You’d think a self-confessed woodland nerd and tree hugger would have made it to Wistman’s Wood sooner, but five months after moving to Devon, yesterday we walked out to it for the first time.
Wistman’s Wood is a remnant of an ancient forest that covered Dartmoor nine thousand years ago before much was cleared in the Bronze Age and more since by mining and grazing. It covers just nine acres.
It’s magical. Gnarled, stunted oak trees grow up between granite boulders scattered across the hillside. Moss clings to everything. Beards of lichen hang from the winding branches. Epiphytic ferns are everywhere.
But there’s hardly anything of it. I don’t say that because I’m disappointed. It didn’t disappoint. It’s beautiful. It’s just that it’s so small. Following the advice we stuck to the edges of the woodland. I still felt like I was walking on eggshells.
Normally, if you saw something nine thousand years old in a museum, absolutely irreplaceable, you’d expect it to be behind glass. Alarmed. At least a cordon to keep the plebs off. But Wistman’s Wood is just there, on the moor. No fences. In 2021 visitors were told not to walk in the wood, the signs are still there, but when we were there, there were people in the wood. And the sheep go where they like, obviously.
After we’d sat by the wood for a little while we headed back to Two Bridges along the Devonport Leat, just across the West Dart River from Wistman’s Wood. And it looked even smaller. Scattered spots on the hillside. I felt incredibly sad. It felt like it was melting away just to look at it.
My first memories are of woodland; I grew up on the edge of Oxford and walked with my mum and the dogs through the woods near our home. The smells of humus and old fungi are incredibly evocative. I think a woodland is my favourite place to be. Any walk through woodland is better than a walk without. But seeing Wistman’s Wood looking so vulnerable made me feel sad and anxious. Not just here, but everywhere, habitats and species are disappearing. Our climate is changing irrevocably. I’ve been told I look at the past through rose-tinted spectacles but the natural world of my childhood is disappearing.
Since moving to Devon I’ve been reluctant to offer an opinion on much at all about how a place like Dartmoor is managed because I’m a blow-in who knows nothing. But I’m trying to learn. I don’t understand why a place like Wistman’s Wood couldn’t be so much better protected, and allowed to regenerate.
There have been efforts to protect new oak saplings. Wistman’s Wood reportedly increased in size in the early 20th century, though that recovery has been slowed by increased grazing pressure. And now millions of pounds are set to be made available to support the restoration of Atlantic woods like Wistman’s Wood. So maybe there’s hope.
Oliver Rackham once wrote something about how it wasn’t being cut down that threatened woodlands and trees, it was not supporting them to regenerate. Wistman’s Wood just needs to be given that opportunity.
4 July 2023