I'm feeling rather intrepid. We're cutting a path through some thick, wet undergrowth, on the hunt for a herd of longhorn cattle. The ground underneath is uneven and boggy, and we have to be careful not to tread on the numerous inch-long frogs leaping out from under our boots.
Rumour has it that the longhorns were here this morning, but now they're nowhere to be seen. The only evidence of their existence are some clumps of closely chomped grass and a lot of muddy hoofprints. But leading the hunt is their owner, Chris Salisbury, who knows how to sneak up on these notoriously shy creatures.
We're in the Blackdown Hills, a 370-square-kilometre Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the Devon--Somerset border--a sort of hand-shaped piece of land with a northern escarpment (the 'knuckles') connected to a number of ridges (the 'fingers') that slope down towards the south coast.
Water is a predominant feature in the area. Not just because the gaps between the 'fingers' are filled by three river valleys--containing the Otter, Culm and Yarty--but also because of the area's geology, which consists of clays covered by greensand, an olive-green-coloured sandstone. As a result, there are lots of springs, created as the rain filters through the sandstone, hits the impenetrable clay and shoots out of the hillside.
Not that the cattle mind. They're from a hardy old-English breed (once used as animal tractors before the mechanised version took over) with a propensity for roaming off the beaten track. We eventually find them in a hillside clearing, peering down at us cautiously. Despite their armed-sounding name, they're very docile and like to keep as far away from humans as they can (one of the reasons they were chosen to forage on this publicly accessible land).
They've been put out to graze in the area as part of a scheme to transform the woodlands of the AONB's northern ridge, known as the Neroche area. It was once part of a royal hunting forest ('neroche' is thought to be derived from a term for a camp where hunting dogs were kept) and contains the ruins of Castle Neroche, an Iron Age hill fort. Initially a broadleaf forest, like much of the rest of England, it was planted with conifers during the inter-war period.
'After the First World War, the Forestry Commission was created to make sure Britain was self-sufficient in timber, explains James Maben, access and interpretation manager for the Neroche Scheme. 'Our stocks had got very low due, partly, to the huge amounts of timber needed to build the battlefield trenches.'
But now, although Britain is still largely reliant on imported timber, priorities have changed, and the Forestry Commission is looking at phasing out the conifer forests in certain areas of Britain, especially in places such as the Blackdown Hills where the geology and topography of the area make tree farming difficult, and not particularly profitable.
SEEING THE TREES
Many of the conifer forests are being clear-felled, liberating the broadleaf trees, rare plants, mire systems and Sites of Special Scientific Interest--known for their butterflies--trapped in their midst. 'The conifer forests are this dark mono-crop,' Maben says. 'There's nothing growing on their floors, just darkness and pine needles. But as soon as you get rid of them, biodiversity shoots up.'
The result is a mosaic of woodlands and woodland glades that are more attractive to wildlife and reminiscent of historical English forests. 'It's kind of what a pre-medieval landscape would have looked like,' Maben says. 'When people first started felling areas of the forests for farming, it would have looked like this: small clearings with cattle grazing'.
However, when the areas were cleared this time, some people felt the area looked more post-war than pre-medieval. 'It did look pretty barren,' Maben says. …