Reclaiming Exmoor

Scottish-style sheep stell on Lanacombe, known as Buscombe Beeches. Credit: Rob Wilson-North

The Royal Forest of Exmoor (c. 60 km2) was sold to the Knight Family in 1818, beginning a period of environmental and social change via landscape-scale enclosure and agricultural ‘improvement’. We are combining expertise in palaeoecology and history to explore the long-term ecological consequences of this on Exmoor.

Moorlands are nationally and internationally important landscapes, particularly in areas with spatially-extensive peatlands. These areas have a range of potential ecosystem services, including climate change mitigation, water supply and cultural services, but many are ecologically degraded as a result of human activity. On Exmoor (south-west England), a period of enclosure and extensive landscape-scale drainage began with the sale of the Royal Forest area (c. 60 km2) to the Knight family in 1818. This was part of a drive towards the agricultural ‘improvement’ of the moor: a practice that encompassed economic, cultural and philosophical ideas. Understanding the ecological impacts of this from a long-term perspective is important, and this knowledge can be used to evaluate the success of on-going restoration works and inform future restoration work on Exmoor.

White Rock Cottage, built in January 1820 by John Knight and conserved in 2019. Credit: Rob Wilson-North

White Rock Cottage, built in January 1820 by John Knight and conserved in 2019. Credit: Rob Wilson-North

The remains of Larkbarrow Farm with its remnant shelter belts. Credit: Rob Wilson-North

The remains of Larkbarrow Farm with its remnant shelter belts. Credit: Rob Wilson-North

The ‘Reclaiming Exmoor’ project combines expertise in palaeoecology, environmental archaeology (University of Plymouth) and history (University of Exeter). We aim to assess the relationships between human activities and motivations, and ecological processes and legacies on Exmoor, focusing on the 19th century period of agricultural ‘improvement’. A range of documentary material, including a previously undiscovered archive of correspondence, account books and estate records, is being used to explore the nature and extent of agricultural ‘improvements’ and broader socioeconomic contexts. Palaeoecological methods (e.g. pollen and fungal spore analysis) will be able to determine the long-term impacts of these human interventions on the vegetation and ecological functioning of Exmoor peatlands.


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John
Knight’s boundary wall around the former Royal Forest of Exmoor.&nbsp;Credit: Rob Wilson-North<br></p>
John Knight’s boundary wall around the former Royal Forest of Exmoor. Credit: Rob Wilson-North
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Irrigation
gutters in Long Combe near Larkbarrow.&nbsp;Credit: Rob Wilson-North<br></p>
Irrigation gutters in Long Combe near Larkbarrow. Credit: Rob Wilson-North

Funding: TheLeverhulme Trust