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Devon’s special habitat

PUBLISHED: 13:35 16 February 2015

Whitebeam, photo: Matt Parkins

Whitebeam, photo: Matt Parkins

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MATT PARKINS takes a look at a unique Devon habitat

Whitebeam, photo: Matt ParkinsWhitebeam, photo: Matt Parkins

Devon is a special place. Those of us lucky enough to live here know this, but can we put our finger on the reason why?

The county is home to two wild moorlands and bounded by two spectacular coastlines. Numerous rivers flow to their estuaries through heaths, meadows and ancient woodlands. The variety of life is astonishing, but which of these features creates that captivating attraction?

I spend many happy hours exploring the quiet woodland nooks and studying rock pools for magical marine life, but for me it’s really all of these things woven together. It’s elemental.

The Atlantic wind and rain is life’s driving force. The clean air stimulates a world beating variety of lichen to grow and fresh water feeds streams and rivers abundant with life. It’s hard to pick a favourite but if pressed, I’m fascinated by the dense verdant hedges that generations of our ancestors have planted to mark boundaries and shelter livestock.

Whitebeam, photo: Matt ParkinsWhitebeam, photo: Matt Parkins

Hedges are incredible eco-systems; varied in their plant life, they provide support to endless creeping, climbing, chattering and fluttering creatures. They are secret corridors linking up the other wildlife hotspots. As my personal search began to reveal the wild secrets of Devon I wasn’t surprised to learn that there are more miles of hedgerows here than any other county.

But why are Devon’s hedgerows any different from anywhere else? Well, if you are in the right place you might find a rare small tree. Difficult to spot during winter dormancy but the flowering clusters with five white petals appear in May to nourish the pollinators. Serrated leaves have the distinctive white hue underneath and the ripe fruits, like tiny russet apples, feed the birds in October.

This tree is a true native to Devon, but is occasionally found in neighbouring counties too. The Devon Whitebeam in the hedgerows is a wild hybrid and has other rare cousins on the rocky coasts from Torbay to Lynmouth.

These trees are a genetic marvel and I don’t want to lose this diversity. I want to help to protect the special qualities of Devon, so what can I do? There’s no quick fix but with permission of Devon Wildlife Trust I collected some seed from one of their nature reserves. I’m now storing these genetic time capsules until the spring when I will try to coax them into life. With lots of care, plenty of time and a large slice of luck, I hope to see Devon Whitebeam trees planted out in hedges around the farms, parks and schools of the county. Protecting a piece of the jigsaw of this magnificent landscape gives me hope, and raising awareness about the perilous life of a rare tree should help too. Perhaps, if you love where you live you can find something special on your doorstep, something worth protecting.

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