Rewilding Dartmoor

Dartmoor in south-west England is a beautiful ‘wilderness’ and deeply familiar to me. As a youth I accompanied my father Eric Hemery (author) during his research inching across every one of the moor’s 365 square miles. When a little older I enjoyed participating in Ten Tors expeditions, walking 45 miles in under two days, graduating in one sense to become an active member of the Mountain Rescue Group. Latterly I studied Dartmoor, and in particular its meagre upland woodlands, as an environmentalist.

For my short story in Arboreal (Little Toller Books, 2016) I decided to write from the perspective of an old man looking back on the transformation of Dartmoor due to the withdrawal of farming subsidies and application of visionary environmental policies.

“There was stark beauty to the high moor, which due largely to the absence of people, felt wild. It was only later, as I developed what you could describe as a deeper environmental awareness, that I gained true insight into the nature of Dartmoor’s landscape.”

Don’t Look Back from Arboreal (Little Toller Books, 2016)

The focus for the story Don’t Look Back was my long-lasting relationship with Piles Copse; one of three high altitude oak woodlands which survive against all odds on the moor. Read more about Piles Copse.

At the heart of the story I explored the concept of society becoming smarter in how we manage our landscapes, to work with rather than against nature and, most importantly, to have more land covered with trees (read my recent post about how Britain is grievously under-forested). I imagined returning to Piles Copse when a combination of deliberate landscape change and accidental neglect had transformed the landscape through ‘rewilding’.

Rewilding is an appealing concept, where environmentalists imagine the shackles of entrenched human-centric views being removed — as Rewilding Britain define it — “to bring nature back to life and restore living systems“. The daring and provocative book Feral by George Monbiot has effectively raised the profile of the approach. My personal stance on rewilding is that I’m not in favour of deliberate abandonment of our landscapes to nature where, at least in the UK, pressures on land are too high and the environmental imperatives too great. One of these would be the importance of producing more timber, or more precisely woody biomass, to support a future society in functioning sustainably.

Unfortunately there wasn’t space in the book to include two pen and ink sketches I offered the publishers. One shows Piles Copse in 2015 when I visited the Erme Valley and made notes for the story, the other an imaginary scene showing the same in 2050. I thought it would be nice to share these with readers before they’re lost in my archives.

Dartmoor forest by Gabriel Hemery
Looking across to Piles Copse and Sharp Tor in 2015, and the Dartmoor forest in 2050. Sketches by Gabriel Hemery. The 2050 sketch shows the valley covered with trees, with the higher peaks remaining tree-free. Some timber has been brought to ride-side from first thinning operations. Species growing are diverse including Macedonian pine (Pinus peuce) and tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipefera) along native species such as oak.
Here’s a second extract from the story:

“Eventually green fingers spread up Dartmoor’s valleys; first came birch and alder (Italian), and later red oak, black locust and Japanese red cedar (which spread naturally from a nearby plantation). Milder and wetter winters favoured tree growth at higher elevations, and fecundity too. Sadly, the bearded lichens and mosses that once festooned the trees are gone from here now, due to high summer temperatures, although they do still live on trees at higher elevations. We know from satellite imagery that by 2042 Piles Copse had become an ancient woodland among a mob of teenage trees that spread all the way from Ivybridge and the border country, right up to the edges of the blanket bog and craggy hilltops two miles further upstream.”

Don’t Look Back from Arboreal (Little Toller Books, 2016)

Arboreal: a collection of new woodland writing. Little Toller Books. 2016.
Arboreal: a collection of new woodland writing. Little Toller Books. 2016.

Perhaps fiction will become reality if I am lucky to be alive in 2050 and able to return to visit this beautiful place one last time in my 82nd year.

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