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Campaigners are urging action to protect the Dartmoor rainforest from sheep.
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Campaigners are urging action to protect the Dartmoor rainforest from sheep.

In the area of Dartmoor national park, known as Black-a-Tor Copse, an abundance of acorns can be found alongside sprouting miniature oak trees amongst the rough grass near the aged, twisted trees on the park’s northern hills.

However, every small tree only reaches the same height as a sheep’s jaw and remains there, as the new shoots and delicate leaves are regularly trimmed by the animals that graze in this protected natural area.

Guy Shrubsole, who is both a campaigner and author of the book The Lost Rainforests of Britain, is calling on the authorities to intervene and protect this valuable remnant of ancient temperate forest.

Shrubsole expressed concern that the overgrazing of sheep is inhibiting the growth of saplings and young trees along the perimeter of this extraordinary temperate rainforest. Without new trees, Black-a-Tor Copse is at risk of dying, making it crucial for the landowner, national park, and conservation authorities to intervene in order to preserve this rare and remarkable location.

Next to the famous Wistman’s Wood, Black-a-Tor Copse is one of just three old, elevated oak forests on Dartmoor. This environment is the residence of numerous amazing mosses, lichens, and uncommon insects like the ash-black slug and blue ground beetle.

Due to the harsh moorland conditions and high altitude of over 360 metres, the oaks in Black-a-Tor Copse do not grow very tall, reaching a maximum height of six meters and spiraling from the strong winds.

The 29-hectare nature reserve holds significance as a unique scientific site and a mysterious remnant of forests that previously spanned the rugged valleys in Dartmoor and western England.

Due to centuries of heavy grazing by livestock such as cattle, sheep, and ponies, there are now only small areas of woodland remaining. These patches have mainly persisted due to the fact that the trees grow in areas with large boulders, providing shelter for young trees from grazing animals.

Guy ShrubsoleView image in fullscreen

Although it is not common, Black-a-Tor Copse has no fences and many sheep from the neighboring commons freely enter, constantly eating the trees and ground plants. Experts suggest that some grazing is necessary in the forest to protect certain plants and maintain its unique open landscape.

Over 15 years ago, Natural England, a government agency responsible for conserving nature and leasing a nature reserve from the Duchy of Cornwall, oversaw a project to create 25 fenced areas after a group of ancient oak trees in the center of the wood unexpectedly perished due to the honey fungus, a natural threat. The purpose was to facilitate the natural regeneration of new trees.

When met with the difficulty of moving 100 fence posts and 300 meters of plastic netting to a location two miles away from the closest road, the military organization, which operates firing ranges nearby, intervened by using a helicopter to transport the materials to their desired location.

The fenced off sections prevented young trees from being grazed by sheep, but they were removed in 2010-11 because they were no longer effective at keeping the sheep out. As a result, the few surviving trees are constantly stunted by repeated grazing from the sheep.

Shrubsole, an advocate for the growth and expansion of Britain’s temperate rainforests, proposed the reintroduction of fenced areas to support the growth of young oaks and the regeneration of the wood.

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According to historical records from the Tudor-era, Black-a-Tor Copse used to cover a larger area in the valley. However, it was reduced in size due to deforestation for firewood. It is crucial that we allow this remaining piece of temperate rainforest to grow and adapt to the challenges posed by climate change and diseases. The rugged terrain and rocky areas of Dartmoor have the potential to support more forests like Black-a-Tor Copse, but it can only happen if measures are taken to prevent grazing sheep from consuming young trees.

Natural England has announced that there are currently no intentions to construct additional enclosures for the safeguarding of juvenile trees within the woodland.

According to Wesley Smyth, the deputy director of Natural England for the Devon region, grazing animals have played a role in hindering the growth of trees and shrubs at Black-a-Tor. However, there are other factors like honey fungus that have also contributed to the current state of the area. To preserve its distinct plant life and features, some grazing will still be necessary in the woodland. There is collaboration between the Duchy of Cornwall, commoners, and Natural England to properly manage this land and ensure a sustainable future for Black-a-Tor copse and its wildlife.

Last year, Prince William revealed intentions for the recreational area owned by the ruling family of Cornwall to expand the 7.4-acre Wistman’s Wood. This ancient rainforest, which has been gaining popularity among tourists, will be given the opportunity to replenish itself through various measures such as lessening the presence of cattle, enhancing designated walkways to prevent damage to fragile areas in the wood, and introducing new trees from seeds collected within the wood.

A representative for the Duchy of Cornwall stated: “The area known as Black-a-Tor Copse, similar to Wistman’s Wood, holds significant importance for nature. Preserving and rejuvenating these types of natural surroundings is a main focus for us, and we collaborate closely with farm tenants and other partners to implement various environmental strategies and improvements.”

“After beginning the process of expanding Wistman’s Wood last year, we are currently collaborating with Natural England to develop a strategy for further improving Black-a-Tor Copse. We are committed to involving all users of the area in our ongoing discussions.”

Shrubsole commented, “The efforts by the Duchy at Wistman’s Wood are commendable. The logical next step would be to implement similar measures at their other rainforest property.”

Source: theguardian.com