Under the microscope: Dartmoor

It spans an area more than 950 square kilometres, and reaches up 620 metres at its highest point. From Tavistock in the west to Bovey Tracey in the east, and between its southerly and northerly points of Ivybridge and Okehampton, Dartmoor dominates the county of Devon. 

A designated Special Area of Conservation, it consists of four distinct habitats and has a bedrock of granite dating back to the Carboniferous period, 350 million years ago. 

With such environmental and geological importance, it stands to reason that Dartmoor should be a locus of research for the University. But it is also a source of inspiration. 

Here are just some of its stories.

People and place

“Dartmoor is about the people,” says Dr Paul Lunt, Associate Professor of Environmental Science, and one of the region’s most respected experts on the ecology of the uplands. “There are many people who are deeply invested in the moor because it belongs to everyone – much more so than other notable uplands in the UK. And it is a great test-bed for change.” 

From the ‘commoners’ who graze animals on the moor, to the companies such as South West Water, who are literally invested in Dartmoor’s natural systems, Paul’s work has reached out across the national park, and alighted upon a variety of issues, including wilding; restoring and re-wetting the peatland; investigating the environmental role of the resident ponies; and encouraging the spread of native oak trees.

“When I first came here, I was impressed that the moor was in a much better condition than other areas I had monitored,” said Paul, who had previously worked as a consultant for water companies in the Peak District and and the National Parks of the Pennines. “On Dartmoor there is an ecosystems services approach, which is a paradigm shift from micromanaging our natural environments. So with something like wilding, you are to some extent throwing away the script. You’re not quite sure what you’ll get – but you know it will be of value to people and wildlife!” 

One such project has involved Paul working with the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust on researching the impact that the ponies have upon purple moor grass, a plant that is turning many areas of the uplands into a monoculture. 

The ponies have roamed the moor for thousands of years, and are semiwild – they are owned by some of the 300 ‘commoners’, but not covered by stewardship payments.

“We used salt licks to lure the ponies to areas of excessive purple moor grass,” Paul says. “And within 18 months, they had grazed and trampled down the tussocks, and there was evidence that heather, pushed out by the grass, had begun to regenerate.” 

Dartmoor also has the UK’s longest running record of upland temperature and rainfall – something that Paul has used to conduct research that could be used to refine current climate change predictions. Searching through data dating back to the 1870s, Paul and his research team discovered that while it supported the Met Office’s UK Climate Projections for increased precipitation in spring, winter and autumn, it did not align with the assessment that summers are becoming uniformly drier on the uplands. 

“The study, which we published in Climate Research, highlights the complex challenges facing those trying to predict the effects of climate change,” Paul says. “Upland areas are among the most important UK regions in terms of biodiversity and carbon sequestration, but they are also the most vulnerable to increased precipitation. So the work we are doing here has national and international implications.”

<p>Dartmoor pony 1939816</p>
<p>Dartmoor pony. Getty 172130772</p>
<p>Dartmoor pony 1939822<br></p>

The Moor

Picture this: a vast canvas of desolate moorland beneath ominous grey skies. In the distance there rises a conical clay mound. Strain your eyes hard enough and you might just make out the tiny figure standing on its summit. 

“Dartmoor interests me when it is bleak, when the mist comes down and the visibility drops to zero – it’s otherworldly,” says Robert Darch, Associate Lecturer in Photography, and author of the striking photobook The Moor. “And then what happens when you start putting people in this landscape?! You begin to tap into that classic mythology, like the escaped convict on the moor.” 

Robert has been ‘putting people on Dartmoor’ since he enrolled on the University’s photography and the book masters degree in 2013. The programme tasks students with developing a photobook, and Robert – who spent many a childhood holiday in Devon – initially envisaged a somewhat traditional, pastoral exploration of Dartmoor people and their way of life.

“I started to do lots of research, and what I kept coming back to was how Dartmoor made me feel,” Robert says. “It was not about places like Princetown or Moretonhampstead but that feeling of being on the moor on a winter’s day in 80mph winds and with no visibility.” 

