Sunday, 4 May 2014

21 Go Mad In Dartmoor. Day 1: Minibuses, Wistman's Wood and An Emperor Moth

Four hours in a minibus would test anyone's commitment to their cause. That's how our Ecology trip to Dartmoor started last Monday (and indeed ended a week later). We left college around ten in a convoy of two, several of our number having decided it would improve the chances of them holding on to their sanity if they drove down in their own cars instead. We intrepid minibus survivors numbered about eleven.

We stopped after a couple of hours for a break at a service station where Sasha Got Into Trouble for eating a McDonalds.....

I regularly have to tell her off for her lack of greens and this was the last bit of fast-food she had all week, so she did well. Now all you have to do is keep up the Good Greens Work on your own without me nagging you Sash, eh? You can do it!

Back in the minibus and several Ipod tracks worth later we arrived at Bellever Youth Hostel in Dartmoor around 2pm. Enormous quantities of baggage were dumped and we all piled back into the buses and headed off for Wistman's Wood, a remote high-altitude oakwood near Two Bridges. It forms one of the highest oakwoods in Britain and, as an outstanding example of native upland oak woodland, became a SSSI (site of special scientific interest) in 1964. 

There are many legends attached to the wood, not least of which is that thousands of years ago it was a focal point for the Druids who were said to have worshipped here long before the Romans came and murdered them all on Anglesey. The name Wistman's wood may have derived from this connection (wise man's wood), although there are plenty of other theories, not least of which is that it was named for the local dialect word wisht which means eerie, uncanny, pixie-led or haunted....

It may also come from the Celtic uisg maen coed (stony wood by the river) or from the Saxon wealas meaning foreigners: Wealasman's Wood would therefore be the Wood Of The Celts.

The woods have changed a good deal over the centuries: in 1620 it was claimed that the trees were "no taller than a man may touch to top with his head." In 1912 a geological survey party tried to walk the wood but gave up due to the dense vegetation. In the early 1970s the trees were reported as being very distorted and on average 10 ft high. They are open to the grazers on the moor with only a small section being fenced off and in that section there were many more plants visible.

The wood is full of epiphytes (a plant that grows non-parasitically on another plant eg moss, fern, lichen) which adds to the eerie feeling....

It is also stuffed full of large rocks that the trees grow between and over (and that ecology students take refuge under when it is threatening rain...)

The valley around it has a stark and dramatic beauty, with the Dart flowing through the centre, stone walls tumbling across it and the hills stretching away into moorland on all sides....

I've been here in atrocious weather before and it can be bleak and inhospitable. There are also some fantastic birds in the moors around here. A Peregrine flew over while we were making our way up to the woods and Stonechats (which I haven't seen before) were nesting nearby...

It had been a Long First Day, but an enjoyable one and we were all glad to get back to the hostel, find our rooms, unpack and then go down for some supper.
After supper an Emperor Moth decided to put in an appearance beneath the light outside the hostel which I was thrilled about because I've never seen one in the flesh before. I knew they were here and had been hoping I would see one. This is a female and she wasn't well- she laid a string of eggs on my finger which is a sign of stress in moths I've brought them home just in case they hatch but I suspect they won't be fertile.
Emperor Moths fly in a single generation from April-late May. The males fly by day and the females early at night when they come to light. They over-winter as a pupa and are common throughout the UK, although they are especially found on heath and moorland. Beautiful, no?

Emperor Moth eggs
All in all a Good First Day.

CT :-)


  1. Now this is the kind of day I would so enjoy - great information and even spoil myself at a "MacDonalds". ha,ha

  2. It will be interesting to see what happens with the eggs - you might have a fleet of moths who think you are their Mum! xx

    1. It would be lovely if they hatched, but I'm not expecting them too sadly. Still, a real treat to see their real mothy mum- one I've wanted to see for ages :-)

  3. Lovely to see your pictures of Wistman's Woods it is always atmospheric place to be at any time of the year! How wonderful that the moth welcomed you on the first night. Sarah x

    1. I'd never been there before- we've always walked up to the Tors above, so it was really special to visit it. I felt right at home as soon as I saw the moth :-) xx

  4. Great photos, love the woods, I'm not too far from Dartmoor, so may take a trip over to see them.
    Will be interesting to see if the eggs hatch, what a wonderful thing to happen.
    Linda O xxx

    1. Thanks Linda :-) It's definitely worth a visit, quite unlike any other wood I've been to x

  5. Love Wistman's Wood - a location high on my list of places to visit :) Looks wonderful and exceedingly atmospheric :) Wonderful wonderful moth - I've never seen one. A garden in South Warwickshire is apparently this year proving a brilliant site for them - so we can but live in hope !!! Hope the eggs hatch.

    1. You won't be disappointed when you get there :-)

      The female Emperor was out after dusk but not stupid late, and the boys are out during the day so hopefully you may get to see them x


Thank you for leaving a comment. I always enjoy reading them. CT.