Ancient woodlands and woodland memories: dreams of re-wilding, from Dartmoor to Caledonia

While on a field trip to Dartmoor last term, on a cold and windy day, we were all very relieved to be able to shelter in Wistman’s Wood. This is one of my favourite spots on the Moor. People talk about the place being enchanted and mysterious, but I think I like it most because it is always so full of life. … there is always the sound of bird song, even in the middle of Winter; the trees are draped with various mosses and lichens, and even a non-botanist can plainly see how numerous and diverse the plant life is.

Woods Wistman's_Wood_in_winter

Wiseman’s Wood in Winter

Wistman’s Wood is normally referred to as an ‘ancient woodland’ – a glimpse of what much of Dartmoor might have looked like thousands of years ago; a magical piece our ‘natural heritage’, to be treasured and protected.

The biodiversity of the Woods was brought home to me during one visit I made with a colleague from the University of Minnesota, Professor Jim Perry. Jim is an ecologist, and as we sat down on a patch of nearby empty moorland, he implored me to “Listen!”… We sat and listened… Silence! …

Woods-empty dartmoor


OK; we could hear the occasional skylark, but not much else. As an ecologist, Jim spent about 10 seconds rooting around on the ground before announcing that we were sitting in a desert – very few species; hardly anything able to live here. About 20 minutes later, we were sitting within Wistman’s Wood, and once again, Jim implored me to “Listen!”…


Wiseman’s Wood in the Summer

A myriad of different vibrant bird song, and a humming buzz of insect life. Jim spent 20 minutes rooting around, counting up the pieces of plant, lichens, moss, beetles, insects and other inhabitants, just within a 5 yard circle from where he was sitting. We couldn’t actually stay there for very long though, since the insects started to bite, and we had to move on.

This is a familiar type of narrative, often repeated by those people who are enthusiasts for ‘re-wilding’ – the supporters of policies that seek to overturn many of the present agricultural practices of management in our upland spaces. Rather than (artificially) maintaining open spaces of moorland expanse, people like George Monbiot would curtail upland grazing by sheep and cattle, so as to encourage the progression of a ‘natural’ process of plant and animal succession towards that of a state of ‘ancient woodland’; rich in biodiversity – to be more like Wistman’s Wood, than an open ‘desert’ moorland landscape.


Cattle grazing on the open moorland, just west of Princetown

I can see the point that the ‘re-wilding brigade’ are making – particularly when I am sitting in Wistman’s Wood! The re-wilding sentiment seems to have caught the public’s imagination, perhaps in connection to the recent popularity of New Nature Writers. So, I was a little surprised when I read an article in the Guardian, entitled “Scottish climbers and gamekeepers unite to oppose woodland plan” (

As the article noted, Mountaineers and Gamekeepers rarely see eye to eye. The former are usually diligently interested in issues of open access and the ‘freedom to roam’, while the latter are generally keen to restrict access for the sake of deer stalking and grouse shooting activities. Apparently, though, the Government is keen to increase the amount of forest in Scotland as a climate change measure – but of course, more forests might mean a reduction in open moorland; a distinctive character of Scotland’s upland landscapes. In a joint letter, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association and Mountaineering Scotland say that they are worried about the threat of forestry to Scotland’s “dramatic open views and vistas”.

Woods-open scotland

Knoydart, Scotland – ‘characteristic’ open expanse of landscape

As a keen walker and occasional Munro-bagger myself, I can see the point. Indeed, looking back through my hill walking photos, I see that I have numerous examples of “dramatic open vistas’, in Scotland and elsewhere, including Dartmoor.

Woods-dartmoor empty

A student on my Dartmoor field trip, however, put me on to a Blog, which followed this point up ( Entitled “A Curious Row about Trees in Scotland”, the article picked out and developed some further points of clarification from Mountaineering Scotland. Despite the tone of the Guardian article, the Mountaineers and the Gamekeepers were mostly keen to get some clarification on a coherent policy from the Government, and were worried about the potential for the treasured wide-open vistas to be destroyed by commercial coniferous plantations.


I can certainly see this point, being no fan of dense conifers myself. Whatever one might say about open moorland being a ‘desert’, replacing one green desert with another (slightly darker green) doesn’t make sense. But what intrigued me the most, however, was that in their clarification, Mountaineering Scotland called for the growth of native woodland, and conservation of Scotland’s “iconic Caledonian pine forests”. So, from a discussion of iconic open spaces, to one of iconic Caledonian pine forests. But what is a Caledonian pine forest?

Woods scots-pine-web-1024x683

It always strikes me that the phrase ‘Caledonian pine’ is often misunderstood, and greatly misused; as Christopher Smout of the Scottish Forestry Trust has recently noted “It is often assumed … that Caledonian Forest was composed of Caledonian pinewoods, which is not true at all” (

It turns out that there is no such thing as a “Caledonian pine”, most people – seemingly – confusing and conflating what they think is a ‘Caledonian pine’ with a ‘Scots Pine’, which is one of the most widely distributed trees in the world today. Indeed, as Smout goes on to say, much of the diverse mix of trees, flora and fauna that might be found in a ‘Caledonian forest’ has had a very long history of co-evolution with humans: “to assume, as many environmentalists do, that you can get ‘back to nature’ (i.e. to a time before human influence) by seeking to recreate the world before farming is wrong” – and it might even be that blanket bog and the open moorland country might actually be the natural climax vegetation for much of northern and western Highlands of Scotland.

woods-scots pine

So, where does this leave us? A debate about ‘re-wilding’ in several forms – certainly a general conclusion that the ‘wild’ part of ‘re-wilding’ is always an imaginative pretense. There is a strong notion that it is never a good idea to apply a blanket policy in our uplands – either to ‘re-wild’ or not. But also, implicit within these debates is an often-glossed over recognition of human-non-human co-evolution and co-existence.

