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.
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”.
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.