The Water of Life

After a night of heavy rain, yet another Dartmoor deluge, I’m waiting in the Postbridge car park to meet David Leach. He is the Dartmoor Peatland Restoration Project Officer and, after introductions, we get kitted up for a two-mile trudge in full waterproofs to check on the progress of the South West Peatland Project, a habitat restoration project covering Dartmoor and the uplands of Exmoor and Bodmin Moor too.

east dart waterfall
Life giving water of the East Dart river

Our journey begins with a typically wintry walk, but conversation is breezy. We discuss habitat restoration around the moor and how conservation can have a bigger positive impact when many organisations pull together. This project is a team effort with many organisations playing a part, including Dartmoor National Park Authority, South West Water, the landowner (Duchy of Cornwall), the Forest of Dartmoor Commoners, the Environment Agency, Natural England, RSPB, Devon Wildlife Trust, Dartmoor Preservation Association, West Country Rivers Trust, the MoD and Exeter and Plymouth Universities. David explains, “Over many years the peat has been eroding, causing problems here on the moor but further downstream as well. As the peat erodes, we have been losing the bog plant community and species it supports, like dunlin and the black darter dragonfly.”

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As the horizontal rain picks up, it’s very wet underfoot. Each step sinks, sucking my wellies into sodden ground. Again, I try to draw in a meagre breath and ask David about the project. My words disappear into an unrelenting blast of wind that would push you off your feet if they weren’t so firmly fixed to the ground. This place is soaking. On average, it rains here every other day, with nearly two metres of water falling on every square metre over the course of a year. Many of Dartmoor’s rivers start within a few miles of this place; the Teign, the Okement, the Taw and the Tavy, the Walkham and, of course, the Dart. The East Dart flows from this desolate part of the moor and David explains how, “this rain needs to be retained by the peat rather than rushing off into the river. It’s only when the water stays on the moor for longer that the peat can begin to form, it’s a huge store of carbon. This accelerated erosion is also a serious problem further downstream, affecting the breeding fish and other aquatic life. Slowing down the flow has been shown to reduce the risk of flooding too.”

As the gradient levels out, we reach a vast shallow moorland bowl, stretching off into the misty distance. This is Flat Tor Pan, an area that has been highlighted by Exeter University researchers as a priority for restoration. In an earlier conversation with Morag Angus of South West Water, who manages the South West Peatland Partnership, she described how, “The University modelled the landscape to work out the optimum locations for the ‘blocks’ to retain water on the moor. They calculated that only 1% of Dartmoor’s peatland is still intact, healthy peat-forming bog.”

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crystal and rob
Crystal and Rob construct timber dams

“Using hydrological monitoring we know that the water table had been dropping and it’s our intention to raise that, to store more water on the moor and prevent it from draining quickly away. So, a few years ago we trialled a project to create some peat ‘blocks’. A trial restoration was completed, and we can see that it works. The water table was raised and more bog plants began to re-establish themselves, and we have seen more breeding dunlin in the area, so we are extending this work across critical areas of Dartmoor.”

In all this wind and driving rain, I can’t help thinking, “who on Earth would be working up here?” but, meeting the team as they beaver away at their task, I can see how they take pride in their efforts to restore this special part of the moor. Dartmoor Ranger, Rob Taylor and Crystal Edwards, a Natural England Conservation Assistant are fixing timber boards to provide support for the peat dams as Andy, a specialist machine driver, excavates slots in the peat with a bespoke excavator.

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Alaska Ecology is a niche contractor, providing machines to work in these sensitive habitats. This adapted earthmover being used to build the dams is called a ‘Beaver’. It is fitted with wide plastic tracks to spread the load and ‘float’ over the wet ground. The other machines are all equipped with wide tracks which, as Andy says, “don’t tear through the vegetation or perforate the surface.”

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Another member of the team on duty in the inclement weather is Peter. Trained by the military to detect unexploded devices, his job out on the moor is to keep a watchful eye over where unexploded ordnance may lie hidden in the peat. As another downpour struck, he hints, with a wry smile and gritted teeth, “I usually work abroad!” If small remnants of old ordnance are detected, he will place a marker in the ground to keep the site safe.

With the wind relenting for a short break, David shows me some of the successful restoration carried out during the earlier trial. He explains, “Since the first project finished in 2014 we have seen the water table rise by an average of 9 centimetres. This area was restored with peat dams and, in five years, you can see where the water is now retained in pools. If you look closely, you can actually see where sphagnum moss is growing. This is the first stage of the formation of new peat which should act as a carbon store, and there’s also some frog spawn over here.”

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Leaving the site and taking the two-mile trek back to Postbridge, I reflect on the whole idea of wildlife restoration around the moor. My personal interest is in woodland restoration but, from here, I can visualise the whole of the moor as one connected habitat; from the mosses on the high moor to the ancient oakwoods in the river valleys below, and this partnership project is a positive way forward to protect our precious landscapes, natural resources and species. These organisations have teamed up to restore this moorland habitat and the Woodland Trust has also contributed with a supply of locally grown timber from another big Dartmoor habitat restoration project. At lower altitudes, the Dartmoor rivers flow through their woodland restoration sites and they know how the river water quality can be affected down in the Teign river gorge at Fingle Wood. Only thinking and working together on a landscape scale like this can solve the big ecological issues that face us today and in the future. As water is the source of life, we can all play our part in protecting this vital resource.

Blog and photography by Matt Parkins

 

A few Dartmoor peatland restoration facts:

A full list of South West Peatland Partnership organisations can be found here

  • University of Exeter found that of the 315 km² of peat soils on Dartmoor, only 3.6 km² is still intact, healthy peat. This is just 1% of the total. None of the remaining peatlands still actively form peat, and 29km² of peatland has been severely damaged by drainage, cutting, drying and erosion.
  • Dartmoor’s peat soils store an estimated 10 million tonnes of carbon – equivalent to an entire year of carbon dioxide emissions from UK industry
  • 45% of South West Water’s daily water supply for its customers falls as rain on Dartmoor
  • Bird surveys undertaken by RSBP show that Dunlin numbers have increased significantly (38%) since restoration work has been undertaken

Search for more information at http://www.dartmoor.gov.uk/wildlife-and-heritage/our-conservation-work/the-south-west-peatland-project

The University of Exeter produced this interesting Dartmoor peatland map

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