Somehow, I feel that the re-imposition of a vast ‘Caledonian pine forest’ (comprised of scots pines, and running with wolves, lynxes, beavers and bears) would be an injustice to the memory of numerous generations of human inhabitants of the Highlands of Scotland; their lives, experiences and activities. Taking just one (almost?) entirely unpopulated Glen in Knoydart as an example, a cursory examination of a map of Glen Carnoch reveals a multitude of Gaelic place names:

Coire na Gaoithe n’Ear: Corrie of the East Wind

Beinn an Aodainn: Mountain of the Face

Allt Achaddh a’Ghlinne: River of the field of the glen

Bealch na h-Eangair: Pass of the mill

Who once lived in this valley, and who named these features? The Glen is ‘empty’ today, but the names suggest that there was once a mill (probably a simple ‘clach’ mill), and that the side valley once contained a ‘field’. If we carry out a policy of ‘re-wilding’, the memory of the field will be erased. In striving for a ‘Highland Wilderness’ that never existed, the exploits and experiences of real people who once lived in these glens, the descendants of whom are now spread around the world, might be lost forever.

On a more prosaic scale, as much as I always enjoy visiting Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor, I would hate for the whole of Dratmoor to be covered by such dense forest, ‘ancient’ or otherwise.


Dartmoor: the blending of ‘myth’ and ‘reality’ when the Devil pays a visit

On Friday 18th October 2013, Rose Ferraby, Tim Wilkinson and myself led a group of 35 students up to Dartmoor. We are all on the Undergraduate Level 3 ‘Geographies of Heritage and Memory’ module within the Geography Department at Exeter.This is a module for which I am the ‘convenor’, but since I have never done such a job without finding out about so many new things – or being challenged to engage with existing ‘knowledge’ in different ways, then I always treat the task as one where I am ‘on the module’ as much as any other student.


The weather forecast was atrocious, with bands of heavy rain sweeping across the south west, getting heavier in the afternoon. As it turned out, things started off grey and cloudy, but cleared up after lunch with the sunshine helping to take the edge off the keen SSE winds. We headed off from Bennett’s Cross, leaving the coach behind to go over Birch Tor, and on to Hookney Tor.

We came across a very docile group of ‘Highland’ Cattle, acting as key ‘countryside curators’, managing the land to maintain a desired look and feel of this National landscape. After a stop at Grimspound and Headland Warren, we walked back towards the coach through the old industrial areas of Golden Dagger, Vitifer and Birch Tor mines – and could make out (vaguely) some of the shapes of the Devil’s Playing Cards – and it struck me that the it was almost exactly 375 years to the day since (legend has it) these ‘Devilish enclosures’ got their name….


Sunday 21st October 1638 was stormy day, with heavy rain and strong winds. While some locals were gathered at the Tavistock Inn at Poundsgate, the Devil came in for a swift half – they knew it was the Devil, since he had cloven hooves, and he paid for his pint using ‘solid gold coins’ that turned to dry leaves as soon as he left! Other locals sheltered from the storm in the church in Widecombe-in-the-Moor – these included Jan Richards, a well-known local gambler who was playing cards at the back of the church. All of a sudden, the Devil struck – he smashed through the roof of the church and plucked Jan Richards from his pew. Poor old Jan was carried over the hills, never to be seen again – except that he dropped his playing cards: 4 aces that he’d hidden up his sleeve. These 4 aces landed on the hillside between Challacombe and the Warren House Inn, and can still be seen to this day – as 4 small enclosures that are (very roughly) in the shape of the 4 suits of a pack of cards.

This is a nice story – various versions of which can be found, repeated in several ‘folk tale’ books and websites about Dartmoor. Of course, it isn’t ‘true’ – the 4 enclosures might be physical present, but they cannot be the remnants of a pack of cards. And of course the story of the Devil, smashing his way in to Widecombe Church is just a fairy tale – right?


Sunday 21st October 1638 was stormy day, with heavy rain and strong winds. Many locals sheltered from the storm in the church in Widecombe-in-the-Moor. All of a sudden, the church roof comes crashing down, as a pinnacle from one of the towers topples and smashes through the ancient roof of the nave. The falling debris kills 4 people, including the head warrener from the rabbit farms close to Warren House Inn. This is all recorded in the church records, and is one of the earliest archival records of what is thought to be ball lightening – as a very real ‘thunder bolt’ strikes one of the pinnacles of Widecombe church, sending it crashing through the roof onto the parishioners below.

Here we see a nice example of how ‘real memory’ and ‘folk memory’ can come together through an invocation of landscape; oral histories used to account for the physical artefacts of landscape enclosures – 4 small distinct enclosures acting as a totem through which an important event of folk memory can be prompted, instilled and legitimated: folk memories of extraordinary events, working alongside an everyday requirement to make sense of the landscape, as a commonplace and non-elite space. At very least there seems to be ‘some truth’ in the folk tales of the Devil wreaking havoc at Widecombe church. By giving more credence to the “extra-ordinary” possibilities and experiences of how ordinary people engage with the world around them, however, maybe it is possible to see the story of the Devil’s Playing Cards as providing an authentic means through which to understand how heritage works? Indeed, when placed within the context of the religious upheavals of the mid-seventeenth century, the ‘real’ possibility of devilish intervention in peoples’ lives, and of the possibility of direct experience of ‘evil’, then it could be argued that the story of the Devil paying a visit to Widecombe represents the ‘whole truth’ of the matter.