A Historic Landscape: Was Dartmoor Once a Lush Forest?

 

The earth has been changing for billions of years. The landscape you see outside your window looked very different 10,000 years ago. 100,000 years ago they’d be unrecognisable. It’s the same for our favourite windswept national park — 10,000 years ago, Dartmoor was a forest.

 

To tell the full story of Dartmoor Forest we need to wind the clock back a little further. Let’s go back 145 million years, when dinosaurs still roamed and Dartmoor’s volcanoes ceased erupting.

 

Before the forest formed

After the cataclysmic event that wiped the dinosaurs from Dartmoor and the rest of the earth, the climate changed again. Flooding turned Dartmoor into a shallow sea for 80,000 years.

 

In this shallow sea, vibrant green and red calcareous algae swam. The forebearers of lobsters and crabs scuttled across the ocean floor. Eventually, the sea retreated, leaving a thin chalk layer formed from the tiny creatures that had lived in its waters.

 

Rain, hail, sunshine and wind eventually wore away the chalk layers, revealing pockets of granite. This was the first time Dartmoor’s Tors had seen the light of day in over 235 million years. The ground moved again, tilting to one side and developing faults and fissures. The upheaval turned Dartmoor into an island that stood alone for 2 million or so years.

The forming of the Dartmoor Forest

The climate grew colder and glaciers spread from the north, reaching all the way down to the Bristol Channel. Dartmoor became an icy realm, frozen solid and covered in snow. Ice pushed splits in the granite apart, causing fragments to slip down the slopes. Four ice ages took their toll. Dartmoor’s peaks erode, exposing the soil made of ancient dinosaurs and sea creatures.

When the final ice age came to an end, Dartmoor thawed and began supporting life once more. Forests sprung up, covering all 368 square miles of Dartmoor National Park and more! Oak dominated the landscape. Elm and hazel grew here too. Rainfall increased, natural fires cleared

sections of the Dartmoor Forest and blanket bog developed. Deer, foxes and horses wandered the land. Trout, salmon and lamprey swam in the rivers.

 

The deforesting of Dartmoor

Settlers from the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age came hunting on Dartmoor. Some took to clearing sections of the forest to aid their hunting and build their homes. The most famous of Dartmoor’s Bronze Age settlements is Grimpshound, just 30 minutes’ drive from Langstone Manor Park.

 

The increase in rainfall through these early periods of human habitation, combined with natural fires and intentional clearing of trees caused leaching of the soil. The waterlogged soil gradually became infertile iron-rich podzol. Too wet for moles, earthworms or most plants, Dartmoor transformed into the beautiful but bare landscape Dartmoor National Park is known for today.

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