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A helping hand: Matt Parkins spends a day as woodland volunteer

PUBLISHED: 13:00 10 April 2015




On a misty March morning we’re bumping along the lanes of north Dartmoor, stopping off to collect a set of hand tools.

On a misty March morning we’re bumping along the lanes of north Dartmoor, stopping off to collect a set of hand tools.

The weather forecast gives us cause for optimism as we arrive in a clearing at the top of the valley.

Climbing out of the cab, we’re greeted by the muffled flow of the river Teign in the valley below, though the source of the sound can’t be seen through the fog.

In fact, we can’t see much beyond the extensive banks and ditches of this Iron Age hill fort.

This is the impressive Wooston Castle, part of Fingle Woods, and walking around this archaeological relic I can feel the dominance of the towering hand-built earthworks.

As the sun burns through the haze we unload the essential equipment; starting with tea bags, kettle and cups. Our work for the day will also need the bow saws, loppers and billhooks we collected earlier.

In managing this vast forested valley the Woodland Trust and their partners, the National Trust, are improving the public access and we’re here to reveal a view down the valley by cutting some unwanted fir tree and gorse regeneration.

The original occupiers of this fort would have needed clear sight along this valley too. These strategically placed ramparts provided obstacles to hold back attackers; clearly a place of great importance over 2000 years ago, and worthy of protection.

The aim of the current owners is to continue the protection of the valley as a wild haven for plants and creatures; a long-term but worthy ambition. As we cut away some of the dominant plants a greater diversity appears. Green stars of emerging bluebell leaves provide a hint of what is to come and with conservation in mind, it is hoped this site will be home to populations of fritillary butterflies.

So, my next task is to light a fire. Carefully avoiding damage to the archaeology, we set up a platform of reused corrugated steel sheets. With one match, some dry bracken and a handful of sticks, we have our thermal vegetation management system blazing nicely.

Our small team of volunteers starts lopping and burning the brash. As the gorse is cut and dragged, the flowers emit their sweet coconut aroma – a contrast to the smoke of the fire. On go the branches and the heat builds up, sending smoke signals down the valley.

When the heat drops again we can get close enough to put the kettle in the embers; almost time for tea break.

Sitting with cups in hand we chat, listen to the spring birds and watch the mist clearing from the tree tops.

A really peaceful experience and a world away from the battles that took place here in the past.

The only territorial skirmish here today is enacted between buzzards and ravens, until they broker a temporary truce and go their separate ways.

After a memorable spring day the sun starts to dip and turns the whirling smoke a deep orange and we stand back to appreciate the view towards Castle Drogo.

There are two other Iron Age forts in the valley, perched on their respective vantage points. We wonder why this was such a heavily defended position back then. It had a great strategic value, but for us, we’re happy to be a part of the gradual conservation effort.

You may be able to help too. Look out for volunteering events hosted by the Woodland Trust and National Trust and play a part in restoring one of the largest accessible woodlands in the county. n


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