Mires Project visit to Winneys Down, 15 July 2011

Mires Project visit to Winneys Down, 15 July 2011

Mires Project visit to Winneys Down, 15 July 2011

We had chosen St Swithun’s day for this expedition to high Dartmoor, and the weather forecast was doubtful as ten members gathered in the carpark at Fernworthy Reservoir. Our guides were Frances Cooper (Mires Project Officer of DNPA), Andy Guy from Natural England, and Peter Challis (DNPA guide required for ‘health and safety’!). Several of us were surprised to see two ugly, urbanising and unwelcome notices and a ‘Pay & Display’ machine installed by South West Lakes Trust in March 2011. While a donation ‘cairn’ might not have been inappropriate, these intrusions seemed quite wrong in such a location, and could be a most undesirable precedent for other Dartmoor reservoirs. The reservoir was significantly ‘drawn down’ due to the dry year experienced so far.

Combined in four cars we drove to the top end of the reservoir and then through a locked gate onto the forestry tracks which took us to the Moorgate nearest the Grey Wethers stone circles. A few spits of drizzle alerted us to put on wet weather gear at this point. From here there was an easy walk to Sittaford Tor past the impressive circles. Crossing a stile over a newtake wall, we saw a lovely herd of belted Galloways, belonging to Mr Patrick Coaker of Bittleford. We headed south-westwards to a point between the head of the Maish Hill Brook and Winneys Down Brook, at approx. SX 6230 8200. Here at a height of about 1700 ft OD (517m) we were at the centre of one of the deepest peat bogs on Dartmoor, with peat 5.5–6.7m (18–22 ft) deep and proven to be 8,000 years old. Dr Ralph Fyfe of Plymouth University has conducted this work, using ground penetrating radar, coring and radiocarbon dates.

A steady light rain had begun by this time. The surface of the ground was damp and distinctly spongy, and vibrated if you stood still and another person walked by. Sedges (including White Beak Sedge – Rhynchospora alba – which is an indicator of ‘actively forming bog), cotton grass, sphagnum species, sundew and several flowering plants were in abundance – spiders and other creatures could be observed. It was a beautifully atmospheric spot. The ground contained some low ‘hummocks and hollows’ which indicates a healthy bog (we were shown similar features on our Exmoor visit with Dr David Smith in 2010).

Frances Cooper explained what was intended here in what she described as a ‘pilot project’. A grant of £1.1m from South West Water is funding a 5-year project which began in 2010. This includes the salaries of Frances and a specialist peat archaeologist from Ireland, Nicola Rohan, who is to start a 3-year stint soon. The project is a partnership between DNPA (who lead the project), South West Water, the Environment Agency, the Duchy of Cornwall and the Commoners Council. Other interested parties who are involved in the process include Ministry of Defence, Forest of Dartmoor Commoners Association, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, English Heritage and the Dartmoor Access Forum. It was pointed out that the Dartmoor Society was not included, but we were told that ‘all Dartmoor Society issues are represented’!

The practical work on Winneys Down will consume about 25% of the budget (c. £250,000). This is due to start in September/October 2011 and consists of five weeks of work intended to prevent the erosion of the precious bog, undertaken by contractors working with a 7–8 tonne ultra low pressure   vehicle, moving blocks of peat to dam shallow channels (including already vegetated ‘islands’ within the channels) in order to encourage growth of sphagnum and other plants on bare peat. Scepticism about the use of such machines on such ground, and concern about the damage it might do, was expressed by an experienced digger driver among our group, not least because the vehicle will be required to track back to a temporary ‘depot’ to pick up fuel.

Unlike at Blackabrook and Amicombe, no timber is to be used in the construction of dams, and the aim here is not the rewetting of the peat but the ‘restoration’ of the vegetation of the bog where there are shallow open channels. The view was expressed by Society members that these channels might be an entirely ‘natural’  process within the bog and a phenomenon that is likely to have been associated with peat bogs since their origins several millennia ago, but Andy Guy claimed that the bog had been damaged by overgrazing and by fire and pointed out exposed peat to support his arguments – but no real evidence was presented. We were shown the edge of a wildfire that had burnt in April – this is now completely revegetated with new growth and looked very healthy, though the official view is that it was damaging.

We were then taken to some eroding peat gullies at the head of the little ‘combe’ that runs down to join the start of Sandy Hole Pass on the East Dart at SX 6215 8150. These gullies are clearly draining from the main bog and define the edge of the bog itself. There is no intention to attempt to block these gullies but, instead, shallow channels on a very slight gradient above the gullies will be given similar treatment to those on the main body of the bog itself – i.e. they will be blocked with peat in the hope that vegetation will take hold. The theory goes that if these ‘feeder channels’ can be revegetated then erosion further downslope can be reduced. Our group noticed that several of these channels were being revegetated with cotton grass (Eriophorum) by natural processes without human interference.

