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A glimpse of ancient history in East Devon – Woodbury Castle

The Pebblebed Heaths in East Devon constitute the largest block of lowland heath in the county.  Named for the underlying pebble-rich geology, this extensive area of heathland lies along a ridge between the Otter and Exe rivers.   Many rare creatures flourish here and numerous remnants of past lives are also dotted about. These include prehistoric burial mounds and earthworks but the archaeological jewel in the crown of this special East Devon place is the Iron Age hillfort of Woodbury Castle.  Its extensive ramparts are at least 2500 years old but remarkably well preserved and holding a history well worth uncovering, as I found when I visited on a sunny day towards the end of August.

Woodbury Castle is situated on Woodbury Common, one of the tracts of heathland making up the Pebblebed Heaths and I parked in the visitors car park, set in a clearing surrounded by trees and scrub.  Rose bay willowherb also grew there, its bright pink flowers partly replaced by white cotton wool seeds, a rather unsubtle reminder of the impending approach of autumn.  The earthworks of Woodbury Castle were a short walk from the car park, partly concealed in a grove of broad leaf trees.

It was only when I got closer to the Castle that the size and extent of the earthen ramparts became clear.   The main fortification consists of two impressive soil ridges, separated by a deep ditch, that snake their way around the perimeter of the site (see plan below). Further soil barriers and ditches provide additional protection in some parts.  In the past, visitors were able to scramble across the earthworks leading to considerable erosion.  Recent repairs have added wooden stairways to protect the ramparts and provide easier access. 

The ditch between the outer (right) and inner (left) ramparts at Woodbury Castle

I climbed the stairway over the lower ridge and paused at the bottom of the ditch to get a better view of the ramparts and to appreciate their size.   After scaling the second, higher ridge, I descended about 3 metres into a large, roughly oval, open area approximately the size of two football pitches.  This is the main enclosure protected by the fortifications. Dappled light filtered through the mature beech trees growing there creating a peaceful scene. 

The edge of the main enclosure (left) and the inner rampart (right) at Woodbury Castle

Helpful information boards with pictorial reconstructions were provided, giving some idea about contemporary life.  Large earthworks such as these were probably centres for tribal groups.  They would have required a huge effort to build and perhaps reflected the status of the community, being as much about display as defence.  Excavations have provided evidence that the enclosure contained several thatched roundhouses where people lived and a granary raised above the ground to protect the contents.  The site is interrupted by the road splitting it into two sections, making it difficult to envisage the full extent of the enclosure.  This apparent desecration of an ancient site is not, however, recent and a track is thought to have existed here for many hundreds of years.

A plan of how the Woodbury Castle hill fort is thought to have looked showing the two main ramparts and the track (now the road) that cuts through. (taken from the information board at the site).

I paused to stand in the enclosed area and tried to imagine life at the time.  I smelt woodsmoke from fires in the roundhouses and heard the chatter of people and the noises they created as they went about their work including fashioning wooden items and spinning wool.  A few were standing on the ramparts, perhaps watching for new arrivals or even invaders.  Woodbury Castle is set on the highest point on the Heaths, 185 metres above sea level, and there would have been little tree cover at that time.  Our lookouts would have enjoyed panoramic views across Woodbury Common – to the East over the Otter Valley, towards the sea at what are now Exmouth and Budleigh Salterton and to the west over the Exe Valley with views as far as Dartmoor and Exmoor on a clear day.

We know very little about what has happened at Woodbury Castle since prehistoric times but there are a few clues. In 1549 during the bloody Prayerbook Rebellion, armed forces may have camped in the earthworks before the inconclusive Battle of Woodbury Common.  During the Napoleonic Wars, the Castle was used as an army training camp and since then Woodbury Common has been exploited periodically for military preparation.  A large Royal Marines camp was built on the Common in the run up to the D-Day landings during WW2 and remains of the buildings can still be found among the heather.  To this day, parts of the Common are used regularly for training by Royal Marines from Lympstone Barracks.

Most of the time, though, Woodbury Common is quiet and a popular place for walking.  In the main, the landscape is undulating dry heathland with a low covering of gorse, bracken, heathers and a few trees but there are some small areas of wetland where the vegetation is richer.  The Common is criss-crossed by clear paths and walking is exhilarating with occasional views across Lyme Bay to the south.  Some paths are quite pebbly reflecting the underlying geology.  Many rare species including the Dartford warbler, the nightjar and the heath potter wasp can be seen on the Common and the area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. In 2020, the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths were designated as a National Nature Reserve in recognition of their unique habitat and wildlife.

