Dartmoor Society Statement on Peatland Conservation and Restoration

Dartmoor is recognised as one of the foremost cultural landscapes in the UK and the Dartmoor Society places equal value on the cultural and the natural landscape.

“There is no part of moorland Dartmoor which does not contain cultural content.”
Tom Greeves, Dartmoor and the Displacement of Culture: Analysis and Remedy (2015)

Dartmoor’s wet uplands are increasingly valued for their role in hydrology and carbon sequestration but they are also delicate ecosystems and world renowned archaeological landscapes, where there is evidence of human activity stretching back to the Mesolithic period.

In recent years climate change has focused attention on Dartmoor blanket peat and its ability to retain water. There is no clear consensus as to the extent of the degraded peat or the best way to conserve damaged areas. Research and monitoring by the University of Exeter continues to aid understanding in terms of successfully retaining water and providing environmental benefits on Dartmoor and beyond. The Dartmoor Society does not dispute the science or the need for some form of peatland conservation. The South West Peatland Partnership is a huge undertaking and we recognise its potential for positive impacts to climate change, hydrology, wildlife habitats and the wider ecology.

However, from our own observations we think that a more nuanced approach should be adopted to ensure that existing and undiscovered archaeological sites and landscapes are protected. We consider that the current method of digging up large areas of healthy vegetation to form dams, (bunds) and the remodelling of exposed peat faces is overly invasive. The resultant deep pools are potential hazards to humans and animals and stifle vegetation growth beneath them and on their surface, as well as adding to erosion in this windswept and frequently frozen environment. We would encourage a review of the effectiveness and impacts of the current methodology, taking account of these aspects and looking at alternative approaches.

We also believe that the speed of the work is too fast to properly survey these remote sites and avoid damage, and we would welcome a more cautious approach to contract work. Currently even recorded sites on the Historic Environment Record are being ignored, such as newly identified features recorded during the course of fieldwork for an active PhD project by Alan Endacott on Whitehorse Hill. We cannot see a need to sacrifice so much or to proceed at such a pace.

Prehistoric activity on Dartmoor is not limited to specific sites but is abundant on a landscape scale. This palimpsest contains at least 6,000 years of known human activity. Recent restoration on Whitehorse Hill where mechanical digging took place adjacent to the prehistoric cist, and early 20th century Philpotts Pass with its plaque dated 1906, demonstrates to us that despite the millions spent on the peatland restoration, the cultural landscape is once again treated as the poor relation.

As in any group, there are differing views and emphases from individuals, but we are all united in our wish to safeguard the wildness and remoteness of Dartmoor, a place that for many still retains a sense of connection with our ancestors.