Category Archives: Flora & fauna

Hestercombe House: reunited with gardens at last

Following extensive discussions with Somerset County Council the Hestercombe Gardens Trust is delighted to reveal that it will be taking over the imposing Hestercombe House, the centre piece of the estate, under licence in the early summer and plans are afoot to open it to the public and turn it into a national Centre for Landscape Studies.

Whilst the surrounding gardens and land had been secured for the Trust through a system of long term tenancies from a range of landowners the house has remained under the direct ownership of the Council where it has been used as office space and as the HQ for Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service. Securing the house is a pivotal moment in the history of Hestercombe, says as Chief Executive Philip White: “Being able to reunite Hestercombe House with its historic landscape for the first time in 60 years is a hugely exciting prospect and we are delighted that Somerset County Council has been able to offer us this exciting arrangement which will enable us to take over the house under licence in the early summer. It will consolidate and reinforce Hestercombe nationally and internationally, particularly with the proposed Centre for Landscape Studies creating a world-class centre of excellence.”

Once funding is secured, the Trust hopes to re-furbish and re-roof the house and open it (free to Somerset residents for the first two years) to showcase its Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian history. It also plans to develop a national Centre for Landscape Studies hosting seminars, conferences, providing a research resource for the public, housing the Hestercombe archive and an archive for thousands of conservation management plans currently held by organisations such as the Heritage Lottery Fund and Natural England. The council are pleased to have orchestrated the handover of the house as Cllr Huxtable explains:

“This is great news for the council, great news for Somerset residents and great news for the Trust. The building needs improving and investment – money we just do not have in these tight financial times. The Trust has a bold plan to carry out improvements. It will be great to see part of our Somerset heritage fully restored and thriving once again. We wish success to all concerned with Hestercombe’s future.”

Just as the restored gardens at Hestercombe exhibit three periods of gardening history; the eighteenth-century landscape garden, the nineteenth-century Victorian shrubbery and terrace and the twentieth-century formal Edwardian garden, so indeed does the house and through the proposed acquisition both house and garden will be reunited, each reflecting the other’s remarkable development over time.

A prickly problem: 40 years on – is climate change affecting our native hedgehogs?

A new hedgehog hibernation survey starts 1 February 2012

The People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS) are appealing to people to take part in a new wildlife survey to help determine whether climate change is having an impact on when hedgehogs emerge from hibernation and how this might be affecting their survival. Recent findings have shown that there has been a slight downward trend in the South West over recent years.

The charities are asking members of the public to record their sightings of hedgehogs as they start to emerge in spring after hibernation. The easy-to-do survey starts on 1 February 2012 (running through till August) and can be completed online. Anyone interested in taking part can sign-up for the survey before 1 February at www.hedgehogstreet.org

Bea Davis from Exmoor National Park says: “The hibernation survey is part of the charities’ joint campaign to safeguard the future of Britain’s endangered hedgehog and we hope that people on Exmoor will want to join in.

“In the early part of the last century, hedgehogs were abundant throughout Britain, with an estimated population as high as perhaps 30 million in the 1950s, but by 1995 it was estimated to be only about 1.5 million. To help these prickly but endearing creatures, the charities launched Hedgehog Street last summer, a hands-on project to encourage hedgehog conservation action at a local community or neighbourhood level. Nearly 18,000 volunteer “Hedgehog Champions” up and down the country have registered to help to date and the campaign is ongoing, but they still need our help to make a difference.”

Last year, PTES and BHPS published The State of Britain’s Hedgehogs, an independent study which confirmed evidence from eight existing UK wildlife surveys that hedgehog populations have plummeted by at least a quarter over the last decade. The decline of the species is attributed to a number of environmental factors, but with more extreme weather fluctuations recorded in recent seasons, might climate change be another contributing issue?

Research in the 1970s by Britain’s foremost expert on hedgehogs, Dr Pat Morris (formerly of Royal Holloway, University of London), revealed a direct link between hibernation and climate: hedgehogs came out of hibernation up to three weeks earlier in the South West of England compared to Scotland. Furthermore, in East Anglia, hedgehogs similarly spent longer in hibernation than in the London area or South West. This marked difference in hedgehog hibernation patterns across the UK shows a general trend of prolonged inactivity in proportion to the coldness and length of the winter.

