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Devon Somerset Border Smeatharpe Village

Environmental project

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Introduction to the Blackdown Hills garden by Mike Edgington of English Nature

The Blackdown Hills are an upland area in the South West of England and are situated in an officially designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). The garden in question is in a small village called Smeatharpe, once home to a WWII airfield. Mike Edgington gives background information as to why the site is of such interest and also explains the gardening challenges that the site management entails.

sw england

Scientific (and management) information for the client's land on Southey and Gotleigh Moors SSSI

The land (shown outlined purple) is part of a larger area which is designated as S&G SSSI (red outline). It is typical of the rest of the SSSI.

It is extremely wet, being located on spring lines at the geological interface of the pervious clay with flints and greensand overlying impervious Jurassic rocks. This situation is quite common on the Blackdown Hills and the traditional landuse of areas like this was extensive grazing usually with beef cattle. Ungrazed areas develop into alder woodland where sallow and ash are the commonest associated trees.

Smeatharpe, Devon:

purple SSSI boundary
purple Client garden boundary

Old path axis

On the client's land the ground flora of one wooded area (rightmost on the map ) is dominated by greater tussock sedge. Individual plants can attain a height and width of several feet. This type of woodland is one of the most uncommon in Britain and support some unusual insects such as several species of rare cranefly (daddy longlegs).


Key to Habitats on map:

green Woodland purple Purple Moorgrass mire purple Scrub and grassland blue Pond and stream

Where grazing persists the wet grass sward or mire almost invariably becomes dominated by purple moorgrass, a vigorous species which can quickly become dominant especially if grazing is relaxed for a few years.

However the wet, low nutrient conditions also support a wide range of herb species which although not nationally rare are all uncommon and very restricted to this type of habitat, and these include heath spotted orchid, devil's-bit scabious, bog asphodel, lousewort and two insectivorous plants; round-leaved sundew and pale butterwort.

These can produce a stunningly colourful display in summer. In addition these plants can provide food for a range of invertebrates. Amongst these is the marsh fritillary butterfly which is both nationally and internationally rare and protected. It lays its eggs on plants of devil's-bit scabious which are not too small and not too big! Click here for a guide to managing chalk grassland and damp grassland for this butterfly.


The client's land contains all of these species. The biggest challenge that they face is to replace the effects of grazing animals on the open areas whose grazing would prevent the purple moorgrass dominating and eliminating many other associated species. This is being done by cutting and removing the cut material after the growing and flowering period every few years.

It is a relatively costly exercise as the work is done mostly by hand and it is perhaps not as good as grazing in maintaining the habitat. However it is far better than allowing the area to go unmanaged and see its biodiversity decrease. Here perhaps the client's 'gardening' has replaced the traditional farming to maintain the importance of the site. English Nature does help with the costs of this work.

In the woodlands the situation is easier as they require virtually no management but even here the client has been busy removing Himalayan balsam, a weed which now frequents many wet areas of the country and if left unchecked can replace natural vegetation.

Woodland and purple moorgrass mire are the two most important habitats on the client's land, both are of national importance, but there are others. Species rich ancient hedgerows, a pond and areas of gorse and bramble scrub and dry grassland all add to interest of the site and all provide extra work in maintaining them and preventing species which can become dominant from doing just that.

Southey and Gotleigh Moors SSSI


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