Heavy horses have once again been proving their worth in the woodland restoration at Dartmoor’s Fingle Woods. Since the Woodland Trust and National Trust took over the site four years ago, local timber logging horses have demonstrated how, by using traditional methods of woodland management, the gradual restoration of coniferous woodlands can be done in a wildlife friendly way. The task of the heavy horses is to extract the felled timber from areas of dense plantation woodland; opening it up to let in more sunlight and trigger the restoration of natural habitats. In these artificially shady woods the wild flowers struggle to reproduce, leaving the ground flora depleted. Then, the ancient woodland soil can lose its structure and be at serious risk of erosion. All this heavy work is done with very little damage to the soil, allowing it to recover and wild plants to become re-established.
In the deep shade of these woods it is not only the protection of wildlife that is at stake, the protection of hundreds of heritage features along the valley are also a conservation priority. Fingle Woods is literally “steeped” in history. For hundreds of years the precipitous woody flanks of the Teign gorge have been worked to produce charcoal. Well before the 20th Century conifer plantations dominated the hillsides, a wholly different industry made its mark on the landscape; charcoal burning. The production of charcoal became one of the main sources of fuel for local industries from manufacturing explosives to cooking clotted cream and, today, we can find clues on the ground to show where this was done.
Making charcoal from oak wood required a small patch of flat ground, which is in short supply along the steep sided valley so, the charcoal makers dug flat platforms where they could stack their logs before the burn process. Traces of these hearths, or platforms, can be found all around the woods and on closer inspection, blackened soil and fragments of old charcoal are also found. These circular structures have become part of the woodland folklore. Though the days of the commercial charcoal burners are long gone, their story is an important part of the Fingle story and has created the landscape and habitats we see today. Back then, pack horses were used to carry the tools, timber and finished charcoal up and down the steep slopes and, in some parts of the woods, their tracks can still be seen. The charcoal hearths were often made in clusters and, between each one, the hooves of hard working ponies created narrow paths between the trees. One of the best examples of these old ways is being opened up for people to see this year.
This winter, the horse logging team from Dartmoor Horse Loggers are working alongside some of their colleagues who have made the journey from South Wales to help. Kate Mobbs-Morgan runs Rowan Working horses, a team that includes Kipp and Sol.
Taking a break from hauling timber, Kate explained that “it’s fun to work together as a team but the horses also have different skills that complement each other. Some are better with heavy logs while others are good at moving over rough ground.” In their work area adjacent to the charcoal platforms, Sol had the chance to demonstrate the skills of hauling logs between large Dartmoor boulders – somewhere that a diesel-powered forestry machine might struggle to manoeuvre.
Will Hampton, his brother Alex and their horses, Beano and Polly are often seen working at Fingle and Alex described how hauling loads along the ancient pack-horse route gave them a sense of a connection with the old charcoal burners. “You can understand why the pack-horses chose that route. It feels very natural when our horses follow the curves of the track, it’s the route of least resistance.” Will added “working on the line of the old trackway is like going over old ground!”
If you would like to experience the old charcoal burners’ hearths and retrace the historical dray route that links them up, you can visit Fingle Woods over the Christmas and New Year holidays. You will be able to meet the working horses, but they won’t be there for long. Dartmoor Horse Loggers and Rowan Working Horses will be teaming up again for a forestry contract in South Wales in January. It’s a heavy workload for these heavy horses; each of them may bring a touch of glamour to Fingle Woods but they are not just a pretty face!
by Matt Parkins