Dr Morris explains: “Age, sex and weather all appear to influence the timing of hedgehog hibernation. For example, young animals may remain fully active into December, no doubt seeking to develop sufficient fat reserves to ensure survival during subsequent hibernation. Also, adult females that have had late litters or may still be lactating will need to feed intensively before hibernating, causing them to be active for longer than adult males. However, mild weather can also delay hedgehogs entering into hibernation or elicit premature awakening, impacting on the creature’s fat reserves and breeding times and consequently affecting the long-term survival of the species.”

Several organisations are independently monitoring native British wildlife populations, while others are studying changes in the timing of natural events, known as phenology, particularly with regard to plants and birds; however no single study is focusing on changes in seasonal mammal behaviour, let alone a specific species like threatened hedgehogs. PTES and BHPS hope that with the vast people power of citizen science, they can identify any changes in the timing of waking hedgehogs since the initial research 40 years ago. The information gathered will be used to help scientists understand the hedgehog’s life cycle better, including hibernation behaviour which is an energy saving strategy when food is scarce.

A programme of practical research projects, funded by PTES and BHPS over the next three years, also aims to further scientific understanding about the causes for the decline in hedgehog numbers and most importantly what can be done to reverse this threat to this iconic species.

There is a lovely article about hedgehogs by Trevor Beer in the current issue of Exmoor Magazine (even if we do say so ourselves!)

Planning for a Fruitful Crop in the Future

(Advertorial)

Whilst digesting the leftover turkey and looking out of the window at the gloomy weather, now is the ideal time to brighten your horizons and think about the coming year in the garden and how to help the domestic food budget. No garden is too small in which to grow fruit trees. Even a postage stamp can accommodate a couple of cordon or step-over apples, or a fan trained plum against a fence. If you’ve got a sunny courtyard, how about planting an apricot or a medlar to provide an interesting architectural but also productive addition to the garden? All of these trees, plus the sound advice and guidance to start you on your way, can come from Thornhayes Nursery, who have been specialist fruit tree growers for 20 years.

Exmoor magazine may be non-partisan but we can safely say we love hedgehogs!

Hedgehogs. Spiky, flea-ridden, hoovering up the eggs of ground-nesting birds, yet we love them. And why not? After all, in the natural scheme of things they do far less damage to the environment than we humans. So Mrs Tiggywinkle and her gang of Fuzzpigs are thankfully popular and therefore looked at by Joe Public as better than some.

So, what is a hedgehog, or Hedge-pig as it is sometimes known? Its scientific name is Erinaceus europaeus and it is quite unmistakable by virtue of its spiky pelage. It is an insectivore, a small, ground-dwelling mammal that feeds on invertebrates and here in Britain three families are represented – the hedgehog, the moles and the shrews. Though superficially quite different the moles and shrews are more closely related to each other than either is to the hedgehog.

Read the rest of this piece about hedgehogs by Trevor Beer in the winter issue out now in the shops!

Early autumn colour due to hot dry spring

Autumn colours are emerging in our gardens weeks early due to the hot dry spring say experts at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).

It is too early for decreasing day length, a key factor for British autumn colour, to have caused the yellow, red and brown tinges on trees at RHS Garden Wisley, including maples, Liquidambar styraciflua, Corylus (hazel nut) and Laburnum. The leaf colouring and leaf loss are due to dry soils left over from the spring.

At RHS Gardens at Rosemoor and Harlow Carr there are signs of autumn colouring on certain acers and at Rosemoor plants including Aesculus × neglecta ‘Autumn Fire’ and Hydrangea serrata ‘Tiara’ (L) AGM are also taking on autumnal shades.

The fruit harvest at Wisley is also unusually advanced with September cultivars of apples, like ‘Grenadier’ and ‘Laxton’s Fortune’, and ‘Beth’ pears ripening in the last fortnight. Autumn fruiting raspberries are peaking now instead of September.

Guy Barter, chief horticultural adviser at the RHS, says: “The autumnal leaf colouring and leaf loss on trees is due to dry soils.

“There is a five inch soil moisture deficit this summer, despite some wet weather pushing it down to four inches for a week or two, so trees and shrubs are under water stress. However, it’s not fatal as they are well adapted and have had a good growing season.

“The low soil moisture levels could lead to reduced flower formation in some vulnerable plants such as camellia and rhododendron, which set buds now. My current top tip is empty your water butts now to soak any vulnerable plants.”

More unseasonable activity in the garden has been caused by mid-summer rain, leading to winter flowering plants blooming, including hellebores, Viburnum, Mahonia and magnolias, but this won’t impact on normal flowering season of November to April.

