Act to save Dartmoor rainforest from sheep, urge campaigners

<span>Black-a-Tor Copse is one of only three ancient high-altitude oak woodlands on Dartmoor.</span><span>Photograph: Derek Stone/Alamy</span>
Black-a-Tor Copse is one of only three ancient high-altitude oak woodlands on Dartmoor.Photograph: Derek Stone/Alamy

There are acorns galore and tiny oaks sprouting from tussocky grass beside the gnarled ancient trees of Black-a-Tor Copse on the northern slopes of Dartmoor national park.

But each tiny sapling grows no higher than a sheep’s chin and there it stays, its new shoots and tender leaves repeatedly shorn each spring by the livestock roaming through this national nature reserve.

Guy Shrubsole, the campaigner and author of The Lost Rainforests of Britain, is urging the authorities to take action to save this unique fragment of ancient temperate forest.

“Overgrazing by sheep is preventing any saplings and young trees from growing on the edge of this amazing temperate rainforest, and without new trees Black-a-Tor Copse will eventually die,” said Shrubsole. “We urgently need the landowner, the national park and the conservation authorities to step in and save this unique and special place.”

Alongside the renowned Wistman’s Wood, Black-a-Tor Copse is one of only three ancient high-altitude oak woodlands on Dartmoor, a habitat that is home to a plethora of spectacular bryophytes, lichens, and rare invertebrates including the ash-black slug and the blue ground beetle.

Because Black-a-Tor Copse’s oaks are growing in a severe moorland environment more than 360 metres above sea level, the trees do not stretch much above six metres in height and are twisted by the wind.

The 29-hectare nature reserve is a site of special scientific interest and an enigmatic relic of woodland that once covered much more of the steep-sided valleys across Dartmoor and far-western England.

Centuries of intensive grazing by cattle, sheep and ponies have left only tiny patches of woodland, which have mostly survived only because the trees grow out of boulder fields, where the large granite stones give young saplings some protection from livestock grazing.

Despite its rarity, Black-a-Tor Copse is unfenced and scores of sheep grazed on the adjacent commons wander into it, constantly nibbling the trees and ground flora. According to ecologists, some grazing is required in the wood to preserve certain plants and its unusually open character.

More than 15 years ago, after a group of ancient oak trees in the heart of wood died suddenly because of naturally occurring honey fungus, Natural England, the government’s conservation watchdog that leases the nature reserve from the Duchy of Cornwall, oversaw a project to create 25 fenced areas to allow new trees to naturally regenerate.

Faced with the challenge of transporting 100 fence posts and 300 metres of plastic netting two miles from the nearest road, the army – which uses adjacent areas of the moor as firing ranges – stepped in and helicoptered the fencing into position.

The fenced areas helped saplings grow without being grazed by sheep but the “exclosures” were removed in 2010-11 because they were no longer sheep-proof. Today, the few young trees that survive the incessant sheep grazing are permanently stunted by repeated browsing by the animals.

Shrubsole, who is campaigning for Britain’s temperate rainforests to be helped to grow and expand, called for the reinstatement of fenced areas to enable young oaks to grow up and the wood to regenerate.

“Black-a-Tor Copse used to be much larger than it is today – we know from Tudor-era records that it used to stretch further along the valley, but an area was felled for firewood,” he said. “We urgently need to let this fragment of temperate rainforest expand and become more resilient to the climate crisis and outbreaks of disease. Dartmoor’s steep river valleys and boulder fields could be supporting lots more woods like these – but that won’t happen unless we prevent sheep from the surrounding commons eating all the young trees.”

According to Natural England, there are no plans to build new exclosures to protect young trees in the wood.

Wesley Smyth, Natural England’s deputy director for the Devon area, said: “While grazing animals has impacted tree and shrub regeneration at Black-a-Tor, it is one of a range of factors such as honey fungus that have contributed to its current condition, and some grazing will continue to be needed in the woodland to preserve its unique flora and characteristics. We are working closely with the Duchy of Cornwall and commoners to manage this shared landscape in a way that secures a long-term, sustainable future for Black-a-Tor copse and its wildlife.”

Prince William last year announced plans for the Duchy of Cornwall to double the size of Wistman’s Wood, a 7.4-acre fragment of ancient rainforest that is increasingly popular with visitors. The royal estate will allow the wood to regenerate naturally by reducing cattle grazing, improving footpaths so the public do not stray into sensitive areas of regenerating woodland and plant new trees from seed collected in the wood.

A spokesperson for the Duchy of Cornwall said: “Black-a-Tor Copse, much like Wistman’s Wood, is a very special place for nature. Protecting and restoring these types of habitats is one of our top priorities and we work closely with farm tenants and other partners to deliver a wide range of environmental management and enhancement.

“Having commenced the expansion of Wistman’s Wood last year, we are now working closely with Natural England on a plan to further enhance Black-a-Tor Copse. We will ensure that those using the area are fully engaged in the ongoing discussions.”

Shrubsole added: “It’s wonderful what the Duchy are doing at Wistman’s Wood. The obvious next step is to replicate that work at the second rainforest they own.”