Wistman’s Wood – Remnant of UK Rainforest
During the Coronavirus pandemic lockdowns many of us have explored more of our local natural places than ever before. People took solace in reconnecting to nature and enjoying the many therapeutic benefits of spending time outdoors. One site that became a particularly popular visitor spot in the Westcountry is Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor, a unique and mysterious fragment of ancient woodland hidden on the side of a valley. Increasing visitor numbers have alarmed local conservationists, however, and with a visitor ban recently imposed, we take a look at what makes this site special and why we need to preserve it.
When we think of rainforests, we imagine tropical forests draped in vines with exotic birds, brightly coloured frogs, and secretive mammals. But we also have rainforests here in the UK, and although you are unlikely to meet a parrot, they are unique habitats, rarer even than tropical rainforest. Most temperate rainforests occur in oceanic climates, and they are characterised by dense canopy cover, high rainfall, and low variation in temperature.
In the UK temperate rainforest is also known as Atlantic woodland as it occurs along the Atlantic coast, in Scotland, Cumbria, Wales, Devon, Cornwall, and patches of Northern Ireland. Our temperate rainforests are lush, verdant places, rich in rare lichens, bryophytes, and plants, but our remaining rainforests are highly fragmented and under threat from climate change, browsing by deer, and invasive species.
Wistman's Wood. Photo credit: S. Webber
Wistman’s Wood is an iconic high altitude oak woodland and one of our most famous temperate rainforests. The wood is an incredible site to visit in summer or winter, with stunted, twisted oaks covered in moss and lichens, giving it an otherworldly and unnerving atmosphere. The ground is covered in large granite boulders that are also smothered in bryophytes, which have helped to preserve it thanks to the difficulties they pose for grazing animals to navigate.
History and mythology
Wistman’s Wood is considered to be a fragment left from the woodland that covered Dartmoor until 5000 BCE, when it was cleared using fire by Mesolithic people to make hunting easier. The oldest trees are thought to be 400 to 500 years old, and although it is famous for its dwarf oaks, their height has increased significantly in recent centuries. The wood has also doubled in size in the last 100 years due to climactic changes and reduction in grazing pressure from sheep, cattle, and ponies.
Wistman’s Wood is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall and has been managed by Natural England and its forerunners since the designation of the site as a National Nature Reserve in 1961. It was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1964, mainly due to the rare bryophytes and lichens found there. The site is mostly open to grazing apart from a fenced off area, although the granite boulders do deter the animals to an extent. Historians have speculated that the name translates either as ‘Wood of the Wisemen’, ‘Wood of the Welshmen’, or ‘Wisht-man’s Wood’, which means pixie-led or haunted, appropriate for Dartmoor’s most haunted wood.
Wistman's Wood. Photo credit: S. Webber
The wood was thought to be once a Druid grove where rituals were conducted, and some historical writers even mention human sacrifice. Spirals and symbols can still be seen carved into some of the stones. There are also legends that tell of Wistman’s Wood being the kennel for the ‘Wisht Hounds’, a terrifying pack of black hellhounds with red eyes, yellow fangs, and an insatiable appetite for lost souls and unwary travellers. Locals are still said to be reluctant to go into the wood after dusk, although given the difficult terrain this does seem wise. The wood is home to many adders but the legends have amplified these into snakes with extra venomous bites who slither between the boulders in vast numbers.
Wistman’s Wood is dominated by pedunculate oak (Quercus robur), with small numbers of rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), holly (Ilex quifolium), and eared willow (Salix aurita). The trees have a stunted form, with many lower branches resting on the ground or even between the boulders. The trees seem to merge into the boulders as they are all covered in the same mosses and lichens. There are 120 species of lichen in the wood, many of them hanging forms that drape over the branches of the trees, including the rare horsehair lichen Bryoria smithii. Some of the trees also carry ground plant species such as bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) and polypody ferns. Other ground flora species include wood sorrel, wood rush, and bramble. Broom forkmoss (Dicranum scoparium) and little shaggy-moss (Rhytidiadelphus loreus) are common bryophyte species found on the rocks.
Lichens and bryphophytes in Wistman's Wood. Photo credit: S. Webber
A variety of bird species are regularly recorded around Wistman’s Wood including cuckoo, wheatears, stonechats, and ravens, and there are breeding populations of redstart, pied and spotted flycatchers, and rare wood warblers. A large population of adders breed between the boulders. A section of the wood has been fenced off from grazing animals for around 40 years, demonstrating how the wood would look without grazing. In this area the boulders are hidden below a carpet of ferns, ivy, and bramble, making walking through even more treacherous.
Vegetation in fenced and unfenced area. Photo credit: S. Webber
This unique site has been placed under increased threat over the last year due to visitor pressure during lockdowns. People have discovered a newfound connection with nature, which has been an unexpected highlight of the Coronavirus pandemic response, but increases in visitor numbers at some sites has come with added complications. Many natural sites have reported increased litter and a disregard for the habitat, with Wistman’s Wood reporting people taking moss off the trees and burning wood in campfires. The renewed enthusiasm for natural spaces needs to be underpinned by education on how to preserve those spaces and an appreciation of how every action we take affects our environment. Humans are susceptible to considering their actions in isolation and not realising how the combined effect of many people taking the same action has a significant impact on shared resources, known as the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’.
Stonecrop (Sedum anglicum) in Wistman's Wood. Photo credit: S. Webber
Sites such as Wistman’s Wood are at risk from the footfall of the visitors, even if they are respectful of the area, and a ban has now been imposed on people walking through the wood. There is a fine balance between having our rare habitats open to visitors to appreciate and understand more of our natural heritage, and the damage that accessing those sites can produce. Popular destinations such as Maya Bay, made famous in the film ‘The Beach’, have been inundated with visitors and suffered environmental degradation as a result. Intermittent closures have allowed corals and sea life at the site to recover, however, so with restricted access to Wistman’s Wood, we can hope that it will persist for many centuries to come.
“Scarce hoarier seems the ancient Wood
Whose shivered trunks of age declare
What scath of tempests they have stood
In the rock’s crevice rooted there;
Yet still young foliage, fresh and fair,
Springs forth each mossy bough to dress,
And bid e’en Dartmoor’s valleys share
Sophie Dixon -1829.