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Widecombe History Group Talk January 2001
Mr. Geoffrey Weymouth, local Farmer and Naturalist, gave an illustrated talk on the River Dart and its Wildlife following the East Dart, from its source, near Cranmere Pool, through Postbridge, Bellever, Dartmeet, (where it joins the West Dart) and on to Newbridge and Holne Bridge.
He commenced by taking us to Okehampton Army Camp and following the military road to observer post No. 15. He then walked to Cranmere Pool showing us a photo of the famous Letter Box, which was the first one on Dartmoor. This then grew to originally eight Letter Boxes on Dartmoor, there are now some 2000 or more spread all over the Moors. In spite of its name there is no water at Cranmere Pool but about half-a-mile away the East Dart rises. Most of Devon’s rivers start on the high moor as just a small amount of water weeping out of the peaty mass. Down stream can be seen Hanging Stone Hill and Peat Cut in what Geoffrey described as the Northern Fen and the river starts to run due south. Interesting photographs of some peat cutting, the ruins of a tinners hut, and the range marking poles, several of which can be found on the open moors were shown. The river gradually gets larger as it heads down through Kit Rocks and Sandy Hole Pass on its way to Postbridge. He showed us photographs of the wildlife which can be encountered in this area which included the Bog Cotton Grass, a flock of Golden Plover, Red Grouse and a Lapwing on its nest being of particular interest, as the bird was standing over its nest with its wings spread in an effort to keep the nest cool on what was a hot summer day. It is believed that Tin miners restricted the width of the river at Sandy Hole Pass to increase the speed and flow of the water. When he reached The Waterfall he photographed a Red Admiral Butterfly and a little further on, where the river does a right-angled bend, he showed us a beehive hut (tinners cache), several of these too can be found on the northern moor, somewhat like a stone igloo, and a few hundred yards east of the river is the Sheepfold. Its walls some eight feet high on top of which he found three Carrion Crow nests complete with three eggs in each. Out on the open moor Crows will often nest in Willow Trees. Another butterfly photographed in that area was the Gatekeeper or Hedgebrown and just under Hartland Tor he showed us a Skylark with young in the nest. Also a delightful photograph of both sexes of the Wheatear, one of our summer visitors. The burial mound, Cistvean, near Roundy Park and thence on through the driftway to Postbridge which is used in the Autumn to bring the ponies down from the high moors to the farms.
A beautiful scene of Postbridge in the winter with its two bridges, the present day road bridge and the old ‘clapper bridge’, and on to Bellever, it too having two bridges over the river and he showed us some of the plant life, for example the Heath Milk Wort with its purple flower, the yellow Tormentil, and other vegetation. Then shown to us was the Windchat and Stonechat, two lovely birds that visit us regularly for the summer on the moors. He explained how the Windchat likes to perch on the highest twig near its nest and to obtain some of his best pictures, he places a twig a little higher than those naturally there, and focuses his camera on the top of that twig, stands well back, and by radio, controls the shutter. A clever bit of work! In the Conifer plantation near Bellever can be found the Siskin, one of our smallest finches. The river goes on past Snaily House, Laughter Hole, where the late Mrs. Ruth Murray had a Badger Sanctury, and passed Babeny, one of the original Dartmoor Tenancies, to where the East Dart joins the Wallabrook. Photographs of the Clapper Bridge over the Wallabrook and the near-by Stepping stones were shown, and Canada Geese, which have now established themselves on the Moors, and the wonderful little Dipper that always makes its nest, sometimes as much as nine feet above the water, and its young when they leave the nest, just drop into the fast flowing water. On to Dartmeet, where as its name implies, the East Dart and West Dart meet and continues on as what is locally known as the Double Dart. Dartmeet too has the two different bridges, the clapper bridge in poor state of repair.
A variety of wildlife can be seen as one travels downstream from Dartmeet and to emphasise this, we were shown photographs of the Grey Wagtail, the Kingfisher, complete with a small fish in its beak - Geoffrey explained to us that the parent bird turns the fish so that it can present it to its young head first, that way the young can swallow the fish whole. If the adult bird was to eat it itself, it would turn the fish, so that it too could swallow it head first. The Heron was also featured on its nest with three young and a quite remarkable photograph of a male and female Buzzard with young in the nest.
Geoffrey then explained some more about his methods for obtaining some of these beautiful pictures. There is of course a need to prepare ‘hides’ to get near enough for this kind of nature photography. Hides that resemble rocks are ideal for up on the moors. In the woods where the nests are high above the ground he has developed a way of constructing what can only be described as a builders tower, sometimes 20-25 feet high so as to get in a position to capture the Buzzard, Raven and Heron etc. A massive nest of a Raven under Benjie (Bench) Tor was an example of the reward that can be achieved from such devotion and hard work. These nests are used year after year and that is why they are so large - refurbished and added to each year. The Pied Wagtail, Yellow Hammer and Redstart were amongst other birds shown and various plants including the Hawkweed, Royal Fern and the profusion of trees. Wonderful scenes of the Dart as it made its way to Newbridge.
The Speckled Wood, a fairly common butterfly that can be seen all through the summer from April to November, the Brimstone and the rare White Admiral can be found in this area between Newbridge and Holne Bridge, and a variety of plants including Betony and Meadowsweet. Amongst the bird life we were shown the Jay and the pretty Nuthatch. This clever little bird finds a hole in a tree and carries mud up to the hole and using it like cement makes the hole smaller to the exact size so that only it can get in and out. What a clever way of keeping predators out! On passed Buckland Bridge where the River Webburn meets the Dart, under Lovers Leap and the wonderful scenery as the River makes its way to Holne Bridge where Geoffrey had photographed a mammal which was introduced to the British countryside years ago and has now become an established pest, but makes a wonderful picture, the Grey Squirrel.
So ended a most enjoyable, educational and delightful illustrated talk.
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