What is special about Dartmoor?
A sense of peace and harmony -
removal from our trivial everyday preoccupations
and attunement to Nature and one's innermost nature.
At Great Mis Tor, July 1999. Photo by Antony Galton.
The basis of Dartmoor is a raised area of granite in South-West England which once upon a time was molten rock (magma) in the root of an Alps-like fold mountain chain. The mountains were eroded away a long time ago, exposing the core of the system. Granite is chemically mildly acidic in nature, and is hard and impermeable. This results in a tendency for waterlogged and mineral-poor conditions in relatively wet climates such as you find in upland areas of Western Britain. Soils on granite are acidic and low in mineral nutrients. This results in a rather limited but specialist flora.
In the wettest areas, such as on much of high Dartmoor, the high rainfall results in both persistent waterlogging and minerals being constantly leached out of the system so that only a very restricted range of specialist plant species can thrive, so producing a very distinctive ecosystem. Each season's died-back vegetation has great difficulty in decomposing in these waterlogged conditions, so that over the centuries there has been a net accumulation of loosely compacted half-decomposed plant material, which we know as peat.
Peat is soft, spongy and friable, readily and to some extent spontaneously breaking up into fragments (which can subsequently be blown or washed away) when it dries out. When it is wet it is readily churned up into black quagmires by walkers, animals or vehicles. Again, peat in such quagmires can be washed away in periods of heavy rainfall.
There are bogs and bogs...
This peat-based ecosystem, normally more or less waterlogged, is known as blanket bog. This latter is distinct from the everyday use of the term 'bog' for the sort of swamp that you can sink into. Indeed, the notorious Dartmoor bogs are not part of the blanket bog but peaty swamps in depressed areas, particularly in the valleys, close to streams or at their origins. They are known technically as valley bogs.
The main ecosystem, then, over the open, high and remote parts of Dartmoor, is blanket bog, which on a world scale is a considerable rarity and thus is never to be taken for granted and treated as expendable. Dartmoor has a particular distinction in being one of the more southerly examples in the Northern Hemisphere, most blanket bog being found in the Scottish Highlands and the more northern wilderness areas, where it merges into tundra.
The peat is important!
As already noted, peat forms the base layer of a very special ecosystem. But the peat's importance is not just academic, also having a very practical, down-to-earth importance. The peat layer is like a gigantic sponge, holding water and letting it out slowly. It therefore acts as a natural reservoir which continues to provide water to areas surrounding the Moor even during quite prolonged dry spells. By the same token, by taking up water during wet weather, the frequency and severity of flash floods coming off the Moor is minimized.
As the peat layer becomes thinner, the result is reduced water supply in dry weather and increased tendency for serious flash flooding of the watercourses fed by the Moor during heavy rainfall events.
Did you know that...?
In a healthy blanket bog ecosystem, net peat accumulation is a meagre few centimetres per century! This means that only a slight increase in peat erosion or decrease of vegetation input would result in net depletion. On Dartmoor, we see no obvious change over the years or even decades, so we imagine that the land is in a reasonable state of equilibrium. In reality its peat layer is almost certain to be in serious overall decline, although the speed of that decline would be such that any one generation would find it difficult to observe. It's our descendants in future centuries who are going to be hit by the nasties that we are creating by allowing injurious land use practices to continue and greatly accentuate that decline.
Southern England's only real wilderness
Dartmoor is also precious as the only really significant piece of wilderness in Southern England. Okay, I'm using the term 'wilderness' here in a relative sense, because some people would say that Dartmoor is already so tampered with that it is not true wilderness. Nonetheless, people come from far and wide to walk there, in the often difficult conditions, to experience the austere beauty and the sense of isolation from all human follies and mundane preoccupations and to find harmony with nature and with one's innermost nature. Harmony of mind, body and spirit.
