“I have to protect this ancient landscape”

Ross Tibbles
Ross Tibbles

Karla Mckechnie is the Livestock Protection Officer for Dartmoor. She is on call twenty-four hours a day, taking calls from concerned members of the public about animals in distress. As I’m to find out, it’s not just the animals that are at stake.

After scouring a small village near Tavistock and knocking on the door of the wrong house, I eventually find a beautiful home guarded by fearless chickens and two very cute dogs.

“I was just having a calculation of road accidents.” The kitchen paperwork shows this year’s statistics – the amount of livestock killed on the road, normally through a direct collision with a vehicle. The role of Livestock Protection Officer was created to care for the rising number of animals being hit. And it’s a problem that’s getting worse. “We’ve had 33 car accidents and 53 dog attacks so far this year.”

It’s pretty cosy in Karla’s home near Mary Tavy. As we talk, a steaming hot cup of tea lands in front of me, as the persistent rain on the skylight above sounds like a tap-dancing school for ants.

The number of livestock deaths is going up year on year as the population grows and tourism increases. As with so many things in Devon the effects of the increasing numbers are felt by our farmers first and foremost. Karla’s work is separate to the National Park Authority, she is funded by the Dartmoor Livestock Protection Society and the Dartmoor Commoners Council.

“I’m the only person who takes statistics, we show the location and the date of each accident.” Karla’s numbers are passed on to the British Horse Society, who collate the picture nationally. It’s not just livestock that are being affected, even horses with riders are getting involved in car accidents more frequently.

From the off, Karla is clearly passionate about the landscape and has always lived on the Moor: “I grew up in Clearbrook, in a house next door to The Skylark Inn. We moved to Yelverton and got married ten years ago. I lived in Tavi for a few years too. Had my two boys, but yes, I’ve always been in a farming community, with animals all around.

‘I don’t hunt anymore; my husband is still into the proper country lifestyle. I think my main priority even above the animals, is Dartmoor, the landscape itself. I think Dartmoor is imbedded in me; some people say it about the ocean but it’s Dartmoor for me.

‘I’m passionate about everything Dartmoor represents. But there’s a conflict between Dartmoor, people and animals. I’m worried that Dartmoor’s going to lose its unique identity, it has to be protected. We just need a bit more control over the amount of people.”

Most of our readers need not be reminded of the beauty of our part of the world, but it does come as a surprise to some to learn that this fragile landscape is almost entirely the product of human intervention. The very fact that granite hilltops are visible is the result of Bronze Age settlers.

Early inhabitants of the higher ground levelled the forests that lay there before, allowing for the soil to be washed away, thus creating the iconic granite outcrops that decorate the horizon today. It’s hard to imagine that such primitive people could unwittingly shape their environment. Humans, affecting their environment from thousands of years ago, you can’t help but draw parallels to today with the climate change debate.

Devon, much like other parts of the countryside needs to build more homes. But according to the Campaign to Protect Rural England, many of the homes that we ‘need’ aren’t being purchased by local people and with house prices higher than the national average, there’s the threat of a bad incentive for disproportionate housing developments in the county.

“I can appreciate why people would want to come here and live here but let’s not lose sight of what it is, Dartmoor should be a safe heaven for wildlife and livestock.

Without grazing animals, Dartmoor isn’t Dartmoor. I have to protect this ancient landscape, they just don’t make places like this anymore. There was a time when animals grazed safely and without stress and worry. Not anymore.”

The statistics of animal deaths are a sobering reminder of just how the tensions between people and animals play out.  Karla’s phone rings; “I have to answer this.” A concerned member of the public asking advice about a dodgy looking sheep.

“Where were we? Last night I was called out at 9pm after a sheep was caught between the wall and the fence, it was stuck hard, the person told me. A couple of nights before that I was called to another sheep caught in fencing. Sometimes I’m called in the middle of the night, normally by the police. I’m the first port of call for the police when it comes to animals on the road.”

Two particular accidents stand out for Karla. One incident was where two ponies were killed by one car. The driver claimed he was doing forty miles per hour and the car was a complete write off. One pony was dead the other had to be shot due to a broken leg.

Another incident that stands out was at Lower Merripit. A car just ploughed into a gang of sheep that were sleeping in the road. All the sheep were killed.

The iconic Dartmoor Pony, a legacy of the mining heritage, is also under threat. “I speak to farmers who keep ponies, but when I speak to their children, they don’t want to keep it up. Too much worry and hassle. We’re sentimental about the ponies. We have lots of charities doing work for them but I think they may have pushed the farmers a bit too far and booked them into a corner.”

It’s sad to reduce such an iconic animal to mere cost, but the unfortunate fact remains that ponies have such little value, their very existence requires effort from farmers with very little or no return.

With a controversial pony meat market now less popular, the ponies can have value for children to learn how to ride.
“There are pockets of people using them for different things, we have to be careful that we don’t lose that gene pool.”

Whilst the oceans certainly take the brunt of the problem, another issue that factors in Karla’s work is Dartmoor’s trouble with plastic. A selfish act of littering can have disastrous consequences for animals. “We had a cycling event at Haytor recently and the place was just covered in litter, plastic of all kinds. We’ve had ponies killed after eating plastic bags.”

The ever-increasing fly-tipping also affects the animals. Karla went on to tell me about the time a pony got its head caught in a ladder, terrified, galloping around with a huge ladder on its head. The person who dumped it probably couldn’t have imagined that it could pose such a threat to the animals nearby.  “I’ve lived on the Moor for 42 years and this fly-tipping thing has never been so bad.”

The phone rings again. This time it’s an elderly father and his son calling for advice. They had to take a two mile detour around some inquisitive cows that took an interest in them. “During lambing season, I have people call about lambs that have no mother in sight; they pick them up because they are concerned and put their smell all over it. Nobody’s in the wrong, this is just the natural friction between people and animals.”

The phone rings again. “This is nothing,” Karla tells me afterwards. On a busy day she has had over a hundred calls. There’s no rhyme or reason to when it’s going to be busy, although there is generally a spike in calls during bank holiday weekends.

So, how bad is the picture overall? “I think we had over 200 traffic accidents and over 100 dog attacks last year, which equals 300 hundred animals, needlessly killed, because of us.” Karla is keen to make the point that we’re all part of the problem, that this isn’t a case of pointing fingers but rather attempting to limit the damage that is intrinsically linked to an increase in people in the area.

When it comes the future of the Moor, Karla sounds pretty upbeat. While we all want to enjoy the landscape, something has to change going forward. “I think the numbers of people need to be controlled. I get worried when animals can’t graze freely. I feel worried that things are out of balance.”

This makes me think of the controversial practice of re-wilding.
As someone who was born and raised in Plymouth myself, the sound of “absolute wilderness” seems like a perfectly noble aim for a National Park. What’s wrong with allowing at least part of Dartmoor to be returned back to a natural state?

Karla launches into Dartmoor defence mode: “It’s a working landscape, if it wasn’t grazed with cows, sheep and ponies, you wouldn’t be able to walk in it, it would go back to an absolute wilderness. It would be covered in gorse, shrub and bracken. It would be completely inaccessible. I love everything that Dartmoor represents, a farmed landscape with wild birds.”

Not a fan of ‘re-wilding’ then? No!

For now, Karla’s work continues. Coping with endless phone calls and late-night call outs, she is a custodian of the Dartmoor landscape that some of us take for granted.

To make a donation to Karla’s tireless efforts for the Dartmoor
Livestock Protection Society please visit:

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