Dartmoor, England: Preserving an Ancient Man-Made Wilderness

By Jenny Coates

Dartmoor is famous as an area of outstanding natural beauty, but in fact, most of it is man-made.

Native ponies roam freely on Dartmoor
Native ponies roam freely on Dartmoor

Sitting on the top of Hound Tor, an ungainly stack of boulders looking out over the bracken-covered slopes, it’s hard to believe. But the landscape is not all prehistoric plate tectonics and wild ferns.

The rolling fields and hedgerows, the ancient green lanes, the herds of ponies and even some of the strange rock formations are the continuing work of centuries of farmers.

And now Dartmoor, one of the last remaining wilderness areas of the UK, is under threat. Its farms and native breeds are in decline, and before long the few remaining farmers may have to give up as costs rise and demand for their produce dwindles.

But there is one new herd on the moor that might save it. The tourists.

Philippa and Sebastian Hughes have recently restored Holwell, an old farm in North Dartmoor where they now keep pigs and cows of traditional local breeds, and a wide collection of ducks, chickens and dogs, as well as a herd of native Dartmoor ponies. But the main income from their 500 acre estate is holiday makers who come to stay.

Outbuildings that were once calving stalls, kennels, piggeries, threshing barns and stables have been converted into luxurious cottages. They now have real log fires, fitted kitchens and freezers stocked with meat fresh from the farm – which of course is just outside the door, waiting to be explored.

Holwell Farm in Dartmoor
Holwell Farm

Guests can watch the farm at work – piglets being born, cattle being fed, ducklings hatching out – and learn only too quickly how much activity is involved in keeping the rugged moorland alive.

The Holwell scheme to provide holidays in the middle of a working farm has captured the imaginations of television viewers too. Holwell Farm was recently featured on Discovery Real Time, in a show about the challenge of turning a derelict farm into a sustainable business.

When my partner and I arrived it was haymaking time. A haze of heat and pollen hung heavily over the moor. The view over the rippling grassland, with the rocky tors on the horizon, was breathtaking and I was glad to sit in the garden behind our cottage and just gaze out at the herds of ponies dozing in the heat on the hillsides.

But on the farm, it was all hands to the pumps for the weekend to cut the hay and bale it before the thunderstorm forecasted for Monday morning. While we wandered over the common and explored the nearby villages of Bovey Tracey and Widecombe, the Hughes family were cutting hay as fast as they could, on a mission to make 8000 bales.

Dartmoor is one of the last wilderness areas in the UK
Dartmoor is one of the last wilderness areas in the UK

Blissfully unaware of the industrious work going on all around us, we wandered among the rock pools of Becky Falls, Dartmoor’s longest waterfall, and clambered on the high tors to take photos of the empty moorland and the wheeling birds. Dartmoor is an amazing place to relax.

There is not much relaxing on the farms, however. The wind, rain and poor soil of the moor means that farms here cannot support the same number of animals per hectare as other areas, and they struggle to compete with the low prices now charged by lowland farmers and importers.

“Farmers have to manage the landscape to keep the local breeds and the wildlife safe,” explains Philippa. “If our cattle and ponies do not graze the land, the bracken will choke the more delicate plants and many rare species will lose their habitats.”

Even the wild ponies that Dartmoor is famous for are not actually wild – they are all owned by farmers, who round them up each year to check their health and monitor their breeding. The ponies too are in decline now because new ownership rules, such as compulsory horse ‘passports’ and a program of castration, have made the herds too expensive for farmers to keep. Dartmoor ponies are now rarer than giant pandas.

At Holwell Farm you can arrange to explore the moor on horseback.
At Holwell Farm you can arrange to explore the moor on horseback.

“Farmers are encouraged to keep all the traditional breeds and moorland landscapes going. But just managing the land and the rare breeds does not generate enough income to survive on,” Philippa told us. ‘”If you want to live on Dartmoor you have to have lots of different activities and ideas to offer people.

“By buying local produce, our visitors can reduce food-miles and support the Dartmoor farmers at the same time. But that means we have to provide them with as many different local things as we can.”

Everywhere we went on Dartmoor, the message was the same: Buy local and keep the moor alive. The variety of produce on offer was enormous; farmers’ markets and farm shops offer everything from traditional fresh clotted cream to sausages made with local pork and local honey, and the Devon Guild of Craftsmen in Bovey Tracey has a wonderful exhibition of local crafts and textiles, which you can buy or simply browse through in the art gallery they have built inside the town’s old water mill.

