Mark Rowe's walk in Exmoor: Day two

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Day two of environment and travel journalist Mark Rowe's walk in Exmoor.

The next day’s walk headed south from Allerford into Horner Wood, a National Nature Reserve and, at 331 hectares, one of the UK’s largest ancient oak woodlands.

Horner Wood

In terms of wildlife, the wood’s main draw is 15 of the 17 UK species of bat.  What I took away, though, was the breathtaking memory of hundreds, probably thousands, of trees entirely clad in green, as if someone had crept along and smeared every exposed fragment of bark with a luminous green highlighter pen. In fact, the trees are mantled in lichens, a real feature of many of Exmoor’s combes and woodlands.  A sign of good air quality, they flourish in the mild Atlantic winds that drift into Exmoor.

When you walk in the depths of Horner Wood, the canopy feels very dense, impenetrable even, but climb out of it along Tucker’s Path, and you notice how much light floods in.  The wood has been thinned out and this allows light to penetrate the canopy and further bolster the lichens.

The trees here are influenced by the industries that have exploited Exmoor over the centuries.  Sessile oak, for example, is good for the tanning industry, while elsewhere are scattered fragments of Tudor iron mills and charcoal burning.

You’ll see coppiced and pollarded trees, the result of farming for wood pasture, fuel wood and grazing for livestock.  In the scrub you might hear chiffchaffs, while up in the mature trees pied flycatchers should by now have returned from their African migration.

Paul brought me sharply back to reality from my reverie:

'People look at this fantastic view and remark how wild it is,' he said. 'But it is anything but. It's really shaped entirely by man, right back to the early Bronze Age when we started clearing trees.'

'It’s an interesting paradox – the value we put on this land now is based on conservation, but the reason we value it so much is down to the intense, industrial and commercial activity that went on for hundreds of years.  It’s an irony.  What we look to do is manage the variety – the driving force nowadays is biodiversity.'

'It’s an interesting quandary – how we perpetuate the nature conservation interest, and mange for the next 100 years and balance that with minimal intervention.  Horner Wood – everything – is dynamic, not static.  The trees are creeping up the hill.  We need to work with that.'

Dunkery Beacon

We contoured up to Dunkery Beacon, the highest point on Exmoor, with views north and south.  From the summit you can see how nature, as well as mankind, has shaped Exmoor.

Ice ages never reached this far south, but it’s reckoned they froze the hills, and when the land finally warmed up, the melt water cut and sliced through the Devonian sandstone, creating the distinctive deep valleys we see today.  The result is a visually mesmerising juxtaposition of rounded hills, knife-edge valleys and vertical cliffs.

You have a good chance of picking out red deer here, with roe deer more likely in lowland areas, along with the distinctive Exmoor ponies.

Moorland

Onwards across the moorland, we turned north by Porlock Post, bumping down through river valleys, picking our way through mounds and rocks, wondering what archaeological tale remained to be unveiled by such remnants of the past – a trading post perhaps, or just somewhere some distant ancestor settled for midsummer feasts.

Lang Combe and Wilmersham Woods

Heading down through Lang Combe and Wilmersham Wood, we picked our way through an enchanting landscape of fallen trees, seemingly slumbering on one another’s shoulders, cloaked once again in lichens.

In places, they’re forming embryonic mini-dams, part of a wider National Trust policy of letting trees lie where they fall.  The trees not only slow the water flow, they create habitat for insects and species higher up the food chain and help water bank up in the higher moors, keeping the peat moist and locking up an important carbon sink.

Halse Combe and the heath fritillary butterfly

There was one final delight before journey’s end.  Having climbed out steeply from Horner Wood along Flora’s Ride onto Ley Hill, we tumbled down into Halse Combe, the heartland of a recovery project for the embattled Heath Fritillary butterfly.

At the turn of this century, the brown-orange Heath Fritillary was all but extinct.  It doesn’t help itself by being a poor flier, able to flutter a mile at most, so it struggles to traverse any boundary separating its fragmented favoured habitats.

The butterfly is known as the woodman’s follower, because it settling into land that had been cut and cleared by woodcutters and also adapted to seasonal burning.  As both declined, so did the butterfly. The Lazarus-like reversal in its fortunes in recent years is entirely down to how the land is now managed.  The key tactic sounds unlikely, but involves burning the landscape.

'If you look at the moorland, it has been managed for thousands of years, and it has been burnt in rotation,' said Paul. 'We thought that if we burnt the moorland then it couldn’t make matters any worse. Within two years we saw the butterfly’s key food plant, the cow wheat, emerging.'

A landscape that’s good for butterflies is usually good for lots of other things.  As we plodded down towards Allerford, day-old lambs were tottering by their mothers’ side.

Farming and wildlife go together pretty well on the Holnicote estate.  But it’s clear the challenge to strike this balance has been with us for the past several thousands years, and isn’t going to go away any time soon.

Read about day one of Mark's walk.

check out the downloadable routes: Walking in Exmoor day one and Walking in Exmoor day two