The British Naturalists’ Association’s (Taw Valley and Exmoor Branch) recent field trip was to Parkham Ash, to meet Peter Channing on his private 34 acre farm. We arrived shortly after 5.30am, to listen to the ‘Dawn Chorus,’ and to explore Peter’s high level stewardship culm grassland. The farm is made up of a variety of habitats including ancient woodland, marshy areas, ponds, scrub and culm grassland which has been very carefully maintained. Areas of scrub are being cleared to provide corridors for rare Marsh Fritillary butterflies to spread. Marsh Fritillaries are weak flyers and will not fly over tree canopies, so this is vital work, which is helping to preserve and extend the species population. The butterflies will lay their eggs on the leaves of devil’s bit scabious before it actually flowers.
The culm grassland is grazed by 3 Exmoor ponies – Ted, Bruce and Croan (above). Croan has been brought up from Cornwall, and the ponies do an excellent job maintaining the grassland and encouraging the growth of flora. Although it was a little early in the year (April) for many wildflowers, we saw a wide variety including primroses, wood violets, marsh violets, crowfoot, marsh marigolds, selfheal, lady’s smock (see photo), lousewort and early purple orchids – to name but a few! 50 dormouse boxes were already in place and a marsh tit was happily sitting on 4 pinkish eggs when we arrived – she will lay more. Already there were 20 nests in the boxes – 2 with eggs. Peter explained that the small birds often use the nest boxes first, taken over hopefully later on in the year by dormice.
A good sign of dormice activity, without disturbing them in their nests, are open hazel nut shells. The ones split perfectly in half indicate squirrels, but the ones with a wide hole in the side of the nut, showing a smooth edge but with gnaw marks inside the lip of the hole, have been made by a dormouse. Gnaw marks all the way around the lip of the hole, have been made by wood mouse or another small animal. We also found red deer slots (hoof prints) and Peter confirmed he has 10-15 roe deer resident, and about 6 red deer. Red deer mainly during the winter months.
The purple moor grass is deciduous and is burnt off each year. Much of the grassland bears hummocky grassy mounds which are the perfect habitat for nesting harvest mice. We found toads but no slowworms under the corrugated iron sheets this time.
We chatted and explored for 4 amazing hours with Peter as a heron flew overhead (the BNA’s emblem) and observed a host of bird species including greater spotted woodpeckers, nuthatch, treecreepers, willow warblers, chiff chaffs, marsh tits, chaffinches, blue tits, robin, wren and many more – over 40 species were listed. We then left Peter and his beautiful haven so explore Peppercombe Beach for wildlife, not far from Horns Cross. Difficult to end such a perfect day….. but yes, we ended up in the pub!
If you would like to join the BNA please visit www.bna-naturalists.org or contact Branch Chairman Brian Sims 01271 3436
Endymion Beer, BNA Youth Officer.