When you walk through the wooded fringes of Dartmoor you may occasionally hear the rasp of a chainsaw followed by the thud of falling conifer trees. You may sometimes stroll by a stack of timber, perhaps wondering what that pile of logs could be used for. Following that train of thought, you might perhaps ask yourself the question, “Why are they cutting down these trees? Isn’t that a bit destructive?” Well, in many of these woodlands there is a plan, a conservation plan. And recently, the Woodland Trust and Dartmoor National Park Authority have been working together to put one of these plans into action.
During the last century, coniferous trees were planted in uniform rows, replacing the wilder oak woods that once stood there. The plan back then, was to grow timber for the construction and mining industries. Introduced species from around the world sowed the seed for a new softwood timber revolution and the future looked bright but, at the time, those early foresters were yet to discover what impact this intensive cropping would have on the local wild diversity. A single species of tree, casting shade over a large area of rich and abundant habitats would, it was found later, reduce the range and prevalence of many wild species.
Today, the Woodland Trust manages the woods along the river Bovey with the aim of restoring them to a more natural state and finding the balance that better suits the woodland wildlife. Their strategy is to slowly remove this valuable timber and put it to good sustainable use while opening up the tree canopy to encourage the natural plants and animals to take up their rightful place in the woods around the moor.
High in Hisley Wood, looking across the Bovey Valley to Trendlebere Down, a stand of larch trees is being harvested. Not as a clear-fell, as conventional forestry would dictate, but a few rows at a time until, after several years, the landscape has undergone a gradual transition from timber plantation to a healthy and mixed broadleaved haven for woodland wildlife. While the wild plants and creatures expand their ranges, the timber can find a new life, helping to protect another sensitive habitat on Dartmoor.
Before the timber left the woods, Jim White (a Woodland Trust contractor) milled it into boards and beams when Dartmoor Ranger, Rob Taylor took it on the next stage of its journey. This time the larch had made its way up to the high moor at the derelict remains of the Rattlebrook Peat Works. Historically, this part of Dartmoor has been exploited for its peat and the extraction of this resource has left its scars. The peat has, in places, dried out and lost much of its capacity to retain water. Ditches, shallow peat and eroded ‘hags’ are all that is left in some areas where there should be a thick blanket of precious peat. This moorland should act like a water-filled flood-prevention sponge, a carbon store and a home for a range of bogland plants and insects but, it is currently a habitat in retreat.
Now, Rob’s job is to begin the process of restoring the peat. Occasional, adventurous Dartmoor walkers pass this way and signs of peat erosion are visible so, to remedy this, he is building a set of boardwalks to guide people through this remote part of the moor. Rob described it as a coordinated effort, “We’re improving the old tramway first, channelling water flow to reduce erosion, then these boardwalks will change the line of the current footpath, taking walkers away from the eroded areas.”
For this moorland to recover, patches of fresh sphagnum moss need to grow which will, in time, lay down more peat. It’s a long-term conservation plan and Rob explained, “This area is a SSSI so we are using a simple design; the boardwalks are free-standing and built from this untreated larch. We are using small waymarkers and narrow boards to reduce the visual impact and help walkers to cross the peat with minimal erosion.”
A team of willing workers assisted Rob with the boardwalk construction, including three apprentices from the Conservation Works Team and local Voluntary Warden, Phil Down. The young trainees worked enthusiastically while building up new skills and experiences; Ben, Leo and Laurie described how their NVQ in Environmental Conservation is equipping them with a useful set of practical skills from hedge cutting and strimming to the maintenance of car parks and rights of way. A few days of on-the-job training with the Dartmoor Ranger complements these skills, as one of the apprentices said, “I like this kind of work, it’s physical but it involves some problem solving too.”
So, it seems that this multi-faceted Dartmoor conservation story has many benefits; improving woodland habitat, protecting the retracting peat bogs, up-skilling young trainees and a positive use for local timber. Jim White, the timber producer summed it up saying, “It’s good to know that this larch has found a sustainable end use. Larger sawmills may not have accepted this small diameter timber and it may have been converted to pulp but, with the quality of this timber, I think it was worthy of much better. Milling it into smaller sections allowed us to recover more material, reducing the waste.” Proof that, by working together, the people, wildlife, woods and moors can all benefit from a good Conservation Plan.
by Matt Parkins
SSSI = Site of Special Scientific Interest