Leats, larks and cuckoos on a Dartmoor ramble

Water bubbled and splashed in a purposeful manner along a rough, narrow trench cut in the high moor. This watercourse is the Devonport Leat, built towards the end of the 18th century to feed drinking water from Dartmoor streams to the growing south Devon port, some 10 miles away. Our walk followed the course of the Leat as it crossed rocky upland scrub and as it cascaded down Raddick Hill to cross the River Meavy on a short aqueduct to flow down a brick-lined channel through a conifer plantation.

Aquaduct & sluice gate Devonport leat
A view of the aqueduct and sluice gate from Raddick hill showing how the watercourse “turns” left after crossing the River Meavy
Aquaduct Devonport leat
A close-up shot of the aqueduct

We had reached the Leat on the high moor after climbing steadily up a rough, rocky track from the car park at Norsworthy Bridge. The soundtrack to our walk was the constantly questioning song of skylarks high above. This was the only sound until a faint “cuckoo, cuckoo” floated across the scrubby moorland, receiving a reply from a bird much closer. Then, ahead of us, we saw two large birds glide across the track in to neighbouring woodland. From their silhouettes, we guessed one of these was the answering cuckoo.

Later, as we were crossing open moorland, we noticed a large grey bird accompanied by a much smaller bird approaching a lone tree not far from the track. The large bird landed rather clumsily and the smaller bird flew off. Through my binoculars, I watched the larger bird trying to steady itself on the branch. It was surprisingly long and wobbled back and forth, wings down and long stubby tail up as though it hadn’t completely mastered the art of balancing. Its breast was white with clear horizontal black stripes as if it were wearing a Breton sailor’s shirt. This, together with its white wing bars told me that here was another cuckoo and from its comically ungainly behaviour, I presumed it must have been a juvenile. The smaller bird would have been its surrogate parent, working hard to provide food for its voracious “offspring”.

Cuckoo (from Wikipedia)


It’s a nice coincidence that, at the time the Devonport Leat was being constructed, Edward Jenner, who became one of the pioneers of vaccination, was studying the parasitic habits of cuckoos in rural Gloucestershire. He was the first to show that, after a female cuckoo has laid her egg in the nest of another species of bird, it is the young cuckoo that ejects all the other eggs and nestlings. The surrogate parents can then concentrate solely on the welfare of the much larger interloper.

The photos of the aqueduct were taken by Hazel Strange.

Our walk comes from “Dartmoor, great short walks for all of the family”, Crimson Publishing. We walked the route on June 1st 2014.

4 thoughts on “Leats, larks and cuckoos on a Dartmoor ramble”

  1. Cuckoos are popping up all over just now. I only learned recently (from Springwatch!) that they are not exactly native, being here only about 6-8 weeks in the year. So wonderful to get a sighting.


  2. I haven’t been watching Springwatch so I am interested to hear they have been looking at cuckoos. There seem to be quite a few on Dartmoor as each time we have visited recently we have heard or seen one but as you say it is a short window of opportunity. We were extremely lucky to see one so close and I have to admit it took me a while to realise that the smaller bird was the surrogate parent. It’s probably the case that the reason the cuckoo stayed on the tree was because it was waiting for a feed.


  3. I don’t remember hearing the term “leat” before I moved to Devon but I now know that it is used to refer to a man-made ditch carrying water especially to drive a mill wheel. Wikipedia tells me that leats are common in the south and south-west of England and in Wales (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leat#Dartmoor). For example the doctor’s surgery where I live is called the Leatside Surgery because of the nearby leat. Philip


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