That is not just a matter of personal indulgence. People who attune themselves in this way bring a more balanced perspective and more positive 'vibes' to everyday life, so that they are a more positive influence on people around them. Thus, at least indirectly, we all benefit from the wilderness qualities of Dartmoor - even those people who have never set foot in the wilds.
Slow death by a thousand cuts
The pressures and destructive influences on Dartmoor are legion, but here I want to point out three in particular.
1. Overstocking with grazing animals
To many ordinary people the cattle, sheep and ponies grazing on the Moor look to be a classic picture of rural harmony and peacefulness. But in their current numbers they are a greatly damaging factor, in two ways:
- Removing a lot of the current year's vegetation growth in various areas by their grazing, and leaving waste products which for the most part don't get incorporated into the peat layer. Overall, this reduces the vegetation input into the peat layer - very significantly in many areas.
- Breaking up the peat surface with their hooves. These animals are orders of magnitude more injurious to the peat layer than hikers or indeed Army personnel on foot. I frequently see horrendous chewed-up areas where big concentrations of cattle have been, and generally, even when not so concentrated together they break up the peat surface and so increase its erodability. Broken-up peat means there are more fragments which can be washed away in heavy rainfall, and also any breaking up of the peat speeds up its oxidation and natural decomposition.
This overstocking of the moor thus skews the balance between regeneration and erosion of the peat, towards net erosion.
2. Moorland burning or 'swaling'
Regular burning of large areas of the Moor removes much of the current season's accumulation of dead vegetation which would otherwise have been part of the peat regeneration process. Farmers like to do it because it produces rapid, lush new growth upon which the (far too many!) grazing stock thrive.
That lush new growth is caused by minerals in the ash becoming suddenly available in a normally mineral-poor ecosystem. But in that form the minerals are water-soluble and so a major proportion would normally get washed out and lost in the rivers. In any case, a season's organic matter has been denied to the peat layer, whose erosion rate certainly hasn't been diminished
If the burning is done in dry conditions, as happens some years, then the peat itself can get burnt in places. Wherever this happens the peat breaks up a good deal, so furthering erosion. The burnt, carbonized peat surfaces only very slowly recolonize with plants. In places such as Cut Hill and Black Ridge, you can still see bare carbonized peat surfaces that resulted from the big fire of Easter 1984, when the peat became patchily on fire over a major part of the north section of the Moor.
3. Enter the Army with tracked vehicles!
As though the two destructive factors enumerated above were not enough, in a completely new development, the Army in a one-day exercise in July 2003 ran 18 heavy tracked 'personnel carrier' vehicles over the previously trackless remote blanket bog area of the north section of the Moor. This killed most of the vegetation in their lines of travel, producing broad tracks that appeared as ugly scars far and wide, with the inevitable quagmires produced wherever they crossed the wetter areas. Even if no further such exercises were carried out, it would take a few years for the vegetation to recover and those tracks to disappear. But all the signs are that the Army intends to repeat such operations, so we are talking of the eventual accumulation of major damage to the ecosystem and the killing of multitudes of ground-nesting birds, quite apart from the very real aesthetic considerations of having such scars across what's supposed to be a wilderness area.
Please DO NOT walk on any of these tracks!
If in doubt about a particular track, please keep off it.
This is to allow recovery from the damage.
Please note that the tracks were much more conspicuous at a distance than they appear in my photos, and that in this view there were actually at least two more of the tracks in the area to right of the prominent track, but they can hardly be discerned here.
Click to view larger and actually see some of the distant tracks. None has come out very well in this photo, and some of the tracks which were prominent in the real life view are actually more or less invisible here.
Possible measures improve the situation
Should the Army get out of Dartmoor?
My neutral position...
It felt strange to me to be speaking out here against the Army's Dartmoor presence, because for decades I had resisted pressures to do so. It wasn't that I actually wanted the Army to be there, but I considered that I wasn't party to sufficient information to enable me to decide to what extent the Army really needed to use Dartmoor or would be better off using another specific area for their training. Most if not all of the opponents of the Army's presence appeared to me to be basing their arguments on their emotions rather than a rational, informed assessment of the situation. Were they really such experts as to know better than the Army what their training needs were? Or did they mean simply that they didn't care whether our Army were sufficiently trained or not, or even, did they really mean that we shouldn't have an army at all? These things were not being thought through. For me, adversarial politics have always been an alien arena.