The RHS receives around 1,700 weather-related enquiries a year.

 

Hare Today

by Trevor Beer, photo byAndy Stuthridge

But let’s hope not gone tomorrow. I love hares and collect ornamental ones and even have a taxidermied one in my den watching over me in its inimitable staring-eyed magical way.

Our West Country hare is the Brown hare, Lepus europaeus, and is of the order Lagomorphs and the family Leporidae, as are rabbits. Until 1912 they were wrongly classified as rodents. The Brown hare is tawny-brown on its back with white underparts and black-tipped ears. The top side of the tail is also black and a running hare holds its tail down to show the black. Its length is 24-28ins (60-70 cm) and the average weight is about 8-10lbs (4-4.7 kg). There are records of Brown hares weighing 15lbs. In Britain they are found up to an elevation of about 1,500ft (500m) and normally in farmland and open country. In my experience Brown hares often frequent broad-leaved woodland, particularly woodland edges adjoining favoured fields, possibly for shelter rather than feeding. Hares are not agricultural pests.

Brown hares were present in Britain 2,000 years ago as is proven by fossil evidence and it is likely they arrived here when we were still joined to Europe by land before sea levels rose. They are certainly magical and unusual creatures, usually secretive and seemingly timid but they can be bold and quite pugnacious and thus seem intelligent and daft at the same time. Rather like humans one might say!

Brown hares tend not to thrive in wet areas, preferring the drier parts of Britain as a rule. There may be three or four litters in a year but the mortality rate is high, especially in wet and cold springs and summers, and also due to predation. Young are born fully furred, weigh about 3.8 oz (110g) and are deposited singly about a field in depressions in grass known as forms. They reach adult weight in about 34 weeks. When very young they are fed by the female who visits each briefly at dusk. Hares may feed in daylight, especially in the spring, but are usually nocturnal. If disturbed by man they often crouch low to the ground, ears flat against the head and ‘disappear’ in that magical way hares have a reputation for. Whilst feeding the body is usually held low, the ears flat, and forward movement is often one slow step at a time.

The spectacular courtship displays of ‘boxing’, chasing and leaping are usual in ‘Mad March Hare’ time but do occur at other times of the year, not necessarily in March.

Hare at Blackmore Gate by Andy Stuthridge

Brown hares are not difficult to keep in captivity. As a primary-school boy I had an orphaned hare which a farmer allowed me to keep in a closed barn with straw about and hay bales. It grew quickly and eventually would come to the barn door to meet me when I whistled on arrival home from school. Holidays, evenings and weekends were a joy for just over three years or so. A wonderful friend!

Current law places restrictions on the killing of hares on moorland and unenclosed (but not arable) land of over 25 acres twixt 1 April and 30 June in Scotland, and 1 April and 10 December in England and Wales. Hares cannot be offered for sale between March and July inclusive. You may not kill a hare on a Sunday or on Christmas Day.

From Issue 54, Spring 2011

Hedgerows: The Story of our Landscape

As you cross the moor, whether by horse or on foot, you will notice the worn-down remains of old banks lying beneath the heather. Many of these are the remnants of early hedgebanks associated with Neolithic settlements and field systems. On lower farmland around the foothills of the moor many hedges date from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when fields on manorial lands were enclosed by tenants. However, no one knows how many prehistoric hedgebanks were absorbed into this medieval field system and may still be in use today.

These medieval hedges enclose small fields, shaped to fit comfortably into the contours and natural features of the land. From a map you can see how many of these old hedge lines have been bisected by more recent roads. Over the ages these hedges have been colonised by numerous species such as ash, hazel, field maple, oak, holly, rowan and thorns, all jostling for space and bound together with brambles and briars. The growth is luxuriant and a profusion of wild flowers brightens the grassy hedgebanks.

On the higher parts of the moor the fields are larger and squarer, the hedges are straighter and almost exclusively of beech. Beech hedges are now a characteristic feature of the Exmoor landscape but beech is not native to Exmoor. These hedges were planted as a result of the reclamation of the Royal Forest by the Knight family, a process that began with the Act for Inclosure, passed in 1815, and continued throughout much of the nineteenth century. Until this time hedges, and indeed roads, were virtually non-existent in the Forest. Both were built to facilitate the agricultural and industrial development of the area by the Knights. The earliest work was the construction of the boundary wall, completed by the end of 1824 by John Knight to enclose the land he had bought. Several of the old Forest boundary marks (usually notable stones) were included within it.