At Berry Head Nature Reserve, a beautiful grassy headland on the Torbay coast south of the moor, Philippa’s words about the importance of farming were echoed by the Countryside Trust. We learned that grazing cattle are vital to protect the endangered Greater Horseshoe bats in the area. Without cow dung, the insects that the bats thrive on would disappear.

Widecombe in the Moor
Widecombe in the Moor

At the headquarters of the national park at Parke Estate, you can walk in the quiet woods or along the river Bovey for hours at a time, forgetting that other people even exist in the moorland wilderness.

But even there, we found out more about the people who have shaped the landscape. Ancient carts and sleds, once used to drag the granite mined on Dartmoor out to the cities for building, are displayed in the Parke Estate offices. London Bridge and the British Museum in London were built from granite dragged out from Dartmoor’s underbelly.

The lives of Dartmoor’s most ancient inhabitants are one of the most fascinating things to investigate there. Holwell Farm itself has the remains of a prehistoric settlement, as well as sunken green lanes that were once the thoroughfares to the nearby towns.

The green lanes and wetland areas are also a haven for wildlife spotters. Plants such as water mint, marsh thistle and yellow flag iris have been recorded, and birds including curlews, lapwings, buzzards, skylarks and willow warblers can be spotted. At Holwell, Philippa has a species list from a recent wildlife survey made at the farm, which she will print out for visitors who are interested in spotting the different species.

The variety of trees, birds and animals on Dartmoor is incredible everywhere you go. And because much of it is common land, you can simply wander among the tors and valleys, exploring the ancient landscape for yourself.

Sunset over Dartmoor
Sunset over Dartmoor

And if you want to get really close to Dartmoor’s nature, and spend time in different parts of the moor, camping is a good way to explore. Many of the obliging farmers offer camping barns or fields where you can pitch tents.

On many parts of the moor you can also camp wild. As long as you stick to unfenced common land and do not light fires or leave litter, a night on the open moor can offer unrivalled peace and quiet.

Of course, there is another side to the moor; the weather is one factor that really hasn’t been tamed. The promised storm came to Holwell a day early, at 6 a.m. on Sunday morning. For us, awakened by the thunder, it was a spectacular electric light show across the craggy backdrop of the tors outside our cottage windows.

But for the Hughes family, it meant disaster. All the hay still waiting to be baled that day was drenched and Philippa tells us much of it will be lost – a great disappointment during the first year that Holwell had produced enough hay to sell some of it.

It is certainly not an easy life on Dartmoor. But it is a fascinating place to discover England’s oldest ancestors and the way they shaped the land. And perhaps as visitors there, we can help to make sure that the shape it takes in the future is equally beautiful.

The organic farm shop at Occombe Farm
The organic farm shop at Occombe Farm

We’re glad we visited:

Holwell Farm Cottages – self-catering holiday cottages sleeping six or ten, on a working farm in North Dartmoor
Tel: 00 44 1364 631471

Occombe Farm –organic working farm near Paignton with an education centre and nature reserve which can be studied by CCTV
Occombe Farm Project, Preston Down Road, Paignton, Devon TQ3 1RN.
Tel 00 44 1803 520022

Becky Falls Woodland Park – woodland walks around a site of special scientific interest with massive waterfalls and granite boulders
Tel: 00 44 1647 221259

Ullacombe Farm Shop – small farm shop on a working farm, selling all kinds of local goodies from gooey cakes to organic vegetables to chutneys
Tel: 00 44 1364 661341.

Berry Head Nature Reserve – a haven for several nationally rare and threatened species, with guided walks available around beautiful cliffs and ruined roman fortifications
00 44 1803 882619 email

The National Marine Aquarium – hundreds of different species of sea life and freshwater fish in tanks which surround you on all sides, even below your feet and above your head. The aquarium has some spectacular sharks and rays, and has a detailed programme for school visitors and other group visits
01752 600 301

We Wish We’d Visited:

Brimpts Farm – a working farm incorporating camping and self-catered accommodation, the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust Visitor Centre where visitors can meet the now endangered Dartmoor Ponies, and many self-guided walking routes around ancient tin mining sites and wildlife habitats
01364 631450

Paignton Zoo – 250 exotic animal species, 70 of which are endangered, in ‘habitat zones’ with a detailed programme of educational activities and worksheets
01803 697500

Keep in touch with life on Holwell Farm at the Dartmoor Journal.

Jenny Coates

Jenny Coates, a press officer and freelance writer from Berkshire, UK, funds her travels by working as an animal artist in her spare time. For a portrait of your pet, visit pet-portraits-online.co.uk.

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