There had in the past been instances of significant damage done by the Army, such as some mortar shelling creating big craters on a remote hillside on one occasion in the 1980s. However, overall, at least when strong representations were made about any problems, the Army minded their Ps and Qs pretty well, being evidently rather anxious not to give ammunition (sic) to those calling for them to leave the Moor. That was really what made it difficult for me to come out squarely against their presence in the absence of knowledge about how their training needs could be best met.
...briefly came to an end!
In 2003 the situation changed, but possibly only temporarily. The Army had chosen to start taking heavy tracked personnel carrier vehicles out on the open moorland and freely over miles upon miles of the trackless and very sensitive (and already beleaguered) blanket bog area. The Army say that they needed to do it for operational reasons. When approached by news reporters about this matter, their spokesman spoke of the need to balance the Army's training needs against the needs to conserve the ecosystem.
That was weasel words. They talked of "balancing", but as I've already pointed out, Dartmoor is already in a serious state of imbalance, and any use of the heavy vehicles on the blanket bog areas increases the imbalance. I appreciated that, in the face of the flood of complaints about the recent damage, the Army would be seeking to minimize further damage, but that was in the context of their continuing to carry out exercises that use personnel-carrier vehicles on the open, trackless moorland. Further damage would be done, even though the Army would seek to 'minimize' it.
An Army spokesman also said in their defence that the moor would recover from the recent damage.
Sure it would, if indeed it were allowed to, in the sense that the tracks would more or less disappear - I agree fully. But what the fellow didn't say (and presumably didn't even want to know) was that the recovery from that one day's damage, if allowed to occur, would be a slow process, taking a few years, and in the meantime the Army was wanting to carry out more of the sort of exercise that caused that damage. So a net accumulation of such damage was to be expected. And let's remember that as the peat is in a general state of decline, any apparent recovery is actually only of the surface and would not actually reflect a reversal of peat loss.
I talk of recovery "if allowed to occur", because actually what has been happening is that many people - both walkers and farmers on their particular vehicles - have been following those tracks and keeping them in existence. That is all the more pressing reason for care to be taken not to create further such tracks.
I wouldn't have argued at all about the Army's needs, but as they needed to carry out such injurious exercises, it appeared to be time for them to depart AT ONCE from Dartmoor, which is too small and sensitive to cope with this new sort of assault. It was as simple as that. Their presence on Dartmoor could no longer be tolerated. They'd outgrown their cosy little nest and had to depart for larger areas in which their environmental damage could be spread more thinly. I appreciated that it might not be so convenient for them to do so. Too bad.
If we had several Dartmoor-type wildernesses in Southern England, then there would have been more of a case for perhaps treating one of them as semi-expendable for this sort of use. But we have only the one such wilderness. True, we also have Bodmin Moor, like a miniature Dartmoor, but that is altogether too small to be really in the same league, and Exmoor, although having its good points, is really not a wilderness at all.
However, since the body of this page was written, the Army have been showing signs of a desire to comply with conservation needs with regard to the use of vehicles, and I have not seen further prominent personnel carrier tracks appear on the Moor, so for the moment my neutral position is restored.
Cut the numbers of grazing stock by at least half!
"But you can't do that to us!!"
and preferably nearer 100%...
The big argument that is always put forward for the overstocking is that the hill farmers depend on the grazing stock for their meagre livelihoods. It's the same argument that is also put forward loudly for continuing the inhuman and uncivilized practice of hunting wild animals for sport -- livelihoods would be lost if such sports were banned. (So civilized are the huntspeople indeed that a large band of them in the UK have been threatening libel lawsuits against anyone who describes hunting as "cruel"!!! You see, the UK is what is described as a 'free country'.)
