“Where would you like to go?”, Matt Boydell, the Land Manager, had asked when we spoke to arrange a visit to one of Devon Wildlife Trust‘s 50 nature reserves. A difficult choice, but I decided it would be good to see some lowland heathland, a habitat I’d not visited yet on my travels, and one which is in very short supply in Kent and getting rarer everywhere else. So in mid-August this year Matt took us to visit two Devon Wildlife Trust nature reserves, Bystock and Venn Ottery, both of which are part of the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths Special Area of Conservation, an area of lowland heath (named after the rounded pebbles in the sandstone deposits that lie beneath the soil ).
Bystock is a beautiful reserve containing a mixture of habitats. We walked across a rabbit-grazed meadow and through shady green woodland to where the site opened out into a purple sea of heathland, in full bloom in August and alive with the buzzing of bees. Threaded through the grass and heather were yellow tormentil flowers and the occasional golden splash of gorse.
There is a spring line running through the heathland; as we walked down the hill we came across two long ponds. This mix of wet and dry heathland, ponds and woodland is what makes the reserve incredibly rich in wildlife. There are 19 species of dragonflies and damselflies on the reserve, I’m not sure how many different ones we saw as they didn’t sit around waiting to be identified, but we were accompanied by flashes of blue, red and green as they darted across our path.
The site is really important for birds, particularly rare ground-nesting birds such as nightjar and Dartford warbler. Because they nest on the ground they are easily disturbed; Devon Wildlife Trust works hard not only to manage the site but also to help ensure that everyone can enjoy the site without affecting the wildlife. One of the ways they do this is by promoting the Dorset Dogs initiative, which has a membership group and lots of information sharing to encourage responsible dog ownership, including a code for owners to sign up to.
Traditionally, heathlands were kept open by grazing animals, which like to eat young growth including tree seedlings, so the heath didn’t become overgrown with trees and shrubs. Devon Wildlife Trust now uses Exmoor ponies to graze the heathland at Bystock and at Venn Ottery.
These are some of the heathland plants we saw:
Below the heathland we climbed down some steps to the edge of a lily covered lake. This is actually an old reservoir, as the site used to belong South West Water. Devon Wildlife Trust have been managing it for them since the 1990s and now own the site.
Quite a few people asked Matt about terrapins as we walked round the reserve. Terrapins were popular pets in the early 90s, when, inspired by the TV series and film, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, people bought baby terrapins, about the size of a 50p coin. Actual teenage terrapins though, are bigger and feistier, so when they grew to the size of a dinner plate, many people abandoned their pets in local ponds and lakes. Unfortunately for the wildlife that already lives there, terrapins are voracious predators, eating just about anything they can swallow, and here they have a big impact on dragonflies as they eat their aquatic larvae.
As we got to the reservoir we found Ed and Andrew, the reserve wardens, lowering a terrapin trap into the water. The idea is that the terrapins, which like to bask on logs, will climb out to bask on the wooden frame which is mounted on plastic piping to keep it buoyant, and then plop back into the water and find themselves in the cage inside the frame. Any that are caught will be re-homed by a local tortoise collector. The terrapins aren’t the only introduced species found in the lake, Ed said that there are also Koi carp, one of which is called Henry by his fans.
The wet heathlands of the Pebblebed Heaths are fantastic habitats for dragonflies and damselflies including the very rare southern damselfly. This is only found at a few sites, and is very poor at colonising new ones. We went to Venn Ottery to look at the work that had been done to restore habitat so that it would be suitable for reintroducing southern damselflies.
The name Venn Ottery comes from fen, and means a marsh near the River Otter. We scrambled over the tussocky heathland and through a few boggy puddles to the middle of the reserve, where small streams have been dammed with wooden boards. This is to slow the movement of water and create suitable habitats for the damselfly, which lives in runnels – tiny shallow streams – on the heath. We didn’t manage to spot any, but it might have been just a little late in the year for them.
I’m incredibly grateful to Matt, for taking the time to show us around the reserves and to Ed and Andy for sharing their knowledge of the site, even though Ed was standing in leaky waders and quite keen to get some dry socks on. We had such a great time we went back the next day to take some extra photos and admire the wildlife.