Great Southern Wild

by Alex Fenton


Fire scorches Trendlebere black,
heavy air shuddering
as tendril flames lick shrubs
off our wiry scrubland
like balding an old

brush-thick dwarf forest.
Kingdom of the invertebrate.
Seemingly inanimate,
the life here to celebrate
is found beneath your knees,
cotted in thatched bilberries
of stony blues and

devil reds.
Adders writhe,
Fox Moths take flight –
wingbeating, wriggling lurch for dear life.
No backbone you say?
Which path would you take
if your world burned?
If smoke stole your sky

lark levitates,
soliloquised symphony


f………………………………
a…………………………
l…………………….
l…………………………
i………………………………
n………………………..
g…………………….

softly
on countless hidden ears.

But her tone is changed.
Alarm raised.

For fire scorches Trendlebere.


Dartmoor isn’t Britain’s only southern wild. You’ll find similar habitats in Exmoor and parts of South Wales. But having visited every year for 6 years, it’s become my sole wild escape – a much-needed dollop of nature to revive me after months spent in more dreary urban settings. Its sense of lostness (especially when 7 miles from the nearest road) is a wonderful feeling so incongruous to the 21st Century Westerner. 

That said, it’s not all as wild as you might believe. Though offering some spectacular scenery, most heathlands are artificial. They were created unwittingly by our Bronze Age ancestors who cleared areas of forest for cultivation only to find the nutrient-poor, sieve-like soils too hostile for crops. They turned them over to grazing instead. Abandoned by man, these clearings were colonised by low-growing shrubs, creating the perfect environment for invertebrate life to flourish. Adders, Common Lizards and Fox Moths are just a few of the species that thrive here. 

But just as we carelessly created them, more recent apathy has seen Devon’s heathland diminish by 73% over the past 80 years. Worse still, heathlands now make up just 15% of the UK’s patchwork of habitats. They’re heartachingly fragile cradles of unique life facing immense threats: overgrazing, heavy-handed swaling (controlled burning to encourage regeneration of vegetation), nutrient enrichment, land development, and even military bombardment – swathes of Dartmoor are used as firing ranges – lay siege to these habitats unrelentingly. 

In 1997, swaling on Trendlebere Down at the eastern edge of the moor got out of hand and ended up scorching 300 acres of pristine heathland. It was 5 years before it had recovered to pre-inferno levels and even this was only possible thanks to dedicated conservation. Without it, invasive trees would have taken root and this special heathland would have ceased to be. 

The Dartmoor National Park celebrated 70 years this year. How our heathlands fair over the next seven decades is up to us. Recent studies show them to be good sequesters of carbon, suggesting they could play a role in combating climate change. Both in the name of biodiversity and climate emergency, we must heed the warning of a heath-less world. 

There is hope. After all, if we had the power to create heathlands in the first place, we can surely muster the commitment needed to conserve them. 

We have a choice. Which path will we take? 


From adders to nightjars, Devon’s heathland supports a huge variety of wildlife. Find out more on Devon Wildlife Trust’s heathland page.

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