Our Wildlife Habitats

Working with nature through the year
For over 20 years Challacombe Farm has been managed under agri-environment schemes such as Higher Level Stewardship. This has enabled us to balance the needs of conservation, archaeology, landscape and access with the result that it is probably one of the best farms on Dartmoor to watch wildlife – particularly in the Spring and Summer when we see the return of birds who overwintered in warmer climes.
 
The farm featuring in a BBC2 series Hugh's Wild West about the wildlife of the Westcountry being presented by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall broadcast in Spring 2018.

The farm extends over about 1 square mile (750 acres / 220 hectares) of Dartmoor National Park and varies in altitude from 1000 to 1700 feet (300 to 520 metres).  This has naturally created a diverse range of habitats which in terms supports a range of wildlife with differing needs.

 

Whilst most of the farm (just about everywhere west of the road) is Open Access land and so you are welcome to walk where you like, please take care not to disturb the wildlife. If you wish to undertake any formal research, please get in touch with us beforehand, as many of our wildlife species are legally protected from disturbance. We’re generally happy to give our permission as it helps us learn more about the farm, and can advise on any other permissions you may require.

Heather

Our highest enclosed land is Challacombe Down, which along with the adjacent area around the long abandoned Birch and Vitifor mines is one of the largest and best stands of heather remaining on Dartmoor. Each summer it becomes alive in a blaze of purple flowers, interspersed with whortleberry (delicious if a little tart) and the odd patch of gorse. This provides great habitat for bees and other pollinators and we are occasionally treated to the sight of transitory hen harriers and red grouse, along with the more ubiquitous skylarks.    

The valley sides

The steep valley sides are a mix of rough grassland, interspersed with hawthorns and the odd rowan tree. Although once ploughed – hence the strip lynchet fields, they’ve thought to have been under grass for hundreds of years. This has resulted in them having an unusually rich diversity of fungi, especially waxcaps. In the Spring we keep the valley towards Headland Warren largely stock free with the reward of seeing it turning azure as millions of bluebells bloom.  The trees and rocks of the valley act as song and lookout posts for the cuckoos who arrive each Spring to parasitise the nests of unsuspecting meadow pippets.

Bracken is a real problem on these hillsides. It’s rhyzomes disturb the underlying archaeology, obscure the lynchets and other features from view and harbour sheep ticks which carry disease that affect livestock, dogs and people. We undertake a range of methods including rolling and cutting to reduce its vigour and are currently undertaking a trial with Heritage England to assess the best techniques to control  it.

 

Hay meadows

Dartmoor has 20% of England’s Rhos Pasture and we like to think we have some of the best examples of this boggy habitat made up of purple moor grass, interspersed with devil’s bit scabious, orchids, marsh marigolds, and many other flowers.

The mix of flowers – particularly bog beans, scabious and marsh marigold provide nectar for critically endangered insects such as the bog hoverfly which is only found at few dozen sites on Dartmoor, and the marsh fritillary.

 

The valley mires / rhos pasture

Dartmoor has 20% of England’s Rhos Pasture and we like to think we have some of the best examples of this boggy habitat made up of purple moor grass, interspersed with devil’s bit scabious, orchids, marsh marigolds, and many other flowers.

The mix of flowers – particularly bog beans, scabious and marsh marigold provide nectar for critically endangered insects such as the bog hoverfly which is only found at few dozen sites on Dartmoor, and the marsh fritillary.

 

We manage this carefully through occasional burning of the mat of dry grass in the late winter which discourage scrub growth, and breaks up the thatch which can suppress flowers. In addition, we selectively graze it with cattle, sheep and ponies. The heavy footprints of cattle create micro pools and they can eat the tougher coarse grasses. Sheep and ponies tend to stay on the dryer ground but are good at  eating any willow and birch seedlings before they can get established. We also keep a close  eye on the drainage from the wet areas to ensure ditches aren't eroding and leading to the water level in the bogs dropping. 

Woodland

We have a good mix of trees across the farm. In the valleys we have wet woodlands of alder and birch, and a small stand of mature pine. We’ve planted small copses of native trees and over the years coppiced, laid and where necessary replanted all our hedgerows. Our largest trees are sycamore and beech found in some of the old boundaries, whilst on the open hillsides are isolated thorn and rowan trees.

To enhance the nesting opportunities these provide we’ve erected about 50 nest boxes which most years are used by tits, flycatchers and redstarts.

 

Ponds

Over the past 20 years we’ve dug 3 big ponds on the farm and many small scrapes. These have all been quickly colonised by newts, frogs, toads and a whole host of other wildlife, and most years we get broods of ducklings.

The one closest to the farm house is a favourite spot for us to sit and watch the housemartins and swallows who use it for hunting, drinking and collecting mud for their nests.  The horses also really like them and on hot summer days will wade in and graze off the tasty float grass – which keeps the surface nice and open which suits the birds.

Our newest pond built in December 2017 is our largest so far - about 50 metres long and about 10 metres wide. Designed not only for wildlife with shallow sloping sides, it acts as a silt trap intercepting a small stream coming down from Hambledown and so aims to stop sediment getting into the Dart which can clog up the gravels beds that salmon lay their eggs in. The clean run-off flows into our rhos pasture, so will be keeping it nice and wet and helping it to build up sphagnum and thus lock up carbon. We were fortunate to get funding to help build it from the Upstream Thinking Project run by the Devon Wildlife Trust with support from South West Water.

Buildings and walls

The walls and buildings are also home to wildlife. Each year our stone barns are filled with nesting swallows and our friend Nik a BTO ringer, will ring over 100 swallow chicks. We also have about a dozen housemartins nests under the eaves of the farmhouse and together with the swallows they put on a fantastic display of aerobatics as they hunt bugs.

Hidden in crevices of the old walls are nesting sparrows, and wagtails, whilst bats roost in the barns and our loft.