My friends, this argument is convincing indeed!
Let us then allow burglers to burgle and drug dealers to deal in their drugs, for, please remember, they are all making livelihoods out of their activities. Would you really be so uncompassionate as to deprive them of their livelihoods? Please stop harassing and cracking down on those poor beleaguered porn merchants - you're taking away their livelihoods! Many of them don't know any other way of living, and so for them to have their livelihoods taken away would be devastating. Some might even commit suicide!
...And now to be serious... Okay, I hope I've made my point now. If Bert Fleazelwucker at Upper Gruntfuttock Farm is making a living from an activity that has been recognised as seriously injurious, not only to a very special ecosystem but to long-term water supplies and flood prevention, then - hard luck. If we are to allow the long-term conservation of the Dartmoor ecosystem and its peat layer, then Bert Fleazelwucker will have to get a living by some other, non-injurious means, very likely elsewhere. I truly sympathize with Bert, for he'd been working his guts out on the land in good faith, and his intentions had been only for the best, but he's been a victim of his own (and others') ignorance and short-sightedness. So far most people have not been very good at taking into account the likely long-term repercussions of their lifestyles and occupations.
Think of all the livelihoods that are being used as justification for forest clearance in the Alps for ski developments which lead eventually to catastrophic avalanches and landslides. When are people going to learn - or better, think ahead?
Reduction - Good >> Elimination - Better?
In truth, at least most of high Dartmoor does not need grazing at all as part of land management, unlike many lowland meadow ecosystems. So actually to remove ALL grazing stock from high Dartmoor would be the most positive step - perhaps leaving a modest number of ponies to continue as a tourist attraction. That would also allow the regeneration of the ancient high-level copses such as Wistman's Wood and Black Tor Copse, which are currently (except for a small fenced-off area of Wistman's Wood) in terminal decline.
However, the elimination or drastic reduction in grazing on the high moor would not be favoured by the majority of walkers, because the vegetation would grow taller in many parts and the land would thus become rougher still and more challenging to walk upon away from the tracks. There is a conflict of interests here, with few people wanting to know about the long-term implications of keeping the land in a state that favours their particular activities.
Stop the burning!
The rotational burning or 'swaling' of areas of the Moor is a short-sighted practice which needs to be outlawed because of its long-term deleterious effect on the peat layer. However, this is not such a simple issue as the above ones, for many Dartmoor fires are started accidentally or deliberately by members of the public. In areas with thick heather growth, regular swaling can actually protect against more severe fires that can occur where there is thick, mature heather growth. However, a further complication is that any burning in heather moor areas tends to encourage replacement of heather with gorse and bracken, both of which grow up much more quickly after a fire. Nobody wants the woody and severely prickly gorse to become dominant, nice though its displays of yellow flowers are, and bracken smothers much of the other ground flora, is poisonous to grazing stock, and tends to carry ticks which can get onto us and transmit the quite serious Lyme disease and possibly certain other serious infections. On balance it is thus better in the long run not to swale heather moor areas, but there's no good reason at all to swale the large areas of predominantly grassy moor and blanket bog areas, which would not become cumulatively fire-prone over the years if left unburnt.
To reduce the incidence of accidental fires, I would actually like to see smoking in dry conditions on large areas of Dartmoor made into a criminal offence, and this strictly enforced - at least in the spring, when there is most old-season dead vegetation all ready to 'go up' in a dry spell. I'm not joking! I know that many people would laugh me out of court for saying such a thing, but smoking is a major problem, and we're still far too tolerant of it. People have to learn to take a lot more responsibility for their actions and thoughtlessness.
National Park or Den of Thieves?
I do not know what goes on behind the scenes, of course, but, like many who regularly walk upon and care about Dartmoor, I am aware of an almost consistent deafening silence from the Dartmoor National Park Authority concerning injurious land use by those who own or lease the land. It appears to us 'outsiders' that the DNPA is more concerned to maintain a comfortable relationship with landowners / tenants, and those who pay DNPA staff salaries, than to actually challenge and stop those who are putting significant pressure upon this beleaguered ecosystem.