When I visited, the heathers were in flower lending the heath a subtle purple tinge.  Bell heather was beginning to turn but the ling (heather) was in full purplish-pink flower.  Cross leaved heath with its pink bells also showed well in places.   Whenever I stopped to look at the heather flowers, there was a background low buzz from the many honeybees foraging; local beekeepers were clearly doing well.  On one occasion, though, I had left the main path and walked a little way on to the heath to examine the heathers when a voice boomed out behind me: “There are quite a few adders about!  Just warning you!” I hadn’t seen any adders but I thanked the owner of the voice and retreated quickly back on to the path to continue my walk.  A good number of butterflies were on the wing in the sunshine including small tortoiseshell and gatekeeper but the highlight was several brimstone butterflies dancing about above the heath like fragments of bright greenish sunshine. 

Brimstone butterfly on bell heather showing how the butterfly might be mistaken for a leaf.
View across the heathland on Woodbury Common
Ling (purplish-pink) and bell heather (reddish-purple) flowering on Woodbury Common
Cross-leaved heath on Woodbury Common

This article also appeared in the October 2021 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

A songbird makes a welcome return

The Cirl Bunting is an attractive songbird once found throughout the southern half of the UK.  Its numbers declined precipitously in the second half of the 20th century following changes in farming practice and, by the late 1980s, it was confined to coastal farmland in south Devon and might have become nationally extinct.  The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) recognised the problem and worked with farmers to support the bird resulting in a dramatic increase in its numbers. In a recent expansion of its range the bird has established itself in East Devon at Stantyway Farm near Otterton having been absent for more than 30 years.  I wanted to find out more so I went to Stantyway to see for myself.

Male cirl bunting (photo generously given by David R White)

Female cirl bunting (photo generously given by David R White)

The Cirl Bunting was first reported in the UK by Montagu in the winter of 1800 near Kingsbridge in south Devon in the west of the country.  It is roughly sparrow-sized and the male, in particular, is very distinctive with its black and yellow striped head and olive-green breast band.  The bird gradually spread across the southern half of the UK, its numbers peaking in the early years of the 20th century.  Since then it has declined and by the late 1980s only 118 pairs remained, confined to coastal farmland between Plymouth and Exeter.

With the Cirl Bunting facing national extinction, the RSPB identified changes in farming practice linked to agricultural intensification as responsible for the precipitous decline.  In the winter, the bird forages for insects and spilt grain in weedy stubble fields.  In the summer, it nests in hedges or scrub and forages on unimproved grassland rich in invertebrates with grasshoppers being important food for chicks.  With agricultural intensification, there was a shift from spring-sown cereals to autumn sowing so that far fewer arable fields were left as winter stubble; grubbing out of hedges took away nest sites and loss of the hay meadows and increased use of pesticides reduced invertebrate numbers and summer food for the bird.

Once the cause of the decline had been identified, the RSPB worked with farmers in south Devon to support the birds by reinstating some traditional agricultural practices, supported by government agrienvironment schemes.  The effect was spectacular and by 2016, numbers of Cirl Buntings had increased to over 1000 pairs. Most of the increase occurred in the bird’s core range but there was some spread along the coast and inland where habitat was suitable.   This was a major conservation success, also benefitting other species.

The coast of south Devon showing the core range of the cirl bunting and the location of Stantyway Farm across the Exe estuary in East Devon (from British Birds).

The bird has a reputation for being sedentary and it had been assumed that the estuary of the river Exe would be a barrier to further eastwards expansion of its range.   So, it was a surprise when, around the end of 2010, a single Cirl Bunting was seen at Stantyway Farm near Otterton in East Devon followed by several more sightings early in 2011.  Since then, the numbers at Stantyway have increased suggesting that the local conditions suit the birds and from 2015 it was clear that a breeding population existed.

Stantyway Farm is owned by Clinton Devon Estates and when the tenant, Mr Williams, retired in 2014, the farm was taken back into Clinton’s own Farm Partnership.   Clinton Devon Estates were keen to support Cirl Buntings and other species on their arable farm at Stantyway so they took advice from the RSPB and applied for agrienvironment support.  This was awarded in 2016 and supports planting hedges to provide more nest sites, leaving wildlife margins around fields to provide invertebrates as summer food, and planting spring cereal crops that are harvested in the autumn leaving weedy winter stubbles with seed as food.  These are all activities shown to be critical in supporting these birds in south Devon.  The farm was also put into organic conversion in 2016; organic farming by its nature supports wildlife and increases invertebrates.  Cirl Bunting numbers at Stantyway gradually increased across this time.

