This week sees the start of the next phase of work on Wooston Castle. You may remember from previous blogs, or have seen on visits to the area, that we have removed much of the tree cover from the surroundings of the fort and extracted all that material using heavy horses. The reasons for clearing the hillfort are many.
Firstly, as a Scheduled Ancient Monument the hillfort represents an important historical site, and trees and archaeology don’t usually make a very good mix. The tree roots push down into the ground, disturbing the archaeological layers, mixing them and making them impossible to read and interpret. Tree also blow over in high winds from time to time and the large scale disturbance caused by lifting root plates doesn’t require any explanation.
Secondly, Wooston represents the largest area of open space within the woods and one of the most persistently durable clearings through the history of the site. For that reason it represents an important habitat in its own right.
Finally, though most of Fingle Woods are north facing, damp and cold, Wooston, being on a rocky promontory, sticks out far enough from the hill behind to benefit from a good deal of sun. This makes it ideal as an invertebrate and plant habitat. It is also a potential habitat for Fritillary butterflies, an important group of butterflies present on other nearby sites within the valley.
So for all these reasons we want to keep Wooston Hillfort open in the long term. If we just leave it and do nothing, nature will take its course and before we know it we will have Birch trees 15 feet high over much of the site, back to square one! We could continue with costly stump treatment and removal; indeed some of this will doubtless have to continue into the future but the best, most economical and most natural way is through grazing.
To create a habitat to benefit butterflies, we want animals that don’t graze too tight a sward. We want animals with a light footprint to prevent damage to the monument in wet weather, that will eat young scrub and trees, not just grass, and which will trample bracken, allowing wild violets to flourish….in short, we want Dartmoor ponies.
In order to make best use of the hillfort, we want a generally open habitat, some light scrub, some bracken areas, wild violets and other flowering plants. This gives the most ecological niches and hopefully provides habitats for specialists such as Fritillary butterflies.
To keep our ponies on the hillfort and stop them exploring further into the wood we need a fence to contain them. We looked long and hard at invisible fencing, an up and coming technology that uses a buried wire in the ground and collars on the animals which deliver a shock when the animal strays too close to the wire. This has the advantage that there is no visible fence, no interruption in the landscape and of course, if you are not wearing a collar you can walk right over it. However, we eventually decided against this, partly as the technology is still problematic but also because we were consistently advised by colleagues from various organisations not to put collars on ponies in wooded areas for fear of them getting hung up. So instead, we are going to use a conventional fencing system and design the route to conceal it as much as possible within the tree cover around the fort (of which there are plenty).
This means that visitors to the site will be seeing low impact fencing being erected over the next few weeks, the most prominent features being the gates which will be required wherever the fence crosses a track. We will also be providing water for the ponies welfare. Hopefully the fence will contain our ponies and allow us to maintain and improve Wooston as an ever more special area for nature. I hope you will see ponies on the site next year if all goes to plan. It is the ponies, not the fence, which are Wooston’s new defence against invasion.
By Tom Wood, National Trust Area Ranger