I understand that the DNPA were allowed no say in the Army's 2003 decision to carry out an exercise with tracked vehicles over the blanket bog areas, which fact itself is scandalous and needs to be rectified at once. For the protection of such a national park, the DNPA should have a veto on all significantly injurious land use, with no ifs and buts. And by 'injurious' I mean not only ecologically injurious, but also injurious to the wilderness character of the Moor.
On the other hand I do see the DNPA as being partly responsible for the present very unsatisfactory situation through their lack of proactiveness. I have been told that they knew of the Army's wish to use tracked vehicles on the open moor five years before those vehicles were deployed so destructively in 2003. The DNPA may well have politely expressed 'concern' to somebody in that time, but they did not 'jump up and down blowing the whistle', which was clearly what was needed as they had not been given the power to veto any such activities of the Army. Even when the recent Army damage was done, the DNPA remained silent and only started to publicly (albeit still very reticently) admit that the damage was "unacceptable" once I and others had made a fuss, sending in complaints and getting the local news media interested. 'Spineless' is the adjective that comes to mind.
The problems that I have highlighted on this page don't represent some esoteric knowledge of which I am the sole holder. Many at the DNPA must well know all these things - so, where regulations tie their hands and prevent them from protecting the Moor from injurious land use, surely they should at least be speaking out to the relevant organizations or authorities to strongly protest about adverse situations and developments, and where that is ineffective, to issue their protests in public.
I do not mean all this as a criticism of the good people who work in the DNPA, for no doubt their hands are tied and they do their best in the terms of their remit within the organization, and would really like to be more vociferous about various matters. I will hazard a guess that at least part of the problem lies in DNPA officers and staff being employed by Devon County Council, for my understanding is that local council employees are mostly not allowed to say anything publicly or otherwise 'out of place' that could in any way contradict or reflect upon the Council's activities or policies. At least that was the situation when, many years ago, I was a temporary employee of Exeter City Council, where I was effectively muzzled, and I expect similar provisions apply for local authority employees generally.
So - who is going to have the guts to change this most unsatisfactory situation and get some 'balls' into the DNPA? We need the current den of thieves to become a sanctuary of sanity, not just a bit of wild land for the thieves to exploit.
In this article I have sought to challenge established attitudes to Dartmoor, and it's inevitable that the likes of myself will be dismissed by some as busybodies who are interfering and in some unspecified way 'threatening' the moor - i.e., being a bit too challenging for those criticizers' particular agendas.
However, ultimately there is no right or wrong or good or bad about any of the various attitudes to and uses of Dartmoor - only cause and effect. I have sought to point out the long-term effects of current land use on Dartmoor so that some more balanced and far-sighted attitudes and land use policies might emerge. What sorts of long-term effects and outcomes do we want or are we prepared to accept? If, for example, a long-term trend of increase in summer water shortages and flash floods in a wide area around Dartmoor is considered an acceptable price to pay for continuing present land management policies, then that is how it will be. More of the strongly marked tracks over the high moorland result in less wilderness experience. What do you want? And are you prepared to consider honestly the long-term implications of what you want?
I did eventually have a small number of further long hikes across the remote parts of the north section of the Moor, in 2011 and again in 2013, during long dry spells when I managed very successfully to walk in Goretex lined stout hiking shoes and avoid getting wet feet. I am thankful to report that I no longer noticed the Army vehicle tracks that I have reported above, nor any new ones. They may well still be present in places, but at least, without my having actively looked for them, they no longer at all grabbed my attention as they did before. This suggests that, whatever one may think of the Army's presence on Dartmoor overall, they do seem to have done a good job of avoiding doing such serious damage on the moor with their vehicles since I and others made a big fuss publicly in 2003 immediately following that damage.