Travels in wild space and timelessness
Lose yourself in a wide open landscape amid one of the rarest habitats in the world
A sense of space and timelessness greets the visitor stepping out on to the largest surviving area of culm grassland in Devon.
Culm grassland is a rare habitat comprising distinctive wetland plants, sustained by acidic clay soils, light grazing, and high rainfall. This combination of environmental conditions with low intensity land management, largely unchanged since prehistoric times, maintains the site's wildlife richness.
Unbroken views, as far as the edges of Dartmoor and Exmoor, reach across a diverse array of wet pastures, heaths, bogs and mires, scrub and fringes of woodland. This may lend an impression of vast ancient emptiness, but in the last century over 90% of culm grassland has been lost.
Much of what remains is to be found fragmented across north Devon. Rackenford and Knowstone moor is of crucial value as the most extensive remnant still in existence today. Devon Wildlife Trust works to protect, re-create and link together isolated culm grassland sites through the Working Wetlands and North Devon Nature Improvement Area projects.
As well as the eye, this is a place to be experienced with the feet. Visitors may freely roam the bumpy purple moor grass tussocks and boggy patches of rush, alongside the cattle and deer, though the reserve's special features are most easily accessed from the surfaced paths.
A slower pace is also a good way to appreciate the site's key wildlife interest, lower down in the sward beneath eye level. A variety of different plant communities await discovery, from purple moor-grass dominated mires, rush pastures and wet heaths, to tall herb fens.
In drier areas look out for the purple of saw wort, meadow thistle, and heathers. Wetter areas are home to sharp-flowered rush, ragged robin, marsh bedstraw, meadowsweet and wild angelica. Waterlogged soils give rise to bog vegetation, with Sphagnum mosses, sundews, bog pondweed and sedges. The non-intensively managed nature of the land allows a number of uncommon plants to thrive, with a high diversity of species per square metre, growing together in associations which are nationally rare.
Devil in the detail
The range of flowers supports several scarce butterflies, moths and other insects, including small pearl-bordered fritillary, wood white, marbled white, dingy skipper, small heath, double line moth and keeled skimmer dragonfly.
One characterstic plant is especially important: Devil's-bit scabious, food plant of the marsh fritillary butterfly (one of the most threatened species in Europe), nationally rare narrow-bordered bee hawk-moth, and the scabious jewel beetle. Late nectar provided by the blue pin cushion scabious flowers attracts high numbers of insect species in autumn.
Foraging or roosting among the tussocks might be barn owl, curlew, snipe, woodcock, willow tit, reed bunting and grasshopper warbler, while reptiles and amphibians such as common frog, toad, viviparous lizard and grass snake are hidden below.
Mammals to look out for include harvest mice, fox, roe deer, and otter, or at least the field signs they leave behind. In contrast, red deer, the UK's largest wild land animal, should be more easily visible. Visit the reserve around October to witness the rut, when these big beasts contest the opportunity to reign over this big landscape.
(photo: Darin Smith)
Species and habitats