Dartmoor Commoners’ dissent with Whitehorse Hill Peatland Conservation Project. Dartmoor Society calls for work to stop for re-evaluation

Laura White
Laura White
Frank Phillpotts’ Peat Pass after damming by the Mires Project, White Horse Hill. © Chris Chapman 2021

Dartmoor Commoners who farm the High Moor around Whitehorse Hill, one of Dartmoor’s highest points and the site of the unique Early Bronze Age burial cist excavated in 2011, have been upset in recent weeks by the actions of South West Water amongst the peat mires.

South West Water is the major contractor currently carrying out peat restoration works for the South West Peatland Partnership which has been funded by DEFRA to restore 1599 hectares of what has been classified as degraded peatland on Bodmin Moor, Dartmoor and Exmoor, 300 hectares of which are here on Dartmoor. The Forest of Dartmoor Commoners’ Association and The Dartmoor Society strongly feel that the actions of South West Water’s contractors on site have been negligent and careless in their approach to the restoration work so far, and aside from causing flooding that the Commoners believe was in danger of further eroding away the remains of the Whitehorse Hill cist, believe that the intrusive intervention could cause unnecessary damage to additional archaeological remains yet to be discovered at this remote site.

The troubles first came to light in late January when Steve Alford, a range officer for the military putting up warning flags when the ranges are active, and a Commoner whose family have farmed the area for many years, was travelling on horseback from Hangingstone Hill to Quintin’s Man via the Whitehorse Hill east to west Phillpotts’ Peat Pass. The peat pass is one of many peat passes originally cut to allow access to hunters and Moormen across some of Dartmoor’s notorious mires, some of which can be treacherous to travellers and livestock.

Alford regularly travels via the peat pass, as do livestock and walkers in this remote part of the Moor (particularly since the discovery of the Whitehorse Hill cist), but as he reached the pass he saw that it had been dammed by the contractors working for South West Water and the pass, a historic feature in itself and marked with a commemorative bronze plaque, was flooded and contributing to a large body of water backing up to within yards of the prehistoric barrow and burial cist.

Members of the DS standing behind the bund created by South West Water and blocking the southern peat pass. © Chris Chapman 2021

This area of Dartmoor is now of International importance. The Whitehorse Hill cist was unique in that unusual environmental conditions had enabled the preservation of cremated human remains and other organic materials from the early Bronze Age, some 4,000 years ago, as well as other artefacts of daily life. Being the first such prehistoric burial to be excavated on Dartmoor in over 100 years also meant that for the first time modern scientific analytical techniques could be applied, giving a unique insight into the Bronze Age environment and culture on Dartmoor.

We now know that the grave was that of (probably) a young woman, aged 15-25, buried about 1750-1600 BC, around August to September time, with the remains wrapped in a bear pelt and laid upon a bedding of mainly purple moor grass (Molinia). Jewellery in the form of bead necklaces was recovered, including an amber bead, along with a woven cattle hair bracelet, a sash woven from nettle yarn and two pairs of wooden studs. Previous excavations of burial cists on Dartmoor have rarely revealed more than the odd flint flake, as organic remains normally disintegrate in the acidic Dartmoor soils.

As part of the peatland restoration programme, artificial ponds are being created and erosional gullies dammed by up to three tracked bucket excavators, digging up the peat and creating bunds around the edges to hold back water, thereby raising the water table to promote the growth of Sphagnum moss and peat formation, aiding carbon sequestration. Sphagnum is sensitive to drought, however, and the strategy is to raise the water table on the High Moor peatlands to minimise the risk to the moss and the peat drying out over long periods without rainfall, which can significantly reduce its ability to sequester carbon and slow down recovery.

Alford’s immediate concern was that the rising waters as a result of the dammed peat pass were at risk of flooding the burial cist and further eroding the structure encasing it, possibly harming other potential archaeological remains in the area, and hindering safe passage for walkers and livestock through the mires.

A brief visit a few days later with two members of The Dartmoor Society led, quite by chance, to an impromptu meeting on site with Morag Angus, Mires Project Leader for South West Water and a couple of colleagues. In response
to the potential threat to the archaeological site, after initially claiming that the dam was only temporary, Angus stated that the works on the peat pass were a mistake and that they would be rectified, and that the pools excavated in the peat by the excavators were only a digger shovel deep. A follow-up meeting was held on-site several days later, on 12th February, between various representatives of the Mires Project including Angus from South West Water, and representatives of the Forest of Dartmoor Commoners’ Association along with Chris Chapman, representing the Dartmoor Society, to resolve the apparent misunderstandings.

Although the dam across the peat pass had been breached since the first meeting, the Commoners expressed their concerns that the peat pass was clearly a pass used by both farmers and the military and that the dam should never have been built without consultation, had never been agreed to at any of the joint planning meetings, and that the discovery of the dam and the peatland restoration work in such close proximity to the burial cist had come as quite a shock to the Commoners.

After the meeting it was felt that problems had arisen mainly from a lack of communication by South West Water combined with poor decision-making on site, particularly in view of the archaeological significance of the area, but that these problems could be overcome.