We were told that no hydrological monitoring will take place on Winneys Down.

Despite more or less continuous light rain we were not enveloped in fog and could see something of the surrounding landscape. A late lunch was taken in the shelter of Sittaford Tor and a return to the carpark was made by 3pm.

In addition to SWW funding Natural England has put in £250,000 to cover archaeological/historical work and LiDAR surveys. Frances Cooper told us that the historic environment was ‘hugely important’. A further £1.2m will be available annually under Higher Level Stewardship from 2012 to support graziers who have ‘lears’ (i.e. traditional grazing areas) for their cattle and sheep on or near the blanket bog.

A significant amount of research has been carried out and is planned. Dr Phil Newman has made a study of the peat industry which is titled Domestic and Industrial Peat-Cutting on North-western Dartmoor, Devonshire: an Archaeological and Historical Investigation. We were told that this will be made available on the Mires Project website.

A major hydrological monitoring and restoration project is to be undertaken on 24 ha of bog at Flat Tor Pan at approx. SX 613812 (bizarrely, this is to be called ‘Broad Down’ by the Mires Project as the managers seem ignorant of the name Flat Tor Pan (although it was recorded by Brian le Messurier in his article ‘The Phillpotts Peat Passes of Northern Dartmoor – a pioneer survey’, Trans. Devon. Assoc.,97, 1965, 161–170), and the managers were not happy with an alternative suggestion of Wildbanks Marsh).  The Environment Agency and the University of Exeter will be conducting this work, for a minimum of 5 years and, hopefully, nine. The ‘restoration’ is due to take place in the autumn of 2013. The monitoring equipment will be within a fenced area and this will require permission from the Secretary of State as works on common land (this is welcome and may be at least partly due to pressure of the Dartmoor Society).

More detailed work on the profile of the peat by Ground Penetrating Radar is also planned in a 1km × 4km transect across Winneys Down and beyond. Surveys of breeding birds and invertebrates are also to be undertaken.

We were all most grateful to Frances Cooper, Andy Guy and Peter Challis for giving us their time, and for answering the many questions put to them.

We welcome the new emphasis on historical and other research and data gathering, which is what the Dartmoor Society has always argued was needed if the project was to have any credibility. We are also pleased that no timber is to be used in the forthcoming ‘restoration’ works, and that permission from the Secretary of State is to be sought for the fencing at Flat Tor Pan (‘Broad Down’). So it would seem that the concerns of the Dartmoor Society have, to some extent, been heeded. However, we still have considerable reservations about the practical so-called restoration. This is to be carried out at Winneys Down without any previous monitoring of the channels over a number of years to observe their condition. We need to know the processes by which the observed natural revegetation takes place – might it not, for example, be linked to the accumulation of dry molinia grasses blown into the channels to a significant depth in winter? Without this data and monitoring, the claim that the bog is eroding is unproven, and a lot of public money and carbon is to be expended on human interference which is likely to result in new vegetation growth but without being based on rigorous investigation. We are also concerned about the ‘spin’ put on the project as a whole. South West Water (who have invented the term ‘Upstream Thinking’) quite untruthfully claimed on their website that the project would stop flash floods in the South Hams and Torbay area, and that it will reduce run-off and provide clean water which will save them money – despite the fact that none of the project areas drain into reservoirs or indeed Torbay. Claims are also made by Natural England and others that the blanket bog is drying out and eroding. We want to see real data (e.g. comparative aerial photographs) supporting these assertions, but none has yet been produced. Claims about overgrazing and the damage caused by fires seems equally unsupported by hard evidence. We also require reports in the public domain giving us the results of the previous ‘pilot projects’ on Amicombe Hill and Blackabrook Down’.

From my own experience of walking Dartmoor over more than half a century, it would seem that the very wet ‘blanket peat’, on the plateau at Winneys Down is relatively uncommon and certainly different in character (in its vegetation communities, hydrology etc) to that found on the slopes and tops of the high hills of the north moor (e.g. Cut Hill), and it would be good to have a specialist opinion about this.

Sophie Dixon in 1830, described the ground in the vicinity of the headwaters of the East Dart, referring to ‘one immense peat-bog, broken into small banks or hillocks, the intervals being entirely occupied with a swamp of black peat’ (A Journal of Ten Days Excursion on the Western and Northern Borders of Dartmoor, Plymouth, 1830, p.25) . It would seem that the character of Dartmoor peat has not changed radically in nearly two hundred years and, presumably, much longer. The managers of the Mires Project need to provide hard evidence in support of any claims to the contrary.

Tom Greeves, with help from Barry and Tanya Welch.