The next stage, continued by John’s son, Frederic Knight, was the creation of farms and the enclosure of large fields of some 50 acres (20 hectares). Substantial earth banks were built, faced with stone on each side to a height of four feet and topped with a further two feet of turf, making the whole construction six feet high. A double row of beech was then planted upon the crown. These were protected on either side with wattle fencing, known as ‘wreath’, to make them sheep-proof, although this was substituted by wire from 1848.

Considerable expense was invested in constructing these beech fences. At Simonsbath a full-time nurseryman was employed, tasked with raising the necessary young plants from beech nuts. Building hedges was soon made the responsibility of the new tenant farmers. Both landlord and tenant benefitted from the potential agricultural returns that could only be achieved through enclosing land from the moor and improving it.
The essential work of Exmoor’s hedgelayers was recognised by Exmoor National Park Authority with support from the Exmoor Trust through the Exmoor Hedge Competition 2010.  Hedges are built to last, and one of their wonders is their age, but this does not happen without maintenance work being carried out along the way. Banks will be eroded by weather, deer and livestock, and bushes will become tall and overgrown. Overgrown bushes become thin in the base, offering little shelter for wildlife or livestock and their tall structure makes them unstable in rough weather when eventually they will blow down, with their roots levering out a large chunk of bank. In order to maintain a thick, bushy, stable structure hedges must periodically be laid or steeped.

In the early part of the twentieth century there was widespread unemployment, labour was cheap and readily available and so hedging work was carried out regularly, but as farms became larger and labour unaffordable hedging was one of the first jobs to be neglected. It was so much quicker to simply erect a wire fence. After the Second World War government grants were offered for the removal of hedges to make fields larger, facilitating the use of modern machinery at a time when efficient agricultural production was a priority because people were hungry and food was rationed. Fields became larger, hedges fewer and increasingly hedges became tall, overgrown, run down by stock and in danger of collapse.

During the 1990s a new government initiative known as the Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) scheme did much to redress the situation, driven by the concerns of (a by now well-fed) society for conservation. Exmoor was designated an ESA and farmers within the area could claim grants for, amongst other things, managing their hedges. Over the next decade more hedges were laid and banks restored and replanted than had been done for a generation. There was work to be had for a man who could lay a hedge and suddenly the old skill gained renewed credence and respect.

Now the ESA scheme is being replaced by Environmental Stewardship and capital grants for hedging work are available to some but not all Exmoor farmers. The result is bound to be a reduction in the management of hedges, although in the present economic climate any grant must be viewed as a bonus.  Exmoor’s hedges are now in better condition than has been the case for many years and it is to be hoped that can be maintained.

Hedgerows define our landscape, giving structure, texture and character to the land. They are historic features still used today for their original purpose – to contain and shelter our livestock, facilitating management of both the animals and the pasture. They bear testimony to generations of Exmoor farmers and workers who have built and managed them over the years and, we trust, will continue to do so for generations to come. Hedgerows tell the story of the history of Exmoor, for anyone who cares to listen.

Useful resources:
Devon Hedge Group via: www.devon.gov.uk/devon_hedges
Somerset Hedge Group: www.somerset-hedgegroup.org.uk

Hedge laying

Hedge laying must be done in winter when there are no leaves on the trees and the sap is down. First any wire must be removed to render the hedge accessible, and if it was put up last time the hedge was laid it will probably need replacing anyway. Any brambles and twisted, misshapen growth that cannot be laid is cut out. Large old stems may simply be cut off, at a slight angle to shed rainwater and avoid rot, and left to re-sprout from the stump. So the hedge is prepared, leaving only layable stems, evenly sized and spaced, as well as perhaps an odd tree to be retained.

These stems must then be cut partially through on a diagonal, leaving a thin, pliable tongue which acts like a hinge and the stem or ‘steeper’ is laid over, taking care that the bent section does not snap or lose its bark or the whole stem will die. Steepers are laid horizontally along the bank, one line along each comb, or edge. They must be laid uphill where there is a slope, as sap (opposite to water) runs only uphill. It is important that the laid steepers are close to the top of the bank, which is usually cast up at the same time to ensure a snug fit.

