|Heartlands - high moor - painting by Roselle Angwin|
Two posts in two days. This might not happen again in a while (and this is still not about That Book).
I have just had occasion to drive what is, for me, probably the most beautiful road in the universe (with the exception of a) the northwest coast road of Mull, and b) the Gorges du Tarn). This road takes me over Dartmoor from Ashburton to Tavistock, and never fails to give me wings, any time of year, any weather.
Utter bliss: over Holne Bridge into woodland; over the Dart on the little Newbridge; up past 'my' Queen Birch (photographed last summer) with her twin trunks and her now-mahogany hair (a sure sign that she's getting ready for spring):
Ponies on the heights; buzzards aplenty; down past the hut circles to Dartmeet (the ghosts of me and my sisters as children still lying out on the ancient clapper bridge, only half of which is now still extant); back up again to the heights towards Prince Hall with its tall beeches, the moor all ochre-gold and sienna-rust; the tors prominent against the blue sky; Two Bridges with its geese; the ancient double stone row, stone circle and standing stone of Merrivale with a host of memories for me; then the little market town of Tavistock, my nearest town for a couple of decades, dreaming in the sun with its cherry blossom, crocuses, primroses, daffodils. Hawthorn hedges already in leaf: it used to be that, when I was growing up in North Devon, they would be in leaf in time for my mum's birthday, the vernal equinox. I saw my first hawthorn leaves, dotted with the odd tiny flower, in January this year, at Dartington. At Portland, in Dorset, the first swallow has been seen, approximately 6 weeks early.
20º C. A stunning day. I smile. Everyone I encounter is smiling. How can we not feel happier?
And yet, much as I love this weather, it's not OK. Here, we're taking clothes off. In the Arctic, polar bears will be dying.
Yes, this is the apparently-benign face of climate change.
And there's another blot on the horizon. In fact, two.
The first, biggest, one, is a literal blot. In fact it's 180º degrees of blot, where as I drive they are swaling: deliberately burning off old gorse and heather. The thick smoke from four separate fires lies smoggily on the horizon. The moor is, for February, almost tinder-dry after a fortnight of dry and even hot weather.
This happens every year on the moor, often in October, sometimes in February. I hate this. Swaling is entirely for the farmers' benefit, the rationale being that new grass and shoots of bracken, heather, gorse will offer fresh food for the sheep, cattle and ponies grazed up here to provide meat for us, and for zoo animals. I love the dramatic scenery of the moor, but it's entirely as a result of grazing: left to itself, the moor would regenerate as woodland, as the forest it once was (amazingly, first cut in the Neolithic era using hand axes to provide grazing for the new farming revolution).
Swaling is an environmental disaster. It destroys biodiversity, it burns the ancient peat and therefore releases CO2, in itself it pollutes hugely, it destroys thousands upon thousands of small mammals, reptiles and the like. Already, early, skylarks – ground-nesting birds – are nesting.
The other blot on the horizon: the bloody foxhunters on their big warmbloods, in their red and black livery, are out. Foxes, as I wrote in my last post, have declined by 45% in a few short years. We have the hunt come through our valley, too: I haven't seen 'my' fox, who used to sit and sunbathe in its column of golden air in the field next door, for at least two years.
Oh but oh wait, I forgot: of course, since it's illegal now, it's not foxes they're hunting. After all, the hounds know they're not allowed to.
That's OK, then.