Most of Devon’s rivers have their source on Dartmoor or Exmoor such as the rivers Exe, Teign, Dart, Plym, Torridge and Taw, but others like the rivers Axe, Otter and Tamar rise outside the county.
The very first vestiges of spring were evident at the end of February, snowdrops were nearly over as expected and many gardens had daffodils out in profusion. The endless rain over the winter has meant my few ewes and lambs have been brought inside each night and it is then and at first light, that spring seems so tantalisingly close. As soon as there is a glimpse of dawn in the sky, blackbirds are singing and accompanied by pigeons and rooks all stirring and numerous other tentative bird song, with tawny owls calling until the sun rises.
Fortunately, lambing was condensed into 10 days this year, so those cold, wet walks across the fields to the unlit lambing shed at all hours of the day and night haven’t been as many as in previous years. Now to hear and especially smell the fresh morning spring air is so welcome.
At least once a day, I take a walk through the small orchard and as yet only a few wild daffodils are protruding through the tufts of rough grass. These will be in full bloom by mid March and I will be able to see then, how well last year’s transplanting went. It is an objective of mine to cover the entire orchard floor with them in my lifetime, still a long way to go! Winter pruning of the apple trees and hedge laying have been a pathetic affair this winter, this essential work can carry on through March, if the weather remains cold. However, I wouldn’t recommend this in the milder coastal areas of Devon. Situated in the bottom of the Mole Valley, this is a real frost hollow which delays the sap rising all the time we have night frosts. I have even successfully grafted apple trees in the first week of April, though this is not the time of year to expect success, don’t let me lead you astray.
Cooperative ewes and the lack of dry weather has allowed me to get out more and there is still plenty of time to enjoy what I have been exceptionally fortunate to see in late February and early March. Bird life, whether it is just sheer numbers, numbers of different species or rarities… we have had them all and most are still about.
On the Taw estuary the changes around Horsey Island are alarming from a flood defence view point, but appear to have benefited the winter waterfowl migrants. Some 200 acres of what was great grazing land a decade ago is now under the sea at high water (see photo lower left). The breach in the outer sea wall is huge and will be a monumental task to repair, thousand, sorry, tens of thousands of tons of sea wall have been eroded away leaving a 100 metre wide section of the outer wall missing. The local press say there are many interested parties talking over the reinstatement. Good luck to them, when this defence was built, there was none of the present technology or machinery, so it should be possible but, at an enormous cost. The reclaimed land will take years to recover from the salt water and is unlikely to even return to grazing land. However, to prevent further ingress of the sea, it has to be done. The entire length of the outer wall is peppered by eroded sections that with one spring tide, a swollen river and strong westerly wind would soon breach too. The inner wall protecting Braunton marshes has a tide line only a foot from its apex.
On a happier note, at present, this situation has provided a habitat for thousands of wading birds, vast flocks of golden plover and lapwings. Smaller numbers of curlew, redshank, shell duck, wigeon and many smaller waders too, that never seem to stay still long enough to identify. Noteworthy ones I have encountered are little egret, spoonbills. stonechats, teal, snipe and peregrines. The experts one encounters out twitching, have seen and identified so much more. Most of these migrants will be around through March.
Erosion on the south side of the Estuary by RND Golf Club should be of great concern to all who enjoy the coast of North Devon and is one to keep an eye on, as an old landfill site is in danger of being washed out to sea. With all the present publicity of plastic contamination of our oceans, this is our own potential huge environmental challenge. Easy to ask now, but, who in their right mind would ever try to store rubbish at or around sea level? GCSE geography would teach you this was no more than a short term fix. Lets hope those in authority can agree to a solution and get the work done quickly.
So to Exmoor and back to spring time, I have been fortunate enough to see many hen harriers and short eared owls over my years farming and in estate management but most have been in Sussex or Scotland. This year things have been so different. Rumour had it there were more than normal on Exmoor. I can count on both hands the number of hen harriers I have seen on Exmoor over 40 odd years and I can’t recall ever seeing a short eared owl here. So, after two or three trips out to the Moles Chamber area and seeing nothing, the pleasure of seeing between six and eight short eared owls and one hen harrier in a day was beyond expectation. Most were more than 100 metres away, but at dusk, as light had faded too much to take a photo, a pair chattering to each other flew overhead. The late afternoon was also topped off by a barn owl hunting close by. My previous last sighting of the grey male hen harrier was in April just into Somerset. So there is still a good chance still to see these through April.
It’s by mid March those in the south of the county will be reporting the first sightings of sand martins, house martins and swallows. We in the South Molton area usually have the odd one or two around before the end on the month. On Exmoor the wheatears should be back and by the end of April and you may be very fortunate to see a ring ouzel. Pied and spotted flycatchers and redstarts should be seen in the north of the county, especially Heddons Mouth area. Timing is crucial as once all the hedges and trees are in leaf, your chances of anything more than a fleeting glimpse are small.
1st March sees the start of the salmon fishing season on the Taw and Torridge rivers and there will be many keen anglers out on the first day of the season. This is more of a social occasion than the expectation of catching a salmon. In over 25 years of looking after stretches of the Taw system, only once has someone I placed on the river caught a salmon on the starting day! We are very fortunate that (unlike many English rivers) the Taw especially has reasonable population of salmon and presently the aim is to return all salmon caught. This is to increase the number of mature fish which return to headwaters to spawn. Over the last few seasons there have been noticeably more lampreys in the rivers also returning from the sea to spawn themselves in April. They tend to congregate in a mating frenzy at the tail of pools in fast running water. As many as twenty at a time, picking up stones in their mouths, removing them to the side thus, preparing what can be a deep hollow in the river bed. These can be a foot or more deep and two to five foot in diameter and make wading in dirty water tricky, to say the least. When the rivers are gin clear it is interesting to watch these strange creatures, most easily described as the shape of an eel with the camouflage of a dogfish and, like the salmon, they seem to die after spawning.
Walk along the banks of any of our Devon rivers and undoubtedly, you will come across drifts of primroses, wild garlic and wild daffodils in March. Through April, look out for the early purple orchids, one point about these is the astonishing speed at which the flower spike grows. I think it is fair to say 2 or 3 inches a day! So many of our roadside verges are covered with these, which are driven past unnoticed. One of the best places that always has a great number to be seen is on the road to Kinsford Gate from South Molton, just past Northland Cross. As if this isn’t enough to encourage you to get out for some fresh air and a good walk, by the mid to end of April, most of the ancient woodlands will be covered in a carpet of bluebells and the trees around covered in delicate fresh green foliage.