Turf is taken from the ground at the foot of the hedge and used to rebuild eroded sections of bank. New growth will sprout from the laid stem and it will of course only grow upwards so a gap below a steeper will never fill in. Once the hedge is ‘made’ it must be protected from the depredations of livestock and deer with a wire fence on either side. Few banks are high and sheer enough not to need this, as during re-growth the young shoots are very succulent and tempting.

courtesy Somerset Archaeological and Natural History SocietyThis lovely illustration comes from the 1851 publication, The Farming of Somerset by Acland and Sturge. It is reprinted courtesy of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society whose library has been reopened at the Somerset Heritage Centre. The accompanying text reads: “The fence which gives complete shelter is a double ditch wall, 5½ feet high, with a beech hedge on top. It consists of 4¼ feet of stone, 1¼ feet of turf-sod, with a sloped ditch on each side, and two lines of wattling on the top (called vrith or wreathing), between which the beech plants are nursed up.”

Exmoor Hedge Competition 2010: first prize went to Martyn Sloley from Brompton Ralph, who laid the winning hedge belonging to Mrs Mary Stacey of Higher Foxhanger Farm. Left:  The essential work of Exmoor’s hedgelayers was recognised by Exmoor National Park Authority with support from the Exmoor Trust through the Exmoor Hedge Competition 2010. First prize went to Martyn Sloley from Brompton Ralph, who laid the winning hedge belonging to Mrs Mary Stacey of Higher Foxhanger Farm.

This article is taken from Issue 53, winter 2010.

Exmoor’s deer legacy

A series of low, choking coughs echo up from the steep woods, followed by a deep guttural groan reverberating across the combe: a primeval sound from the dawn of time. The stag is answered byanother from the far side of the valley and a third, deeper yet, from further up the water. Around the third week of October the rut reaches its peak on Exmoor and the stags hardly pause day or night.

The normally quiet woods thunder with the affairs of the deer.On an amber brake between the bronze oak woods a big stag stands sentinel over around 20 deer, roaring his defiance across the valley. Deep, rumbling replies echo back from at least four other stags, each unseen within the woodland and each unwilling to answer the challenge in person. The big stag roars again but he hardly has time to fight with so many deer to keep an eye on. He trots after the nearest hind who circles around the group, not going far but just keeping out of his reach. Eventually he tires of chasing her and tries the next, sniffing curiously at her tail and hoping she might be ready for him. But she is not and trots away evasively as her sister had before. The stag’s constant vigilance is important to catch each hind during her oestrous cycle, which occurs every 18 days during the rut. If another stag dares to approach the big stag will quickly chase him off and if he doesn’t leave promptly there will be a fight.

Injuries from fighting are not uncommon at this time of year, and are occasionally fatal. With so many deer to hold, and challengers on every hand, the stag is constantly busy and will hardly rest or eat throughout the rut. The condition he has put on over summer in corn and mowing grass will be exhausted by the end of October, and he will finish the rut quite run up and lean. But his exertions will have achieved the goal of passing on his genes to the next generation. The ritual of the rut ensures that generally only the biggest, fittest stags carrying the finest weaponry on their heads are able to do this.

The Exmoor and District Deer Management Society has organised a co-ordinated deer count annually for the past 16 years. Each year, in early spring, a team of knowledgeable local people from all across Exmoor venture out before dawn to count the deer in their home area. The aim is that every covert, every combe, every brake where deer may be found will have someone watching from first light for an hour-and-a-half on two consecutive mornings. This co-ordinated approach ensures that deer are not counted twice and the specialist local knowledge of the counters helps to contrive that few deer are missed. This count has produced fairly consistent results over the years, revealing an average of almost 3,000 deer living on Exmoor. The ratio of hinds to stags is at just under three-and-a-half to one, and of hinds to calves at around two to one.

Watching wild deer is a fascinating pastime, enjoyed by many people on Exmoor. It is the best way to develop an understanding of deer, but we can always learn more. The Exmoor National Park Authority recently commissioned a series of studies to expand our knowledge of different aspects of the deer.

One study examined the health of wild red deer on Exmoor. The herd is generally very healthy with remarkably low incidences of disease across the moor, most deer being extremely fit and well. Nevertheless, two diseases occurring at low levels are noteworthy, these being lungworm and TB. Lungworm has been found in deer from the Dulverton and East Anstey areas. TB in deer is at a very low level on Exmoor, indeed lower than the national average. However, there has been a worrying cluster of incidences around Baronsdown, just to the north-east of Dulverton, and deer of very poor condition have been noted in the same area.