In 2017, Clinton Estates advertised for a new tenant farmer at Stantyway and Sam Walker was appointed.  Although the farm is still mainly arable, Sam keeps 52 cows whose calves are raised and sold on to beef finishers.  About a third of the land is now devoted to grass for silage production for winter animal feed.  Sam has, however, embraced the existing philosophy of the farm in supporting wildlife: he has maintained the organic status and intends to apply for further agrienvironment support when the current scheme runs out in 2021.

I wanted to see the farm for myself so, on a mild early April day, I went to Stantyway.  I left the car on the rough ground across from Stantyway Farmhouse and stood for a few moments enjoying the sunshine.  The air was filled with the endlessly inventive song of the skylark and occasionally a buzzard mewed as it circled lazily overhead.  Sometimes a low buzz cut through all of this and when I looked, I realised this was from all the insects about.

I walked away from the farm along the gentle downhill slope of Stantyway Road with views developing over rolling East Devon countryside on one side and to the hazy mid-blue sea on the other. The lane descended between wide grassy verges backed by luxuriant hedges. Spring flowers grew through the thick grass including stitchwort, celandine, dandelions, violets and white dead nettle.  The dominant flowering plant was, however, alexanders, with its fleshy green stems, copious shiny dark green foliage and pale mop head flowers.  This was proving very popular with many kinds of fly and a selection of solitary mining bees, some collecting large lumps of white pollen on their back legs.

My walk included a long section of the coast path skirting the edge of Stantyway fields.  Thick scrubby hedges, mainly flowering blackthorn, lined the cliff edge along with more alexanders. The occasional hedge break afforded spectacular views along the red cliffs of the Jurassic Coast towards Ladram bay with its crumbling stacks, past the white elegance of Sidmouth and finishing in the chalk of Beer Head (see picture at the top).   Again, there were many solitary mining bees taking advantage of the flowers.    I did not see any Cirl Buntings on my walk but, on two occasions I heard their distinctive, rattling, metallic trill telling me the birds were about.

It’s a beautiful place made all the better by glorious early April weather and I was surprised to see so many insects along the paths.  Perhaps this reflects the methods used at Stantyway, showing that productive farming and wildlife can coexist and prosper. Around the farm, each field gate has an information board giving the crop and some other useful information.  An Honesty Café has been installed near the farmhouse providing continuous hot water for tea or coffee and homemade cakes that I can strongly recommend.  All of this suggests an outward looking, open approach to farming.  When I met Sam Walker, the farmer, he explained that, in addition to the provisions of the agrienvironment scheme, he has put skylark plots in cereal fields, created wild bird seed corridors and put up swift boxes to support wildlife.  I came away feeling that at Stantyway, Cirl Buntings were getting the best support they could.  His methods have already benefitted other farmland birds with numbers of skylarks and reed buntings doubling over the past year and in a further twist to the Cirl Bunting story, some of the birds have now been seen to the east of Sidmouth.

I should like to thank Sam Walker, Doug and Joan Cullen, Kate Ponting and David White for generous help in preparing this article which appeared in the May edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

 

sign
One of the farm gate signs

 

Alexanders and blackthorn
Alexanders (greenish-yellow) and blackthorn (white) along the coast path. The cliff edge is behind the hedge!

 

Solitary mining bee on Blackthorn
A solitary mining bee (probably Andrena flavipes) feeding from blackthorn.

 

Solitary mining bee on Alexanders
A solitary mining bee (probably Andrena nitida) feeding from Alexanders

 

Honesty Cafe
The Honesty Cafe at Stantyway Farm

 

Beavers live here! Rewilding on the River Otter in East Devon

Four years ago, a family of wild beavers were spotted on the river Otter in East Devon.  This was the first report of the animal breeding successfully in the wild in England since the species had been hunted to extinction more than 400 years ago.  No one knows how the animals came to be on the river but their prospering population is now the subject of a scientific trial providing a unique opportunity to monitor the re-introduction of a native species, or “rewilding” as it is sometimes called. 

Otterton Bridge with Himalyan Balsam
The old stone bridge over the River Otter at Otterton, with Himalyan Balsam

 

I wanted to find out more, so one evening in mid-September, I met Kate Ponting, Countryside Learning Officer for Clinton Devon Estates, at the village green in Otterton.  Kate has been closely involved with the beaver re-introduction trial, taking place as it does on land largely owned by her employer.  We headed to the river, crossed the old stone bridge and walked upstream along the muddy riverside path.  Banks of Himalayan balsam and nettles dominated the river bank while, on the landward side, clover leys spread as far as the low embankment that once carried the railway.  Prominent official signs warned that “Beavers live here” and Kate explained that there had been some local problems with dogs.

