An independent voice and a forum for debate for those who find Dartmoor a source of livelihood or inspiration

News From January 2012

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

Posted in Responses/Comments on Sunday 22nd January 2012 at 9:55pm

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.

Back to top

Response of the Dartmoor Society to DNPA's "Development Management and Delivery Development Plan Document, Consultation Draft July 2011"

Posted in Responses/Comments on Sunday 22nd January 2012 at 9:39pm

General comment

In the Introduction to this document of 193 pages, paragraph 1.1.2 states ‘The DMD provides the more detailed policies that are needed to supplement the strategic policies in the Core Strategy Development Plan Document’.

In our Newsletter 35, June 2009 we noted that ‘It is slightly disconcerting to be told that somehow the Core Strategy and Management Plan (to which very significant resources have been applied) are not sufficient in themselves to guide the decision-makers, but we must welcome the principle of more detailed policies being developed in some areas of management.’

It would now seem that our cautious optimism was misplaced as, apart from its inclusion of Settlement Maps, there is little to distinguish this document from the Core Strategy. The consequence is that we now have a second layer of policies, not clearly distinguishable from each other, as well as a third layer of policies in the DNPA Management Plan. This is totally unnecessary bureaucracy (imposed by Government) and a patently obvious waste of resources when one policy document should suffice for all three.

In May 2009 we sent very specific comments to DNPA on some of the sixty-nine Topics included for discussion in the draft DMD document, plus comment on other issues. Our comments are published in our Newsletter 36, October 2009, 7–10.

It is disappointing that scrutiny of the present document reveals that most of the Dartmoor Society’s comments of May 2009 have been ignored, without any opportunity for discussion. There are two significant exceptions where our views have been supported, at least partially – a) DMD 28 Replacement Dwellings in the countryside – this gives greater control over replacement dwellings. b) DMD 31 Low Impact dwellings in the Countryside  - this is the first DNPA policy to recognise the potential benefit of ‘alternative’ forms of dwelling, and has relevance to the Steward Wood Community whom we have consistently supported in the face of aggressive opposition from DNPA.

The Settlement Maps, which in principle are a valuable addition, are actually disappointingly bland. Some show nothing at all apart from the layout of the settlement. This is a missed opportunity – they should show, for example, all those buildings which are statutorily listed, the location of all known archaeological features recorded on the HER, and the presence of open space and gardens, plus significant natural features such as trees covered by Tree Preservation Orders. Some simple colour coding would enable such information to be clearly presented. Without such information, the parish community and the lay person is little the wiser about what is known and protected in their place.

Many of the proposed policies are stating the obvious, given that national parks  are ‘confirmed by Government as having the highest status of protection in relation to landscape and scenic beauty’ (para 2.1.4). Somewhat worryingly, in the same paragraph ‘conservation of wildlife and the cultural heritage’ appear to be given a lesser status as ‘also important considerations’.
The more specific policies (DMD17–DMD31) are the most useful ones.

The successful outcome of all policies depends on the dissemination of sound information and the constant training of both officers and members of DNPA.

Detailed comment (numbers are taken from the DMD document)

2.4 Military related development

It is high time that DNPA recognised and stated that the current  management of the Dartmoor Training Area is not ‘in conflict with national park purposes’ and indeed makes a positive contribution to many of them.

2.7 National Park landscape

Core Strategic Aim – Landscape Evolution – the phrase ‘archaeological qualities’ is a strange one. Perhaps ‘tangible presence of the past’ would be better.

2.7.2 ‘drivers of future landscape change’ – there should be a statement in this paragraph about the negative influence of increasing population pressure and the increasing consumption of resources.

2.8.4 Moor and Heath of Conservation Importance –  the ‘conservation importance’ of Moor and Heath needs to be defined/expressed more fully – ‘natural beauty’ is not a sufficient description to justify conservation alone and there needs to be inclusion of the cultural landscape.

2.8.6 Orchards – the fact that only 76ha of orchards survive (780 separate orchards existed within DNP in 1960) should be a matter of major concern and there should be a strong policy to actively encourage their renovation/recreation.

2.9. Built Environment and 2.10 Historic Built Environment

There is much mention of ‘heritage assets’ (‘not designated but which have heritage value and which are therefore a material planning consideration’) arising out of the Government PPS5 – Planning for the Historic Environment. While the concept has some merit, DNPA has for many years been notoriously bad at giving non-designated features of archaeological or historic interest due consideration when giving advice on, or taking, development control decisions. Policies DMD (iv), DMD9, DMD10 and DMD12 and paras 2.10.2.–2.10.6 and 2.10.9 have a hollow ring to them in view of the recent fate of historic buildings within the Conservation Area of Princetown, of Yellowmeade Farm,  of a granite barn at Two Bridges Hotel, and of Mount Pleasant Farm, Murchington, besides numerous other sites. It is good to have a policy in place, but it will have no effect unless officers and members are constantly trained and informed about new data and ideas relating to the historic environment.