Deer love the shelter and seclusion of woodlands. In summer the thick, leafy coverts provide shade from the sun and a screen from prying eyes at a time when hinds are calving and stags are growing their antlers. As winter winds blow away the autumn leaves, the naked woods turn grey and so do the deer’s coats. When snow covers the ground making grass and heather unobtainable there is always ivy to browse in the woods, and the deeper the snow the more ivy comes within reach. Deer are at home in woodland and all of Exmoor’s woods have high numbers of deer. Ancient oak woodlands are noted for their ecological value and designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest, so it was considered important to investigate the impact that deer of all species are having on these woods.

Deer enjoy eating tender young shoots and seedlings of native trees and shrubs such as oak, ash, hazel and rowan but find beech and holly much less to their taste. Heavy deer browsing can reduce the regeneration of young trees and, in the long term, influence the species of trees that make up the wood. It was found that the impact of deer on woodland is minimal where the woods are frequently disturbed by people, such as around Tarr Steps and Woody Bay. It was also clear that deer have less impact on woods that are actively managed; where coppicing and thinning admit sunlight and encourage abundant regeneration protected by a vigorous growth of bracken and bramble.

Of course deer have been present in Exmoor’s ancient oak woodlands since the last ice age so one would expect the woods, and other woodland wildlife, to have adapted to tolerate them pretty well. It is believed though, that numbers and densities of deer within woodlands have increased dramatically since the beginning of the twentieth century. However, at a moderate level some deer influence is vital for a diverse woodland structure and most woods on Exmoor are actually in very good ecological order.

Another angle from which to view deer is a financial one. An assessment of the economic impact of red deer on Exmoor examined both the costs and economic benefits associated with the deer. Costs include agricultural damage, policing poaching and vehicle collisions, and benefits are mainly through sales of venison by stalkers (1% of gross income), wildlife-related tourism (18.5%) and hunting (reduced by 25% since the restrictions of the hunting ban, but still accounting for 80% of gross income). Aggregating all of the economic impacts showed a net positive value of £3.2 million per year. Relating this figure to the annual count results, and considering mature stags to be more highly valued than other deer, the study attributed an economic value of £3,750 per stag!

Whatever their economic worth, the true value of the deer can never be overestimated. To visitors and locals alike the deer are such a significant aspect of what makes Exmoor unique. Few areas in modern Britain support such numbers of large wild animals and few communities take such an interest in wild deer that notable members of the herd are recognised as individuals. At once fascinating, exciting and beautiful, though they are plentiful the deer should never be taken for granted. They are a heritage from our grandparents and they will be a legacy to our children. Exmoor’s culture is steeped in the lore of the deer.

Wimbleball Fly Fishing Through The Seasons

Wimbleball Reservoir is a centre for many activities. Some seek the thrill of water sports, while others enjoy a relaxing walk and there are few better places to enjoy a picnic with the family. But there is much more to Wimbleball than meets the eye. As sailing boats skim merrily across the surface and day trippers chatter between mouthfuls of cheese and pickle, shoals of hungry Rainbow Trout hunt down their prey. Watch carefully and every now and again a flash of silver, followed by a splash, signals the presence of this much-admired game fish. Exploding from their crystal-clear world, the trout are in pursuit of various insects; behaviour that renders them vulnerable to fly-fishing tactics. Throughout the year from late March to November anglers travel far and wide in the hope that they may tempt a trout to accept their lure. But if success is to be theirs an understanding of the seasons, the fly life and the moods of this varied venue are paramount to success.

Kicking off with a chilly early-season session there is little point in trying to meticulously match the hatch as this high altitude lake offers little in the way of natural food. Instead head for the deep water and take advantage of newly-introduced stock fish with brightly-coloured lures. Blobs and Boobys are favourite patterns fished on fast-sinking lines, although a large black lure such as a Tadpole may well prove the demise of resident ‘overwintered’ fish that remain uncaught from the previous season. Long and lean, these quality trout sport a mercury-silver livery and are a highly-prized catch.

Decent windproof clothing will keep out the bitter north-easterlies and I never head to Wimbleball without a warm drink. Even during the height of summer the weather can take a turn for the worse as a weather system rolls in over Haddon Hill and it is no place to be caught unprepared. Comfortable anglers definitely catch more fish and although I am no fairweather fisherman I must admit to yearning for late April and the month of May. These are exciting times on the reservoir as midge larvae (Bloodworm) transform into pupa (commonly referred to as ‘buzzers’ by fly anglers), swim to the surface and hatch. The resulting banquet does not go unnoticed for long and soon the eager trout throw caution to the wind as these helpless insects are subjected to wave after wave of attack. Morning and evening provide anglers with the greatest opportunity to capitalise on the feast, although an overcast day with high air temperatures spells consistent sport for the lucky fly fisher timing their trip to coincide with these conditions. Try a floating line with a Black Hopper fished dry to imitate the hatching pupa.

