History Group Talk March 2009

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An Illustrated talk on “Dartmoor Wildlife”

by John Walters.

John Walters of Buckfastleigh gave the group a most interesting and brilliantly illustrated talk about the Wildlife of Dartmoor.  Dartmoor with its varied habitats, is a marvellous source of research for anyone interested in all aspects of wildlife. The various habitats maintain such a diversity of vegetation and hence the variety of wildlife that depends on them. The climate with the prevailing west and south west winds, create a predominately moist atmosphere, which in turn produces a perfect environment for a wide variety of flora and fauna. He began by looking at Buckfastleigh Caves to demonstrate how long Dartmoor has existed. The rock formations within the caves show how when they were ‘laid down’, all those thousands of years ago, Dartmoor must have been like the arctic tundra of today. When they were discovered, the remain of now extinct animals were found, Straight Tusk Elephants, Bison, Hippopotamus as well as Badger, Fox and Deer. Looking at the different types of habitat now on the moors, he first considered the “Blanket Bog”. Wet saturated ground where much to our delight, some breed of birds normally found farther north, in small quantities still nest, like the Golden Plover. In these areas Sphagnum Moss also thrives. This area acts like a sponge, collecting the high rainfall and gradually releasing it into the river system. Next, “The Heather Moorland”, the like of which can be seen in The Warren House Inn area. The Purple Heathers, intermixed with The Western Gorse, creates that wonderful vista of purple and gold each autumn. The three different heathers, bell, ling and the crossed leaf, all add to the variety of shades experienced. The Emperor Moth, with its type of silkworm caterpillar, the only one of that type in Britain can be found feeding in this habitat. Other insects include the only Tarantula Spider we have, which grows to about one centimetre long, living in its purse shaped web. The Green Tiger Beetle, the Devil’s Coach horse, reptiles like lizards and snakes all like this type of habitat. Several photographs of these creatures were shown including a Black Adder photographed near Bonehill Rocks. Adders can live for up to thirty years. The bird life in these areas include Stonechat, Meadow Pipit, sometimes found rearing young Cuckoos, Ringed Ouzels, Wheatears and much more. Rabbits, Foxes and other mammals can also be found and the fact that so much wildlife exists shows how many are dependant on each other, either acting as food for, or as predators of, each other. The “Grassy Moor” with its tall grasses and bracken, which is grazed by the livestock create the ideal situation for another group of insects. The dung left by the animals, readily gets invaded by dung-beetles of various types, the area can be a breeding ground for ticks and other blood-sucking creatures. This habitat is well known for High Brown Fritillaries, a beautiful butterfly, and one that is getting more scarce so need our support for their conservation. Fungi are found in these areas as well, due to the soil being undisturbed for years it is ideal for the spreading of their fine rhizomes and spores. The many species of fungi is a study in itself. The “Valley Mires” with their diversity of flowers including the carnivorous Sundews and the lovely little Pimpernels, have a beauty all of their own. The “Rocky Clitters”, they too act as a fascinating area of exploration. The lichens, far too many to describe in one evening, are abundant, again a study in their own right. The ferns that grow amongst the rocks and the Ravens that nest there, means that this too is somewhere to sit and contemplate. Then there are the “Woodlands”. The old woodlands that have lasted through the years, Whistman’s Wood, the indigenous Oak woodlands still found in our valleys. The mixed woodlands that have developed over the years, some where coppicing has been practiced, all creates a wide variety of different habitats within their respective boundaries. The mosses that grow on some trees, the lichens, the different barks all help to act as camouflage for moths and other insects. Some night fliers have wonderful camouflage during the day, to protect them from predators. These can be birds, hornets, wasps and sometimes reptiles and mammals. The activity of the Jay as it harvests acorns, takes them away and buries them for a store. Several of these are never found, but they germinate and so the oak tree is helped in its regeneration. There is also “The Wet Woodland”. Deer have now returned to Dartmoor in many places and are often found in the woodland. That rare bird the Nightjar when it nests on the ground has wonderful camouflage, and can easily be mistaken for a piece of dead wood, an excellent photograph of this was shown. There is also of course “The Farmland” with, in some places, the traditional Dartmoor Hay Meadows. These are rich in flora and fauna. Some have examples of Rhos Pasture, and need grazing in the autumn to maintain their importance to the environment of their area. John finished his fascinating talk by mentioning other things that the casual observer should look out for. In some areas of Dartmoor during wet periods, ponds or puddles appear in semi-sunken areas. These dry up during the summer and can easily be ignored. However, often Fairy Shrimps can be found in these ponds, they lay their eggs while the place is damp. When it dries out the shrimps die, but they re-appear next year when the rains come, as the next generation hatch. A peculiar life cycle but one that exists. The activities of different birds. Some really fight to maintain their territory for breeding, some build their nests above streams and the young when ready to leave their nest just drop into the water, the Dipper and Goosander are examples of this.His last short video showed the amazing flight of a million Starlings. First sat on the ground, then all at once they lift-off into the air and do remarkable acrobatics. This brought back to several of us the days when up to three million starlings used to roost at Sousons Plantation. They would fly in late of an afternoon from all points of the compass, to roost over night. The flocks would blot out the sun, their chattering and the noise of their wings would fill the air, and you would need to take cover from their droppings. Many a Dartmoor housewife would make sure the washing was brought indoors before three o’clock, to save having to do the washing all over again the next day.


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