Main Wildlife Habitats on Exmoor
Western Gorse, Bell Heather and Ling
| About one-tenth of the world’s resource
of this glorious habitat lies within Exmoor National
Park. It consists of a mixture mainly of Bell Heather
(Erica cinerea), low growing Western Gorse
(Ulex gallii), Ling (Calluna vulgaris)
and Bristle Bent grass (Agrostis curtissii).
|In late July and August, when the
shrubs are in flower and the Bent has turned flaxen,
there is a wonderful carpet of colour in areas such
as North Hill, Minehead. Stonechats and Linnets
are frequently seen, Common Lizards bask in the
sun and Small Heath butterflies dance across the
Dune flora at Dunster Beach.
|(a) Sand Dunes. There is such
a wealth of dune flora to be found only at the eastern
end of the National Park that Exmoor Natural History
Society could not resist including Dunster Beach
and Minehead Golf Links within their area of operation
although technically they fall just outside of the
designated National Park area.
|Here, Fragrant Evening Primrose (Oenothera
stricta), Viper’s Bugloss (Echium
vulgare), Weld (Reseda lutea), Hound’s-tongue
(Cynoglossum officinale), etc. mingle to
make a colourful display in summer. Dune Thread-moss
(Bryum dunense) has been recorded. The
Golf Links support rarities including Sand Catchfly
(Silene conica) and SlenderThistle (Carduus
tenuiflorus). Several small clovers, vetches
and early Forget-me-not may also be found. This
is a good area for wading birds in the winter months
also for passage migrants.
Porlock Bay and Shingle Ridge.
|(b) Shingle and Saltmarsh. Porlock
Beach and Weir are the areas for these. One of the
world’s most perfect examples of a drift ridge
was severely breached in 1996 resulting in flooding
of the inland side with salt water which lay for
several weeks. Since then the area floods regularly
on high tide and it is changing from poor grazing
land to salt-marsh.
|The greatest loss is the former reedbed
which provided nesting areas for birds including
Sedge and Reed Warblers. Certain invertebrates,
particularly moths have disappeared. It is to be
hoped however that the saltmarsh area, when it settles
down and the invertebrate content has increased,
will become a feeding area for Redshank, Greenshank,
Curlew, etc. It has always been an important area
for bird watchers where many duck, geese, waders,
passage migrants such as wheatear, and storm-blown
birds may be seen. Yellow Horned-poppy (Glaucium
flavum) and Narrow-leaved Everlasting Pea (Lathyrus
sylvestris) grow on the shingle ridge and saltmarsh
plants include, Sea Aster (Aster tripolium),
Sea Spurrey (Spergularia spp.), Annual
Sea-blite (Suaeda maritima), Glasswort
(Salicorina europaea) and Sea Arrowgrass
(Triglochin maritima). Migrating butterflies
such as Clouded Yellow and Painted Lady also occur.
North Devon sea cliffs towards Lee Abbey.
|(c ) Coastal cliffs. To appreciate
these we suggest walking from Woody Bay to Hunters
Inn, where the scenery on a fine day is unsurpassed.
From this walk you may see nesting sea-birds such
as Guillemot, Razorbill, Fulmar and various gulls.
You may glimpse a passing gannet or grey seal out
|There are also (inaccessible) cliffs
at the back of the North Hill from Minehead to Hurlstone
Point, and from Glenthorne to the Western end of
the National Park at Combe Martin. The stretch between
Porlock Weir and Glenthorne is clothed with hanging
oak woods which come right down to the shore. The
rocky areas support plants such as Thrift, Sea Campion,
Rock Spurrey, and Silver Ragwort. Sea Spleenwort
fern occurs in rock crevices and Sea Ivory lichen
is a feature.
|(d) Beaches. Our Society also
records the seaweeds and creatures to be found on
the accessible beaches along the coast of Exmoor.
Sandy beaches provide various lug- and rag-worms
industriously dug by fishermen as bait and wading
birds as food.
|There is a Saballeria reef
off of Minehead which is built by worms which cement
grains of sand together to make tubes in which to
live. Periwinkles, Limpets, Sea Anemones, Crabs
of many kinds are to be found and fish may be stranded
in rock pools. The tide line may be littered with
shells of dead sea creatures and ‘mermaid’s
purses’ – the egg-cases of various fish
regularly occur. A walk along a beach nearly always
produces something of interest but a knowledge of
the tides is essential as in some places it comes
in very quickly and many people have been cut off
necessitating rescue by lifeboat or helecopter.
are either broadleaved or coniferous.