Robert would spend hours walking on the moor with the subjects of his pictures, the shots arising organically through the process of exploration and experimentation. Turn the pages of the book and you’ll find an Army reservist fading into the mist of a no-man’s land across a series of three stills; a man lying on his side in the dark, blowing gently into a fire, its flames reaching out to caress his face; and a lone figure disappearing into a towering wood, the darkness closing around him like the final scene of a grim folk tale. 

For Robert, there is a dystopian quality to the collection of photos that emerged, of ghosts and myths too, and a pervading sense of loneliness and isolation, something he attributes to him ‘losing a decade’ in his 20s to chronic fatigue syndrome.

Four years after its completion, The Moor was picked up by a publisher and its release has resulted in new interest in Robert’s work, particularly from his contemporaries. Indeed, it has proven such a positive experience that he’s planning to self-publish his next book, The Vale, and future projects. 

“The Vale is like the counterpart to The Moor – the summer to the winter,” Robert says. “It’s centred on the valley outside of Exeter, although the sense of location is much vaguer. I effectively lost my 20s, and this is an imagining of those summers, a sense of the bucolic and of beautiful people – but there’s still a tension there.” Robert has not finished with Dartmoor (and neither, you suspect, is Dartmoor finished with him). He has for the past three years documented the Ten Tors Challenge, and occasionally has had to put down his camera and pick up a compass to help navigate teenagers to their next checkpoint. Using a 5×4 format, he’s found the ratio that works best for him in centring on that experience of place – sometimes claustrophobic, always cinematic. 

“It’s impossible to capture how epic a landscape Dartmoor is,” he concludes. “That scale, taking it all in – you just can’t replicate the human eye’s near 180° field of vision. So what I have attempted to do is put the viewer in that space – one which is imbued with so much unease and tension! And when I have people tell me that they feel nostalgia for Dartmoor, even though they have never been there, then I know that it has been successful.”

<p>Dartmoor landscape</p>
<p>Dartmoor landscape</p>

A link from pollen to the past

The jutting granite monoliths of Dartmoor’s tors write a geological record of the landscape’s history for scientists to study. But it is a more diminutive substance that has helped archaeologists develop an understanding of how man has used the land over space and time. 

For academics such as Professor Ralph Fyfe, it is pollen that has proven to be a ‘portal to the past’, revealing historic ecological and ecosystem changes that can have a major influence on present and future park management.

“I work at the interface of archaeology and geography, looking at how humans have transformed their world over the last 6,000 years,” says Ralph. “We know that agriculture started six millennia ago and I’m interested in how it impacted upon environmental systems. Through studying the pollen record, we have been able to show that Dartmoor was already being transformed by the communities that lived there as far back as 3,500 BC, initiating both local and far reaching impacts on ecosystems and even our broader climate system.” 

The pollen locked away within the soil and peat of the moor can, through microscope analysis, be identified, and with it an understanding developed of the crops and plants that were present at a particular age. 

“The pollen record can tell us how changes in land use lead to changes in biodiversity,” Ralph says. “So through it, we can reconstruct patterns of land use over space and time.”

Ralph first stepped foot on Dartmoor in 2003, having previously completed his PhD on one of the South West’s other iconic landscapes, Exmoor. And during the course of his interdisciplinary research – which brings together not just archaeology and ecology, but also conservation management and climate science – he has ventured across much of its acreage and uncovered a number of archaeological firsts. 

At Cut Hill, for example, one of the remotest areas of the moor (and highest areas in southern England), Ralph was able to carbon date a stone row to 4,000 BC – 800 years older than similar granite structures. While at Whitehorse Hill, at an unearthed burial cist, he helped excavate the fragile contents to find artefacts unique in British and European prehistory. They included composite textiles, the oldest turned wood in Britain, and a bracelet and necklace, all wrapped in a bear pelt – all supposedly ahead of their time. 

“Dartmoor, in and of itself, is a landscape of great interest,” Ralph concludes. “But it is also part of a much bigger story of the transformation of Europe, which in turn feeds into global change. It is an iconic landscape in understanding the changes that have taken place across human history.”

<p>Dartmoor. Stone row.</p>
<p>Dartmoor</p>

The feel of a landscape

“There is a great difference between driving to a landscape and walking in it,” says Jessica Lennan, Lecturer in Photography, on the challenge of capturing a location on camera. “To walk is to experience, and that is something I try to impress upon my students when they are doing project work on Dartmoor.” 

