Devon Rewilding Network visit to Brook Manor

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There was a big turnout for the first Devon Rewilding Network site tour of the year and our hosts Kevin, Donna and Robbie have set a very high bar for the rest of the season.

On 150 acres in the Mardle valley near Buckfastleigh, three things struck me. Firstly, the attention given to optimising niches for all species, and thinking through their requirements for food and shelter year-round. Secondly, the focus on restoring the full range of riparian habitat and natural processes, and thirdly, a more classical hands-on conservation approach in the provision and maintenance of open habitat mosaics and ecotones.

To one side of the Tudor manor house, the Great Meadow is in the process of conversion from a formal lawn to a hay meadow. Surveyed by Bob Hodgson in 2021, it now has 85 species. The classic regime of late summer hay cut is followed by aftermath grazing by cattle up until March, when the meadow is ‘shut up’. Yellow rattle has been used to reduce the dominance of grasses. A technique of scattering seed on mole hills and then kicking them out was new to me.

A valley with flowers and woodland

Figure 1 The stream valley, with Iris beds, primroses in profusion, and the woodland on the left, below which ran the canal

From there we proceeded via the semi-formal ponds (breeding Mandarin duck) into a gorgeous stream valley flanked by woodland on the north-facing slopes and an herb-rich grassland/bracken/gorse scrub mosaic on the south-facing slopes, glowing with primroses on our visit. This bank is managed to increase the density of violets for fritillary butterflies. The scrub is cut on a rotation and Robbie runs his mist-nets here regularly (Grasshopper warblers pass through in autumn).

When a multi-million-pound flood protection scheme for Buckfastleigh came close to failure shortly after completion, attention turned to slowing the flow in the headwaters. The first edition OS maps show drainage via a ‘canal’ along the edge of the woodland and into the pond (possibly associated with the intensive copper mining, also depicted on the maps as the ‘Emma Shaft’). A ‘Stage Zero’ solution was implemented. The pond was taken ‘offline’, drained (with fish transferred to the river), and the silt and cobble substrate was used to fill in the canal in combination with brash and a final top layer of coir matting.

A group of people walking on a path in the woods

Figure 2 This is the point at which water from the stream entered the canal (left of the group) and now flow is mainly through the sluice into the new meander. Note alder log dams further up the stream.

A stream flows across the grassland over the sluice

Figure 3 The stream in spate over the sluice

Water has now found a gently meandering path through the valley, which now floods more often (Fig 4). That has led to a decline in the population of southern-marsh orchid, whilst yellow flag-iris has increased exponentially (probably also through reduction in grazing intensity as well). Water shrews have increased, and the late flowering fen plants such as hemp agrimony provide nectar for hoverflies and bees, with the hornets feasting on these in late summer. Willow scrub is removed by hand and cattle also help to maintain open conditions.

stream running through the valley across the wet meadow

Figure 4

We followed the brook up into the woodland, above which is an organic dairy farm. The practice of ploughing and reseeding grass leys results in some silt loss into the brook. A series of alder log and brash dams have proved very successful in capturing this silt and gravel and diverting water into new channels. The owners eagerly await the arrival of beavers, but through this work they have managed to create a woodland pond where trail cams have shown Tawny owls preying on the newly arrived frogs. Scouring has created small ‘plunge pools’ where trout have been observed.

The 19th century mining plundered trees in the woodland and has led to the even-aged stand of predominantly sessile oak that remains today. Conifers were also planted between the wars, and rhododendrons arrived too. These have now been removed and combinations of ringbarking and limb ripping employed to create glades, standing dead wood, niches for bats, and age diversity.

Meanwhile, 300 nest boxes have been built and now support 25 pairs of Pied Flycatcher (Fig 5), bats and other woodland birds. Small populations of Roe and Red deer do not appear to be preventing natural colonisation of gorse/bramble glades by birch.

A pied, flycatcher Bird

Figure 5

The small herd of six Riggit Galloway cattle graze the meadows, overseen by Robbie, and John and Desley from “Cows in Clover” (find them on Facebook). ‘No Fence’ GPS collars are about to be trialled (satellite signal strength can be variable in the valley). It is hoped that the electric fences can then be removed. The collars are about £400 each plus a service charge for the software. ‘Farming in Protected Landscapes’ provides 100% grant and although Countryside Stewardship does not at present, we all hope that will change.

A group of cows in a field

Figure 6 The cows grazing in pasture. Note ‘Jenny’ on the right sporting a GPS collar.

From the valley, we walked over the ridge, stopping to admire the lungwort lichen on an oak tree, a classic of old growth Dartmoor temperate rainforest. A series of post and wire enclosures have been created and planted sparsely with a mixture of shrubby species such as rowan, hawthorn, alder buckthorn and guelder rose. The intention is to create open scrub that provides berries for winter thrushes, with cattle maintaining it once the trees are away. Outside the enclosures, ‘cactus guards’ protect trees such as oak, wych elm, hawthorn, rowan and crab apple where the intention is to create wood pasture.

A tree trunk with a field in the background

Figure 7 The lungwort Lobaria pulmonaria growing on an oak. In the background field some of the parkland tree planting can be seen.

Further on, we entered a field where the shrubs are more advanced, and protection has been removed. The interleaving long grass harbours a great many harvest mice, and it took only 6 months for Barn owls to move into a box. The Starling boxes situated along the hedges may soon be colonised by House sparrows, and the Starlings remain breeding in Swifts boxes on the house! The sparrows would not have established were it not for the provision of grain throughout the winter.

The attention to detail alluded to at the start was evident in the re-creation of hedge banks. On the north-facing side, the hedge is fenced. On the south side (Fig 8), the cattle can browse and create bare patches suitable for solitary bees and wasps.

A picture of a new hedge bank

Figure 8

In conclusion, over the last 17 years, the owners have increased floristic diversity in meadows, fen, hedges and woodland, providing conditions for an increase in the populations and the diversity of all species groups, from lower plants right up the food chain to birds and mammals. The work continues with the more recent creation of orchards and wood pastures. We are extremely grateful for their conservation efforts, excellence and hospitality.

Please note that this is a private estate and there are no public footpaths. However, you can visit this summer (and many other wonderful meadows across Dartmoor and Devon). Events will be listed on the Moor Meadows website very soon

✍ Simon Bates -Devon Rewilding Network – 28th April 2023

???? Figures 2, 6-8 Simon Bates. Figures 1,3-5 (please request permission to use)


Ambios is working with Rewilding Britain to administer the Devon Rewilding Network, a network of people based in Devon who are interested in, or taking action to rewild land in our beautiful county.

For just £10 a year you can join the network and gain access to in-person visits to rewilding sites across Devon and a whole host of other rewilding resources and networking opportunities.

Visit to find out more and join the network.


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