Ancient oak pollards at Cloutsham.
|(a) Broadleaved Woodland. It
is without doubt that with the combination of the
Barle Valley Woodlands, the Horner Woods complex
and the Lyn Valley Woodlands, Exmoor is blessed
with some of the finest woodlands in the country.
|Barle Valley are notable for Bluebells,
Lichens and butterflies, Horner Woods for Lichens,
Fungi and Bats and Lyn Valley has birds, Irish Spurge,
rare ferns, Bryophytes and invertebrates in abundance.
There are also runs of salmon and trout along the
East Lyn River. There are many smaller mixed woodlands
in which it is a delight to wander, particularly
in spring. The ancient oak woodlands, many of which
have been coppiced in the past to provide bark for
tanning leather, are home to birds such as Nuthatch,
Tree Creeper, Pied Flycatcher, Tawny Owl, tits,
finches and thrushes, etc., etc. ENHS have nest
boxes in Horner, Treborough, Woodcock Gardens. The
main areas consist of Sessile Oak (Quercus petraea),
but there are stands of other species such as Holm
Oak (Q. ilex) at Selworthy and Allerford,
Beech at Simonsbath, Birch in upland areas and occasionally,
Holly. What Elm we had was lost to Dutch Elm disease
apart from hedgerow shrubs.
|(b) Conifer Plantations. Most,
if not all conifers on Exmoor have been introduced.
Some now self-seed. The main areas are on Croydon
Hill, where felled areas are popular with the Nightjar
and it may be heard churring on summer evenings.
|The other main conifer plantations
are on Periton Hill and the Brendon Hills. There
are many other small stands of conifers. There are
some very fine specimens of Douglas Fir at Broadwood
near Dunster. Birds to look out for are Crossbills,
which feed on the seeds of cones which they can
extract with their curious beaks. Squirrels also
like fir cones but they are culled by Forestry operators
because of the damage they do to trees. Croydon
Hill is also home to Fallow Deer and bats as well
as Nightjars flit up and down the forest rides catching
moths and other insects.
falls into one of two types, heather or grass moorland.
Swaling in progress.
|a) Heather Moorland. The third
week in August is traditionally the best time to
see the Ling (Calluna vulgaris) in flower. Dunkery
Beacon and many acres on the Holnicote Estate owned
by the National Trust is magnificent and perhaps
one of the best areas.
|Brendon Common is also good. The traditional
management is swaling early in the year when areas
are burned to create new growth but these days it
has to be very carefully managed. Over burning or
too frequent burning results in spread of bracken
and this has encroached in many places. Another
threat to heather is the Heather Beetle which damages
the stalks causing them to die off. Correct burning
should however help control this. The native Black
Grouse once frequented the heather moors but the
last to be recorded was on Molland Common in 1984
and it is now extinct on Exmoor. Red Grouse too
have possibly died out, two or three were seen in
2003 but possibly they were introductions. The Ring
Ouzel regularly bred on the moors until recently
but in 2003 and 2004 only passage migrants were
seen and apparently none stayed to nest. Whinchats,
Cuckoos, Grasshopper Warbler, Tree Pipit, Meadow
Pipit, Skylark, Wheatear are among the regularly
seen birds and more rarely, Hen Harrier, Merlin,
Short-eared Owl and Great Grey Shrike.
Cotton-grass near Exe Head.
|b) Grass Moorland. Areas of Molinia
Grass, Cotton Grasses, Tussock Grass and Deergrass
situated mainly within the old Forest of Exmoor
Boundaries. Usually wet and soggy but has dried
out in some places. A wild, bleak landscape with
the occasional standing stone from which to get
ones bearings in the days before GPS.
|Snipe suddenly spring up in front
of you and the lonely cry of curlew are typical
of these areas. Lots of small frogs hop among the
rushes and sedges and rushes abound in the damp
areas. Dragonflies may be seen hunting for prey.
Certainly the most challenging and wildest part
of Exmoor . Stone walls provide nest sites for wheatears.
Nr Shoulsbarrow Common.
|c) Reclaimed moorland. There
are many acres of moorland where heather or molinia
grass once grew which have been treated with nitrates
in the past and converted to grazing land for stock.
With less grazing, rushes now grow in many of these
Bog plants near Farley Water.
|d) Bogs and Mires. Botanically,
the most interesting moorland flowers are found
in the wet areas where Sphagnum mosses grow in the
springs and valley bottoms.
|Lesser Skullcap, Bog Pimpernel, Bog
Asphodel, Ivy-leaved Bellflower, Cranberry, Moorland
Crowfoot, Bog Pondweed and the insectivorous Sundew,
Pale Butterwort and Greater Butterwort are but a
few. Marsh Fritillary butterflies may be found where
their food-plant Devil’s-bit Scabious grows.
|Note: Areas of dry
moorland which do not fit into any of the above
categories would probably be classed as Heaths.
