Frog and I like to go out one day a week – just so that we can be together and away from our responsibilities and concerns. Because I walk the dog every day in the countryside and am often on my own, I tend to want to visit cities and towns and, dare I say it, do a bit of shopping. Last week however, because the sun was shining (at last), we decided to head up to Exmoor.
One of our long-term projects is to get to know Exmoor better. We know it a lot less than we do Dartmoor, and so does everybody else. It doesn’t suffer from the surfeit of tourism that Dartmoor does and one is sometimes lucky enough to go for a walk and not meet another soul. (Ironically, I’m much more likely to do that walking round home than on either of the moors.)
Although the moors are very dramatic and give you the same sense of space that the sea does (but without the reflective light), I’m not a great fan. I can’t help seeing them as the semi-desert they are. They are a human-made landscape, in that once upon a time these uplands were covered with trees. Prehistoric people burnt the trees in order to encourage grasslands, in order to encourage deer (which they could eat). What with the deer eating any new tree shoots and a slight worsening of the climate the trees never grew back, and the soil – as well as the flora and fauna - became more and more impoverished.
|Moorland (in this case Dartmoor): space, relative solitude and a grim beauty, but a paucity of flora and fauna|
The main thing the moors have going for them to my mind are the prehistoric remains – stone circles and rows, barrows (grave mounds), even a Bronze Age village. In addition, strangely, Dartmoor is the only place in Devon where I – and others - still hear cuckoos. (No one knows why that is, apparently. The dramatic decline in cuckoo numbers in this country has not yet been explained.)
|The remains of a Bronze Age village (Grimspound) on Dartmoor|
I’m with George Monbiot, as laid out in his inspiring book Feral: searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding which I’ve written about before. I think we should stop allowing sheep to graze uplands and allow the tree cover finally to regenerate. With the worldwide worsening of the environment, those wild spaces we do still have need to be brought back to peak condition, for the sake of our souls as well as our physical health.
|George Monbiot's inspiring book|
The other problem with the moors is the weather. They are always twice as cold, twice as wet and twice as windy as anywhere else. And it was the wind Frog and I had to contend with last week. In spite of their covering of hats, scarves and hoods, our ears still hurt. Nevertheless when we got to top of Dunkery Hill, the highest point on the moor I think, we had a 360-degree view, with the sea to the north and east and Dartmoor to the south-west. We then headed west to look for some barrows.
Wind and space are a fatal combination for Ellie. They turn her what I’ve now decided to call ‘feral’ in George Monbiot’s honour. She rediscovers her inner wolf, circling one at speed, growling and attempting to take a chunk out of one’s leg. I’ve written about this before as well and how terrifying it was to get to grips with, in that according to the trainer Leanne (who had infinite sympathy for dogs and none at all for humans) I had to have Ellie on a running lead the whole time and then when the fit came upon her clamp my foot on the lead next to her neck, bring her head to the ground and immobilise her. In other words, instead of fleeing the danger, I had to go right to the heart of it. A valuable life-lesson no doubt.
‘If you don’t manage to do this,’ said Leanne, ‘you’ll have a problem dog and you’ll have to give her up.’
Of course I managed it. It wasn’t so much the prospect of losing Ellie that I minded – that was quite appealing: it was the thought of admitting defeat, especially to Leanne.
So, as we walked back to the carpark, mercifully sheltered now from the wind, Ellie had one of her turns. These days they’re much less extreme than they were when she was younger and much easier to deal with. We just clamped an ordinary lead on her, and she immediately recovered.
Yes, I’m all for rewilding the moors, and ourselves, but in Ellie’s case I make an exception.
|The prettiest (and possibly most biodiverse) part of the walk, on the fringes of Exmoor next to the carpark: a rowan tree in full berry and a peaty stream|