Pullabrook Wood nestles in the Bovey valley to the east of Dartmoor and maintains an intriguing combination of woodland types that are home to an important range of wild species, though this patchwork of diverse habitat isn’t totally natural. As you walk around the tracks that cut across steep slopes you may find yourself in a broadleaved coppice of native trees, followed by another, larger coppice of pure sweet chestnut. Then, on the high ground, there is a zone of restocked deciduous trees that replace a stand of larch that were clear-felled after succumbing to a disease over five years ago. This blend of planted conifers and broadleaves continues with stands of tall, semi-mature Douglas fir and western hemlock, then a pocket of Scots pine with a rich developing shrub layer before you find a species rich riverside meadow known for a population of oil beetles, woodland flowers and many other interesting invertebrates. After many centuries of human intervention, the conservation team that manages this wood, and many others around Dartmoor, see the enhancement of biodiversity here as both a challenge and a pleasure.
Pullabrook is the smallest of the Bovey Valley Woods and is often the first introduction for visitors as they begin to explore the other adjacent woods. As a diverse, mixed woodland, it is a microcosm of the valley as a whole, capturing landscapes and habitats that are repeated on a grander scale further up the valley. Though there are several landowners in the area, the Woodland Trust’s ‘Bovey Valley Woods’ include three distinct sites: Pullabrook, Hisley and Houndtor Woods. Together, the Bovey Valley Woods cover 86 hectares (213 acres) with Pullabrook at just over 19 hectares.
Continuing upstream, following the Becka Brook and river Bovey, there are stands of timber trees: Douglas fir and larch with a healthy, shrubby understorey followed by vibrant regenerating woodland where conifers were felled several years ago, though the conservationist’s preference is probably the lichen rich Western upland oak woods that rise from the flood plain to the top of the ridge at Gradner Rocks.
To maintain this range of trees and plants with the wildlife it supports, the woodland management work required to keep improving the structural and ecological diversity is an ongoing process. It is based around PAWS restoration – that is, the gradual thinning of the Plantation on Ancient Woodland Sites to open up the woodland to more sunlight that can drive the changes – nature will respond positively, but this must be done with expert care.
This year, the plan for managing this part of the Bovey Valley Woods has followed the same approach. Work has been carried out in three small areas, starting with a group of Scot’s pine where, after an inspection for over-wintering dormice, a working area was approved, A few trees were selected and felled to allow the remaining pines to reach maturity and the understorey to provide a dense layer of habitat to protect the next generations of woodland wildlife. In a nearby part of the woodland, a strip of large Douglas fir and western hemlock were thinned. Great care was taken here to protect a line of ancient oak trees that follow an old track edge. Linear features like this form important habitats for woodland bats, providing them with foraging routes and roosting opportunities among the cracks and holes in old growth trees.
The final area of work this year was where the Douglas fir alongside the Old Manaton Road have become so tall they have outgrown the long-established oaks along an old boundary. A few of the grand conifers were selected for felling here, the ones that would have the greatest effect on increasing the sunlight to the oaks where some scarce and interesting species of lichen can be found.
Woodland conservation management and restoration is not as straightforward as it looks and certainly not as destructive as tree felling may initially appear to be. Both ecological foresters and forest ecologists contribute to this complex plan that results in a tamed, but wild place, a patchwork on the landscape that provides a safe refuge for many birds, bats and insects. And, after a busy winter season of work, a visit in the Spring will be rewarded by the sights, sounds and smells of a healthy wild woodland.
by Matt Parkins