This quality of experiencing a landscape has had a huge impact upon Jessica’s creative practice. A photographer of cities and people, Jessica moved to Plymouth in 2010 for her masters degree, having lived in – and photographed – Berlin, Istanbul and Paris. And it is to Dartmoor that she has been increasingly drawn, most recently as the coorganiser of the Dartmoor Summer School of Photography. 

"We take Dartmoor for granted because it is on our doorstep,” Jessica says. “But from my experiences with the summer school, and from teaching our students, it is clear that it’s a huge attraction for a variety of artistic disciplines.”

It was at last summer’s event that an historian, Dr Tom Greeves, talked to the participants about cup-marked stones – man-made markings in granite rocks, most commonly found in the north, but also in evidence on Dartmoor. Theories abound that they might serve as territorial markings, star maps, or even be connected to music – but their precise purpose is lost in prehistory. This mystery fascinated Jessica and inspired her to launch a new project.

Using a 10×8 camera, she took a paper negative of a cupmarked stone near Princetown, and from that developed stunning black and white images. Next, she produced five plaster moulds of the marks, and using clay and an ash glaze – all sourced from Dartmoor – she created a set of cups.

It was, Jessica says, a moment of reflection for her entire artistic process.

“My professional practice is based on material, and I think I had lost touch with that. But working with clay and print has brought back that tactility. This project is about returning to materials; everything here is from the soil. And in the same way that you create images from a negative, filling in these stones is like creating a positive from the negative.” 

The final outcome of the project is still taking shape, but Jessica is supplying the pictures to some of the artists that attended the summer school in the hope that they might stimulate other works. She is then planning to bring together the pictures, the pottery and any other resulting pieces into a book celebrating the materials and the art of making. And as important as the project is, the process itself has had a profound impact upon her. 

“I am not a conventional landscape photographer; you can take a picture and there is still so much that is invisible in the landscape,” Jessica concludes. “This project, however, offered me ways to respond to the landscape both visually and physically. I need to have a focus upon something tangible, and this is why I love the stones. Dr Tom Greeves’ history talk for me really opened up other ways of thinking about the landscape – it has helped me to make the invisible, visible.”

<p>Dartmoor</p>
<p>Dartmoor</p>

Dartmoor’s peat

Of the four habitats found on Dartmoor – wet heaths, dry heaths, peat mire, and oak woodland – the peatland has become a source of great debate and discussion. 

One of the major projects that Dr Paul Lunt – and colleagues in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences – has been involved with is looking at the role of peatland in carbon sequestration. Dartmoor has 8,000 hectares of peatland, and analysis by academics has shown that when in optimum condition each hectare can remove up to ten tonnes of carbon each year.

Working in particular at Fox Tor Mire and Red Lake Mire, south east of Princetown, they have found that the peat is deepening, which makes it a very cost effective method of reducing greenhouse gases. With areas of Dartmoor (and Exmoor) being re-wetted through the raising of the water table, there is a growing possibility that landowners could turn to carbon farming to supplement falling farming incomes. And this has dovetailed with a citizen science project led by the University, where farmers have been taken to a restored site in an effort to dispel misconceptions about the work. 

“Climate scientists agree that peatlands have had an important role in past global cooling and have the potential to make greater contributions in the future,” says Paul. “However, as well as the environmental considerations, there are local challenges to overcome, in terms of convincing those living and working on Dartmoor of the benefits of peatland restoration. Our research suggests that if that can happen, the moors could be a key environment in mitigating against future climate change.”

For Professor Ralph Fyfe, the peatland issue raises interesting questions more broadly around our natural environment and how we manage it. 

“There is a big drive to restore the natural ecosystem of Dartmoor – but how do you define ‘natural’?” he says. “How far back do you go? Twenty years? Fifty? Currently there is a great deal of value placed upon peat conservation because it sequesters carbon, stops flooding and keeps the water clear. But we know that 6,000 years ago there was no peat – it developed as a consequence of cutting down trees and climatic changes. So if we want to create more peat, then we should recognise that as engineering an ecosystem rather than restoring it. We have to recognise the consequences and legacies of what we are doing.”

<p>Dartmoor</p>
<p>Dartmoor</p>
<p>Dartmoor</p>