The river was full after recent heavy rain but the scene was tranquil in the low evening sunshine.  We paused on the wooden bridge where Kate pointed out one beaver lodge, a semi-organised jumble of mud, sticks and branches protruding nearly a metre from the river bank and covering the entrance to a burrow where the beavers live.   Further up the river we stopped to watch a second lodge on the far bank.  Kate had warned me that the beavers had become less “reliable” as the autumn progressed and, although a wren flittered about the sticks making up the lodge and a grey wagtail passed through, we saw no beavers. Kate did, however, show me some signs of beaver activity including severed branches and one felled tree.

The beaver is Europe’s largest rodent and until the 16th century was found widely on UK rivers.  They are impressively large animals covered in brown fur, measuring up to 100cm (head and body) and with scaly black tails.  Beavers are strict herbivores with strong teeth allowing feeding on many species of river and bank plant as well as woody vegetation from trees.  They are strong swimmers adapted for life underwater, and skilful aquatic engineers able to regulate water levels by building dams.  When they build dams by felling trees they remodel the wetland landscape creating habitat for many other plants and animals and, for this reason, they are referred to as “keystone” species.

In the past, they were hunted to extinction for their fur, meat and castoreum, a secretion from their scent gland used for medicinal purposes.  Early in the 21st century, however, free-living populations of beavers were re-established in Scotland and there were anecdotal sightings of wild beavers on the river Otter in East Devon.  These reports were confirmed early in 2014 when two adults and one juvenile beaver (kit) were filmed near Ottery St Mary.  This was the first confirmed report of wild beavers breeding in England for 400 years.

At first, DEFRA were concerned that the animals might harbour disease and wanted to remove them but their plan was opposed by wildlife experts and local people.  So, towards the end of 2014, Devon Wildlife Trust applied to Natural England for a licence allowing the beavers to remain on the river as part of a five-year trial to monitor their effects.  The licence was granted on the condition that the beavers were shown to be the native UK species and disease free and in March 2015, nine beavers living in two family groups were returned to the river Otter.  The licence included a management plan for monitoring the health of the beaver population and its effects on the local landscape and ecology; also for making good any damage.  The River Otter Beaver Trial is led by Devon Wildlife Trust working in partnership with the University of Exeter, the Derek Gow Consultancy and Clinton Devon Estates.

Since the trial began, beavers have been seen along almost the entire length of the river Otter.  Breeding has been successful each year but there were concerns that the population might be becoming inbred so in 2016, two additional beavers, unrelated to the existing animals, were released on to the river. By 2017 the population had grown to more than 20 and watching the adult beavers and their kits on a summer’s evening became a popular pastime attracting many visitors to the area.  So far, the presence of these large aquatic animals has caused few difficulties.  Feeding signs have been detected all along the river in terms of severed shoots and felled trees but this was mainly confined to small diameter willow shoots.  Earlier this year, fields near Otterton were flooded when beavers dammed one of the streams feeding the Otter but mitigation measures were put in place.

Female beaver with kits, on the River Otter. Photo by Mike Symes, Devon Wildlife Trust

 

These are, however, early days and, as the number of beavers continues to rise, their presence in this managed East Devon landscape may cause tensions.  There is good evidence from Bavaria, where the animals were re-introduced 50 years ago, that beavers can have a beneficial influence on rivers.   They support wildlife by opening up the landscape, creating coppice and diversifying the wetland habitat.  Their dams regulate river flows and remove sediment and pollutants. Sometimes, however, they can be a nuisance to those who live and work by rivers, causing flooding, blocking ditches, undermining river banks and felling important trees.   There are now as many as 20,000 beavers on Bavaria’s rivers and their beneficial effects are clearly recognised alongside the need to manage the animals when their activity has a negative impact.   Hopefully, a similar resolution can be reached for the East Devon beavers as their population grows.  Whatever the outcome, the River Otter Beaver Trial will be closely watched by those interested in “rewilding” the landscape.

The featured image at the top of this post is of a female beaver on the River Otter, by Mike Symes, Devon Wildlife Trust.

I should like to thank Kate Ponting of Clinton Devon Estates for giving up her time to show me the beaver lodges and Steve Hussey and Mark Elliott of Devon Wildlife Trust for providing information and photographs.

This article appeared in the November 2017 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Beaver Lodge on river Otter
Beaver lodge on River Otter

 

 

Tree felled by beavers near river Otter
Tree felled by beavers along River Otter

 

Himalayan Balsam by River Otter
Himalayan Balsam by River Otter – the bee was too quick for me and all I photographed was the leg!

 

 

Cormorant on river Otter
Cormorant on River Otter

 

 

river Otter view
A tranquil scene on the River Otter