In particular, there needs to be a policy statement specifically relating to 20th century buildings and their importance in architectural, historical and social terms, as they are the buildings often most at risk through a misplaced assumption that somehow they are of lesser importance than older buildings.

Para 2.10.6 – mention of ‘Boulton & Paul’ needs expanding such as ‘Boulton & Paul bungalows of the early 20th century’.

2.10.16, line 1 – add ‘or heritage asset’ after ‘listed building’ as many heritage assets are not listed.

2.11 Archaeology

This is not a clearly written section, and contains repetition. There needs to be a clearer statement about the extent and time-frame of archaeology on Dartmoor, including mention of 20th century features such as industrial and wartime sites. Is the correct terminology ‘Scheduled Monument’ or ’Scheduled Ancient Monument’?  The former seems increasingly used (and is used in the Ancient Monuments & Archaeological Areas Act 1979), so why is the term ‘ancient monument’ used in the text?

We remain critical of the concept of PALs (Premier Archaeological Landscapes), claimed to be of ‘international importance’ (2.11.2), as an inappropriate (and ineffective) management tool of open moorland or moorland newtakes because they create a hierarchy of value which implies that non-PAL areas are somehow less important. Para 2.11.3 reveals a very muddled and unsatisfactory state of affairs. What is needed is a strong statement giving an overall designation for all open moorland, moorland newtakes and access land as ‘culturally significant’ with a presumption against any development.

Para 2.11.4 ‘The skeleton of the present day enclosed landscape is of some antiquity and contains many archaeological sites’ is a very odd sentence, and needs rewriting. What exactly is meant by ‘skeleton’  and ‘some antiquity’ in this context?

2.12 Biodiversity and geological conservation

Figure 2 – Strategic Nature Areas - this map and its key are curious, and needs careful checking. Much Woodland seems to be missing from it, and much of what is shown as ‘Neutral Grassland’ is surely Woodland? The heart sinks at yet another designation ‘Strategic Nature Area’.

2.14.4, line 27 Renewable energy – add ‘and archaeological’ after ‘ecological’.
DMD21 – Telecommunications Development. The final paragraph of this policy states that a ‘condition will be applied requiring the removal of all structures and the reinstatement of the site if the development becomes redundant’. This should be deleted as such a policy is in conflict with good archaeological management practice of leaving at least the foundations of any abandoned structure. It is specially important in relation to modern structures which are easily labelled as ‘eyesores’ once abandoned and yet have an important story to tell, and are silent historic witnesses once abandoned. A good example of management has recently been implemented by Sibelco UK relating to modern clayworking structures south of Cadover Bridge (see ‘In Focus’ in Dartmoor Online, Autumn 2011 – www.dartmooronline.co.uk).

If such a condition had been applied to Dartmoor in the past we would have no archaeology left at all!

2.20 Housing

This must be considered one of the most important issues, and more data is needed.

2.20.6 Housing provision – There needs to be a Table showing the numbers of dwellings built and permissions given in the period 1996–2011 (this corresponds to the Devon County Structure Plan period for which there was a ‘target’ of 800 new dwellings within that 15-year period). The ‘target’ figure has been greatly exceeded and there needs to be a statement about this in the present document. The ‘indicative level’ of 50 units per year 2006-2026 also needs context, including the fact that in the two-year period 2006-2008  permissions for 247 new dwellings had already been given (see Newsletter 36 p.9).

2.20.11 Definition of ‘local people’ – Consideration should be given to including ‘essential service providers’ under the definition of ‘local people’.

2.20.19 ‘larger cohorts’ is a strange expression.

2.20.22 Domestic gardens – These should not be defined as ‘previously developed land’ but should be redefined as ‘open space of wildlife, cultural, social and visual importance’.

2.20.25 and DMD25 – Extensions – There should be a policy presumption against extensions as they diminish the stock of smaller dwellings. Permitted Development Rights should be removed within Dartmoor National Park.

2.20.28 and DMD28 – Replacement dwellings in the countryside – We welcome the stronger protective statements here, including the removal of Permitted Development Rights, but it would be helpful to reinforce them by stressing the importance of many 20th century buildings which are often seen as candidates for replacement.

