Location: Between Plymouth and Exeter, bordered by the A38 to the south and east and the A30 to the north.
Grid Reference: SX 661 777
Forming the largest and highest uplands in southern Britain, the iconic landscapes of Dartmoor are founded on granite and mantled in peat. Deluged with nearly two metres of rain each year, the rocks and woodlands grow thick with an exceptional growth of lichens, mosses and liverworts.Think of Dartmoor and you probably imagine sweeping moorland rising to granite-capped tors. But only about half of Dartmoor’s area is actually moorland. There are also bogs and wetlands, rivers and waterfalls, deep valleys and ancient woods, all providing a variety of different habitats.
Although the landscape has been modified by centuries of human activity, impacts on habitats and wildlife are less than in other parts of Britain and the area has been relatively undisturbed by very intensive agriculture. Dartmoor’s blanket bogs, upland heaths and oakwoods are of global importance and, in fact, the mining industry has created artificial rock outcrops and exposures rich in heavy metals on which many rare lichens now grow.
The ancient rock surfaces of the granite tors have been exposed to the elements for thousands of years. Over 60 different species of lichen may be found growing on them, including granite-speck rim-lichen, purple rock lichen, brown cobblestone lichen and goldspot lichen, the names alone giving some idea of the colourful diversity of these miniature communities. Some of the species are more commonly found in the Arctic. Lichens once provided valuable income for local communities, who often collected amazing quantities for use as dyes; between 1762 and 1767 one collector harvested nearly 100 tons of cudbear lichen, scraping them from the rocks with a chisel to make a rich royal purple dye.
In summer, the upland heaths are painted shades of purple and pink with heather (ling) and bell heather splashed with the bright yellow summer flowers of western gorse, while dry grassy areas are punctuated with colour from tormentil, heath bedstraw and heath milkwort.
In wetter spots, cross-leaved heath and purple moor grass grow and where bog develops plants like hare’s-tail cotton-grass, cross-leaved heath, round- leaved sundew and bog asphodel can be found along with a multitude of sphagnum mosses and other mosses and liverworts. In the valley bottoms, bogbean and pale butterwort thrive along with many different sedges.
One of the most famous woods in the whole of Britain is found on Dartmoor. Wistman's Wood is a living definition of a Tolkeinesque forest and you could easily imagine the stunted, twisted and gnarled oaks coming alive at night. It seems to have held this hunted, mystical feeling throughout history, possibly being a surviving fragment from the earliest Neolithic woodland clearances. Even today it retains this air, and it has a reputation as being the most haunted place on Dartmoor. Not surprisingly, the epiphytic mosses, liverworts and lichens are exceptional and only add to the atmosphere. Nearly 50 species of moss and liverwort are known and 120 types of lichen, including Smith’s horsehair lichen, speckled sea-storm lichen and pendulous wing-moss.