Morag Angus claiming to Commoners that the dam across Phillpots’ Peat Pass was only temporary. © Chris Chapman 2021

The Commoners expressed their views more strongly at a further site meeting with Angus on 24th February, when despite Angus stating that South West Water wanted to consult with the Commoners and improve relations, the Commoners pointed out that the damage done by the diggers was unacceptable, and that had they as farmers done similar damage, they would be heavily fined by Natural England. The validity of the project was also challenged when Crispin Alford stated that in 60 years of riding his horse in the area, the hags and the sides of the peat pass had not changed, so why waste money on unnecessary work? Criticism was also made of the depth of the pools, many being over one metre deep – a potential danger to livestock and walkers – and that the work was not what the Commoners had signed up to, and that nothing had been said or agreed previously about the creation of so many pools (created by the diggers or bucket excavators digging up the peat to form bunds around the edges to hold water).

The suitability of such deep pools to promote the growth of Sphagnum moss was also questioned by the Commoners, when it was pointed out that there were many naturally formed wet areas as little as three inches or so deep where Sphagnum could be seen to be growing quite successfully. The damage to healthy Sphagnum by the digger tracks and re-vegetation was also described as ‘shameful’. Of additional concern to the Commoners was the lack of an obvious archaeological presence for monitoring the digger work. Unfortunately, the response that ‘the project was too big to consult everyone’ and that the archaeology presence had been a waste of resources on Exmoor as they ‘had only found one item to date’ failed to provide much reassurance, particularly being in close proximity to such a major recent archaeological discovery.

After Angus admitted it was she who had instructed the diggers to build the dam on Whitehorse Hill, the party reviewed the restored peat pass work and it was agreed that issues raised with peat and vegetation left behind making the ground soft going and difficult for walkers and riders would be rectified. Unfortunately, re-assurances were short-lived when it was suggested that everyone move on to visit the area towards East Dart Head, where it was discovered that South West Water has also blocked the southern or East Dart Head Phillpotts’ Peat Pass with another dam, this time across the bottom with a part-bund across the top.

Given that this peat pass too is also marked with a bronze memorial plaque, and in the light of the work at the Whitehorse Hill east to west Phillpotts’ Peat Pass, the feeling amongst the Commoners was that the pass had been knowingly blocked, not just in error. It was agreed the South West Water would instruct the digger drivers to remove the bunds before moving on to continue with restoration work at Black Hill.

On 27th February, the Dartmoor Society Executive Committee visited Whitehorse Hill to observe the finished and rectified work, particularly with respect to the local archaeology and disturbance to local flora. Alan Endacott, Acting Chairman of the Dartmoor Society, who has studied the archaeology of the local area in considerable detail for many years and actually discovered the stone circle below Sittaford Tor in 2007, explained that there are a number of archaeological sites in the area not yet properly explored or understood, and that it appeared that much of the peatland restoration work had been done without due regard for the archaeological potential, and risked severely damaging significant cultural remains. It was also observed that the area had been extensively worked by the diggers, blocking many of the gullies with bunds of peat and turf up to a metre high, and yet despite heavy rainfall the gullies were dry, implying that the re-wetting strategy was not working as planned.

The Dartmoor Society also went on to visit Black Hill, one kilometre southwest of Whitehorse Hill, an area of similar vegetation and topography where 54 hectares have been earmarked for the next phase of groundworks. The Society questioned the need for peat restoration given the presence of many gullies, mounds and peat hags, with many gullies holding water and most having actively growing Sphagnum. Black Hill is remote with few visitors and barely understood archaeologically, although in the light of Whitehorse Hill, it is felt by many that the summit is a likely candidate for a similar Bronze Age monument to that as at Whitehorse Hill.

As a result of dissatisfaction with all the work on Whitehorse Hill, the Dartmoor Society have written to the Dartmoor Peatland Partnership requesting that the scheduled works be immediately paused ‘in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the methodology and the attendant risks to public safety and hidden archaeology’, including a study of the natural peat regeneration in the local vicinity. Most importantly, the Dartmoor Society feels that there has been a severe lack of proper communication from South West Water, which, coupled with a feeling of disregard for the knowledge and experience of the local people that actually know and understand the land that they inhabit and work on, has led to a major lack of confidence in the project.
Whilst it is too early to know the response of Dartmoor Peatland Partnership and South West Water to the criticisms of the Commoners and the Dartmoor Society, there has been one positive outcome, and that is that the Dartmoor National Park Authority have agreed to convene a meeting of all concerned parties
in June to resolve the difficulties, subject to
COVID-19 restrictions.

It is to be hoped that it will not be too late for lessons to be learned from Whitehorse Hill, and to reconsider the plans for peatland restoration on Black Hill and other parts of the High Moor before it is too late.

The following weblinks can provide more information about some of the organisations and projects mentioned in this article:

Dartmoor Commoners’ Council
Dartmoor Society
Mires on the Moors project report, University of Exeter
Dartmoor National Park
Forest of Dartmoor Commoners’ Association
Natural England
South West Water

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