Typically these support Gorse (Ulex europaea),
Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) Bracken (Pteridium
aquilinum), patchy heather and scrub. They
are ideal nesting sites for Stonechats, Linnets,
Meadow Pipits. Tormentil, Heath Milkwort, Heath
Spotted Orchid are common plants.
|WATER. This habitat
varies according to type.
Fishing at Wimbleball Lake.
|a) Reservoirs and ponds. There
are Reservoirs at Wimbleball, Nutscale and Challacombe.
(Clatworthy is outside our area as is most of Wistlandpond).
There are manmade ponds at Pinkworthy and many smaller
ponds on farms, etc.
|The Reservoirs are stocked with fish
which provide hours of entertainment for fishermen.
Wimbleball Lake is a winter haunt of bird watchers
with regular sightings of duck, geese, coot, grebe
etc. and the occasional rarity such as the long-tailed
duck in 2003. Large flocks of Canada Geese occur.
At Pinkworthy there are rare plants such as Least
Bur-reed (Sparganium natans) and this is
also a very good area for dragonflies. The Hawn
Pool at Dunster Beach is also a very interesting
area. Other standing water is found in ditches and
brackish water on coastal marshes. Cattle troughs
and even puddles on paths all have their attendant
wildlife ranging from freshwater algae to tadpoles,
frogs, toads and palmate newts.
River Barle below Brewers Castle.
|b) Rivers and Streams. Riverside
plants include Yellow Iris (Iris pseudacorus),
Water Forgetmenot (Myosotus aquatica),
Monkey-Musk (Mimulus) and various Mints.
The dipper is a favourite bird on the streams, usually
with Grey Wagtails in the vicinity.
|The larger rivers, the Exe and the
Barle have the occasional kingfisher and some breeding
Sandmartins. Fly-fishing for wild brown trout and
salmon is excellent. There are many miles of smaller
streams and tributaries. In recent years the otter
has made a come back but despite the best efforts
of the Environment Agency to create otter tunnels
under roads a number are run over each year.
Scree slopes near Malmsmead.
| As well as sea cliffs there are inland quarries
which provide nesting places for birds including
kestrel and jackdaws. Plants such as stonecrop and
many ferns grow on stone walls and there are also
areas of scree and old spoil heaps gradually being
colonised by various lichens and mosses. The unique
Valley of Rocks near Lynton is home to a flock of
semi wild goats.
Our Secretary near Nutcombe Bottom.
| Hedgerows, hedgebanks and verges of lanes and
tracks leading from place to place make journeys
of great interest to the naturalist.
|Primroses, Cow Parsley, Red Campion,
Lesser Celandine, Hazel, Dog Roses, Stitchwort,
Wild Strawberry and Brambles add colour and provide
food for passing humans, birds and mammals such
as dormice and field mice. Good hedges are essential
for nesting birds, they form corridors for dormice,
and habitat for butterflies such as the Orange Tip.
Beech hedges, which retain their leaves even when
dead, provide shelter for sheep and are a feature
of upland farms
|FARMS AND VILLAGES
A field of rape in flower, Porlock Vale.
|a) Farmland. Remember
that farmland is not generally open to the public
and that grass is a crop to feed animals not to
be walked over regardlessly. With suitable permission,
there is much to see on farmland but even without
special permission there are many footpaths which
traverse fields from which it is quite possible
to see corn stubble weeds such as poppies, wild
pansy, field woundwort, etc. Damp meadows support
cuckoo flowers and meadow buttercups. Gateways are
particularly good hunting grounds. Finches, Yellowhammers,
Spotted Flycatchers and House Martins frequent farm
buildings. Rabbits are much fewer than formerly
but there are plenty around and Mr Tod the Fox has
an eye on them. Old unimproved grassland often has
anthills. Farming on the uplands, traditionally
sheep on Exmoor, is very different from lowland
|b) Villages. Old
walls and churchyards are particularly good places
to look for ferns, lichens, mosses and liverworts
as well as the many flowers.
|Many plants formerly grown for herbal
use have escaped and are now naturalised round villages
such as Feverfew, Greater Celandine, Evergreen Alkanet,
Tansy. Slow-worms are fond of gardens and allotments,
particularly if there is a piece of carpet or galvanised
metal for them to lie under. Garden birds are familiar
to all but no doubt food put out during winter months
by householders is essential to Robins, Blackbirds,
Blue Tits, Thrushes and the like.