2.20.31 and DMD31 – low impact dwellings in the countryside – We welcome this new approach to low impact dwellings but the phrase about restoration of the site to its former condition when occupation ceases (para 2.20.31, lines 16-18) should be deleted for the reasons stated above (DMD21).

2.24 Public conveniences

We feel there should be a policy about the desirability of having public conveniences in heavily-used recreational areas e.g. Cadover Bridge.

Part 3 – Settlement Policies and Proposals

3.2 Ashburton

There is no evidence to support the specific date of 1285. We suggest deletion of ‘since 1285’.

3.2.6 Stannary Town – The prosperity of the tin industry in Ashburton actually peaked in the first half of the 16th century, not the end of the 15th century.

3.4 Chagford

3.4.8 Stannary Town – In 1305 Chagford was confirmed as a coinage/stannary town. It had existed as a coinage town before then.

There are extensive ancient tinworks in Biera Wood which is shown on the east of the map p.97 – this should be mentioned in addition to Bellacouch Meadow (which is not shown on the map, and should be).

3.5 Horrabridge

3.5.3 There is no evidence that Horrabridge was established in the 14th century – it will have existed long before then as a settlement. Mention should be made of the important evidence of medieval and later tinworking at Fillace Park, linked to Furzehill mine, and to Wheal Franco which was one of the most important copper mines on west Dartmoor.

3.5.4 ‘Inappropriate development’ – DNPA needs to recognise that this development was approved by DNPA!

3.7 Princetown

More than any other Dartmoor settlement, Princetown has suffered a considerable loss of historic fabric in recent years through demolition and neglect of key 19th century and Edwardian buildings within the Conservation Area! The most notable recent casualties have been Morwenna/Stoneycliffe House and Bolts Stores, but include the Town Hall (designed by Richardson & Gill) and many other structures.

Thus the statement that the Duchy Square Centre for Creativity has ‘improved the character and appearance of the village centre’ rings very hollowly, as does much of para 3.7.5, especially the claim that the Conservation Area is ‘an important asset in its tourist appeal’, as well as the claim that there has been ‘conservation and enhancement of heritage assets’ and that (3.7.7) Princetown’s ‘architecture tells an important story’.  The reality has been the exact opposite, with the destruction of much of what should have been recognised as a unique settlement of the 19th and early 20th century.
It is vitally important that the present document recognises that errors have been made and that there are still key buildings at risk e.g. Grosvenor House, Prison Officers’ Social Club etc.

3.9 Yelverton

The importance of Plymouth/Drake’s Leat and the Devonport Leat needs to be mentioned, as well as the route of the Plymouth & Dartmoor Tramway.

3.9.1 Airfield – Correction needed – this is sited on Roborough Down and was known as Harrowbeer Aerodrome.

3.16 Cornwood

3.16.3 Bridge – There was an ancient bridge here – the earliest reference known to it is in 1568 (a tinworking deed).

3.19 Dousland

3.19.2 Correction needed: the quarry is on the north-east side of the village not the south-east side as stated.

3.20 Drewsteignton

Mention should be made of the lime quarries.

3.24 Ilsington

Mention should be made of the important restoration of several of the houses in the village in the late 1930s by Capt. C.W. Quelch (see Shears, R.T. (1968) Conservation of Devon Cottages). It is surprising that Ilsington does not have a Conservation Area.

3.27 Lydford

There should be a statement about the integrity and attractiveness of the 19th century buildings of Lydford. The site of ancient Lydford Mill should be included within the Conservation Area, as well as the road junction and field containing the prehistoric barrow (‘tumulus’)/gallows site/windmill site, WNW of the war memorial.

3.27.4 There never was a ‘stannary courthouse’ here, only the gaol. However, the Forest Court was held in the Castle. The Castle itself deserves mention!

3.29 Mary Tavy

The Conservation Area should include ‘Croftner’ at the junction of Bal Lane with the A386.

3.30 Meavy

3.30.4 Deserted farmsteads – these should be shown on the map. Warrens is known as a farm site but where are Bowdens and Palmers?

3.31 Murchington

3.31.1 - mention should be made of Mount Pleasant Farm having origins around AD 1400.

3.34 Peter Tavy

Mention should be made of its strong mining tradition, and of the rare presence of a working farm (Chubb Farm) in the centre of the village.

3.43 Walkhampton

What has happened to its proposed Conservation Area?

3.45 Widecombe-in-the-Moor

The whole of North Hall should be within the Conservation Area.

Back to top

Note: The copyright of the articles on this page belongs to The Dartmoor Society (unless otherwise stated).