After nine hours in the car, I’d be happy to get out and walk around anywhere. Fortunately, it turns out that when you head down to the West Country, it’s actually extremely nice in its own right, particularly when you end up on the moors.
As part of a field trip for the Heather Trust, I spent an afternoon on Exmoor last week, and the experience was fascinating from top to bottom. Just when I thought that I was beginning to get a handle on heather moorland, the whole world was shaken back into humility by an area of moorland so unlike anything I have seen so far that it can hardly be described as the same thing. If it wasn’t for the fine abundance of purple heather flowers coursing off under the racing clouds almost as far as the Bristol Channel, I could have been anywhere in the world.
In fact, I think the best description I can manage for the area of Exmoor I saw is that it was a vast, dry lowland heath which happens to be on a hill. The heather grows like a weed, requiring management on an appallingly short rotation, and the towering Devon beech hedges which criss-cross the moor have to be totally cut back to stumps every seven or eight years. Compared to the wet, cold north, Exmoor is like a botanical garden of rapid growth and prosperity.
The dryness is also telling when you part the plants and look down to the ground, where there is little in the way of sphagnum moss. From what I saw, the heather forms a mixture with some twists of blaeberry and some fairly reasonable and nutritious grass species. There is very little cross-leaf and the predominant species is either ling or bell heather, supporting a fantastic range of mouths from belted Galloway cattle and red deer to Exmoor ponies and sheep.
It has been at least fifty years since there were last red grouse on this area of moorland, and that absence is can be seen in the variety of other birds on the moor. Without grouse, there are no gamekeepers operating on the high ground, so while an extremely intensive pheasant shoot mops up the foxes on one side of the combe, the vermin is more or less free to do what it wants on the other. As a result, even curlews are rare on the high ground, and the most notable bird species is the skylark, which appears to be more or less bomb-proof in the uplands. It’s amazing how often you can visit rank, hopeless and unmanaged hill country and find it totally empty but for the sound of larks and pipits.
It was a great day to be in the hills, and while there was far more covered than could be written up here, I had my eyes well and truly opened to the South West. Driving even further south into Cornwall, I passed The Blackcock, a Devon pub with a name so alluring that I could hardly go by it without having a look inside. There were still black grouse on Exmoor just fifty or sixty years ago, and while it seemed extremely exotic to me, it was surprisingly easy to imagine those birds in this unique corner of the country. If nothing else, it was testament to the flexibility of the species that it could prosper with equal good fortunes in Galloway and Devon. A pint of local ale slipped down a treat as I tried to tune in to the improbably foreign local accents, realising all the while just how little I know about a bird that had its day long before I was even born.