The Black Hopper is also a brilliant imitation of another insect preyed upon by Wimbleball trout; the Hawthorn fly. This large terrestrial insect is blown from the safety of the waterside vegetation on to the lake and can entice fish to feed within feet of the shoreline. Drift a boat along the margins (taking care to steer clear of bank anglers) looking for rising fish or travel light with a box of Black dry flies and ambush fish from the bank. The water is so clear that often fish can be seen sipping the naturals from the surface before succumbing to a well-presented dry artificial, exciting sport that sets the pulse racing and more than justifies a long walk. Besides, Wimbleball is surrounded by stunning countryside and offers the chance to get away from the crowds and enjoy some solitary fishing. Pack a rucksack with some sandwiches and a fly box and head for the tranquillity of Cowmoor. You won’t regret it!

beautiful wimbleball Shortly after the Hawthorn hatch, another fly begins to emerge that offers perhaps the most substantial meal a Wimbleball trout can hope to encounter. Mayflies are generally associated with river fishing and particularly the Southern Chalk streams. However, Wimbleball is home to its very own hatch of this elegant insect. Travel along the bank from Valentine’s Bay below the woodland and head towards the neck of the Upton Arm keeping your eyes peeled for signs of life. A boat is the most convenient way to target the trout feasting on the emerging mays and well worth the extra expense, especially if one of the resident wild Brown Trout puts in an appearance. Row to the picturesque Upton Arm by all means, it will keep you fit, but personally I like to sit back and enjoy the extravagance of an engine. Boats and engines are available for hire through South West Lakes Trust who manage and sell the permits for fishing on Wimbleball.

The last few years have delivered heavy summer rain, but the air temperatures have remained consistently high; conditions that can result in hard fishing. Dip your hand in the lake during the summer and you may be surprised to find that the surface feels tepid. These circumstances are not relished by trout and so, using the great depths that Wimbleball has to offer, they head down, searching for cool layers of water known as thermoclines. Try the deep water available around Farm Bay, in the middle of Cowmoor or lapping at the stanchions of Bessom Bridge and look out for cormorants – these big black birds always know where the fish are! Even an experienced Wimbleball angler can become frustrated during the dog days of summer, although there is a solution. Set the alarm clock to time your arrival and first casts just as the sun begins to dawn. I have had spectacular sport at this time of day, fishing imitative tactics from the shoreline as the trout take advantage of the cooler water and lower light levels. By 9am it can all be over.

fly fisherman holding a troutHeading into autumn the fishing can be mixed, but this is where a little experience can help. Never concentrate on just one area of water, instead divide the lake into lots of small lakes and devote time to sections such as Bessoms, Ruggs Bay, the Sailing Club and Cowmoor, for example. When you find the fish, stick with them! Wimbleball trout can become tightly packed and it is quite possible to move a drifting boat just a few yards to the right or left and suddenly begin to enjoy some action. If you are totally new to the venue then employing the services of a fly-fishing guide is money well spent, reducing many months of trial and error. The lake closes in October although occasionally the season extends to November. This can be a brilliant time as the water layers cool and the resident fish begin feeding in earnest ready for the long winter ahead. Many and varied tactics will account for fish during this period which is perhaps Wimbleball’s greatest attraction. It’s like ten different venues all rolled into one and it is for this reason that I urge you to pack your tackle and try it out for yourself.

From Issue 51, Summer 2010

Exmoor’s Otter Resurgence

by Michelle Werrett

For otters, simply trying to see them is an inappropriate, a too human approach. To trace the movements of otters it is necessary to revert to more primeval methods. They must be tracked by their spoor: by wading thigh deep in a fast-flowing river or creeping, bent double, under a low-arched bridge to reach a mid-stream rock they are known to favour. Signs of their passing may be ‘padding’, or footprints, left in the silt at the water’s edge, and ‘spraint’, or droppings, deposited on a rock. But the most evocative, most affirming evidence of an otter’s presence is its smell: a warm, sweet, wild, musky odour of water weed, fish and the eternal, untameable current.

