to discuss the barbastelle bats, a ‘near-threatened’ species that often use that particular corridor as a roosting and feeding site. Bat boxes have been put up and an interesting CCTV monitoring project with volunteer, Susan Young, has been undertaken, which has also showed long-eared bats visiting the roosts.

We also heard about lichen surveys, one of the Natural England trainees has been working with Plantlife, where she has been helping survey the old boundaries in Bovey Valley Woods. Certain lichen species can give good indications of air quality in a natural environment and while we were on the tour we spotted a nice example of tree lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) on a tree by the river.


Crystal talking to group 600px wide_Jenny Porrett
Crystal points out an area where ponies have been actively grazing the woodland

We observed one of the specific areas where Dartmoor ponies had been used for ‘bashing the fern’, a grazing management used to diversify habitat, an imitation of how large herbivores would have naturally behaved in that environment before human intervention. Someone asked “why are ponies used instead of cows or other large herbivores?” A good question, that was summed up by explaining that the way ponies graze does a ‘better job’,and they are easier to handle and move quickly.

‘Otter spotting’ was the next topic, where the Dartmoor apprentices and I were enlightened on the topic of otter spraints, anal-jelly, and ‘sandcastles’; how to spot them and where this evidence of otter activity had been found within the National Nature Reserve so far.

DNPA trainees on Hisley Bridge 600px wide_JennyPorrett
Standing on Hisley Bridge talking about ‘otter spotting’
Colourful Sphagnum mosses soak up water helping to control the rain run-off from the moors
Colourful sphagnum mosses

Last stop, before heading back for lunch, was a chance to see an example of peat damming on the lowland heathland, a natural way of creating a mire, to manage overland water dispersal and create pools.  We learnt that this encourages a mosaic of habitats and aids the conservation of sphagnum moss, fritillary butterflies, nightjars and dartford warblers, among other species.

As we walked back, people chatted about what they had done before and/or hoped to do in the future with conservation management and associated careers. Something said something that rang true for most, “you feel like you want to learn everything before you start working, but you soon realise with such a complex environment you’ve got to just jump in and keep learning as you go! ”

Both groups recognised similarities in the projects they were undertaking – imparting some advice and anecdotes about the pros and cons of different machinery and conservation methods they had each experienced.

DNPA trainee visit - Managing holly 600px wide_Jenny Porrett
A prickly task – managing holly along the path

After lunch it was up to the workshop, so everyone could choose their tools for the afternoon’s task – cutting holly along the path. The holly trees tend to take over the understory of the wood and so need managing in certain areas. Everyone soon got into the activity, clearing a long section in just over an hour.

The Dartmoor National Park Apprentices were by now already talking about organising a reciprocal meeting, and some people realised that they had even been working at some of the same events in the last year, but just hadn’t had time to meet before. All agreed how useful it was to get to know each other and the context of the work they each carry out across Dartmoor. Perhaps this get together could be the first of many!

Written by Jenny Porrett, Communications Volunteer for Moor than meets the eye

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