Otters are normally solitary animals, except for breeding. Constantly travelling along the rivers they employ a system of scent marking to leave messages for each other. Spraints are deposited in prominent positions that would be difficult for another otter to miss: a large rock in the middle of the river or on the inside of a bend perhaps, or a ledge under a bridge. Since otters work by scent, rather than sight, sprainting sites are not always those that look most obvious. Consideration must be given to the prevailing wind and a site will be chosen so that the wind will take the scent right across a bend in the river. If there is no convenient high spot just where an otter wants one he will sometimes build one himself, scraping up gravel or grass or whatever he can find into a little mound and depositing a spraint on top: a process, and structure, known as ‘castling’. Once the otter’s reasons for the positioning of spraints are understood they are quite easy to find. When fresh, spraints are dark and oily with the crunchy texture of fish bones and scales. Older spraints tend to dry out and fade, but the speed with which they do changes with the weather so it can be difficult to estimate age. Finding a fresh spraint with the evocative musk that was definitely not there yesterday, so confirming the presence of an otter overnight, can be strangely exciting.

otter cubsThe Somerset Otter Group conducts a co-ordinated annual two-day event where all the county’s rivers are checked simultaneously over a weekend. Any sign of an otter found on day two and known not to have been there on day one definitely confirms the presence of an otter on that stretch of river overnight. This year, for the first time, the survey was extended to cover the whole of Exmoor National Park and, where river catchments cross the boundary, just beyond.

All the major rivers and many of the smaller streams on Exmoor were covered and the survey was sufficiently thorough for it to be unlikely that any otter could have been missed. Indeed, there would not have been space for many more otter territories on the moor. In total 189 sites were checked on Exmoor, of which 151 or 81% had some evidence of an otter. 44, or 23%, produced a positive result on day two and a further 10 had fresh evidence on day one but did not quite make the day two ‘hit’. There were just seven totally blank stretches of river. Some of these were minor, shallow streams on the high moorland, and others small, short streams running into the sea on the North coast which may be just too small to provide sufficient territory for an otter. Other blank patches are known to be due to bitches with young cubs restricting their travels to a small part of their usual range. However, the really exciting discovery was to find that otters are using territories high up on the moor near the headwaters of the main rivers where it might be expected that the supply of fish would be poor. They must be Exmoor residents since it is known that there are other otters with territories below them which would prevent them going downstream. This is the case on the Bray, the Mole, the Barle and the Exe. When the survey results are mapped a little knowledge and judgement is applied to estimate the number of ranges, and therefore the minimum number of adult otters represented. This was adjudicated to a maximum of 26 and a minimum of 23. In other words, there are at the very least 23 otters living on Exmoor!

dog otter swimmingAn otter’s ability to melt invisibly into a relatively small stream belies its size. A mature dog otter might weigh 11kg and measure 120cm in length. A bitch is a little smaller but they do need to be large, powerful animals to make their living in our strongly-flowing rivers. Since their habitat is linear they must be fit to travel considerable distances and to catch fish in ever changing, sometimes hostile conditions. The length of river an otter uses is influenced by a number of factors. The quality of the river is obviously important, and if there are plentiful fish and ample cover an otter will not have to travel so far to meet his needs as on a river where those resources are scarce. Another consideration is the presence of other otters, either pressuring the boundaries of a territory or sharing the finite resources within it. The number of otters a river can support is therefore limited.

It is encouraging to find such a plentiful number of otters on Exmoor and in the surrounding countryside and is testimony to the quality and condition of the rivers. However, it was not always so. Back in the 1960s and 1970s numbers plummeted alarmingly and otters came perilously close to extinction. The removal of certain toxic chemicals from industrial and agricultural use has been the main driver in cleaning up our river systems and restoring their population. Information about otter numbers from the more distant past is to be found in the records of the old otter hunters. When they visited the Exmoor rivers in the nineteenth century the numbers of otters found were very similar to the numbers here today. It is fantastic to think that otter numbers are now back to full capacity. Yet complacency must never allow another population crash from which, next time, they may not recover and it is vital that the surveys continue so that any such disaster can be noticed and acted upon promptly.

Lithe and sinuous as a moorland stream, moving with the fluidity of the current; brown as the dark pools, quick as the chuckling riffles, otters are as much a part of a river as the trout and the dappled pebbles. Though we may seldom see one it is good to know they are there.

Further details about the Somerset Otter Group and the full survey results can be found through the Somerset Wildlife Trust website at www.somersetwildlife.org

From Issue 49, Winter 2009