Birdwatching in Exmoor

Words and photos (unless stated): Ed Hutchings

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Exmoor, with its wonderfully wooded valleys attractive to birds, is loosely defined as an area of hilly open moorland in west Somerset and north Devon. It is the prettier of Devon’s two National Parks, whereas Dartmoor is much bleaker. Yet Somerset could boldly claim Exmoor to be its National Park. The total area of the Exmoor National Park is 267.5 square miles, of which 71% is in Somerset and 29% in Devon. Heather moorland, tumbling streams, wooded valleys and fields, plus a stretch of coastline; such a diverse array of habitats gives this small National Park a good range of bird species.

The upland area is underlain by sedimentary rocks dating from the Devonian and early Carboniferous periods, with Triassic and Jurassic age rocks on lower slopes. Where these reach the coast, cliffs are formed that are cut with ravines and waterfalls. The highest point on Exmoor is Dunkery Beacon. At 519m, it is also the highest point in Somerset.

Terrain here supports lowland heath communities, ancient woodland and blanket mire which provide a habitat for some scarce flora and fauna. There have also been reports of ‘The Beast of Exmoor’, a cryptozoological cat roaming Exmoor. With such an expanse of virtual wilderness, are such claims too far-fetched?

In addition to the Exmoor Coastal Heaths SSSI (Sites of Special Scientific , Interest) two other areas are specifically designated. North Exmoor covers 29,666 acres and includes the Dunkery Beacon and the Holnicote and Horner Water Nature Conservation Review sites and the Chains Geological Conservation Review site. The Chains site is nationally important for its southwestern lowland heath communities and for its transitions from ancient woodland through upland heath to blanket mire.

The site is also of importance for its breeding bird communities, its large population of the nationally rare Heath Fritillary, an exceptional woodland lichen flora and its palynological interest of deep peat on the Chains.

 Pied Flycatcher vario images GmbH & Co.KG/Alamy

Pied Flycatcher
vario images GmbH & Co.KG/Alamy

South Exmoor SSSI is smaller, covering 7,741 acres and including the River Barle and its tributaries, with submerged plants such as Alternate Water-milfoil. There are small areas of semi-natural woodland within the site, including some which are ancient. The most abundant tree species is Sessile Oak, the shrub layer is very sparse and the ground flora includes bracken, Bilberry and a variety of mosses.

The heaths have strong breeding populations of birds, including Whinchat and Stonechat. Wheatear are common near stone boundary walls and other stony places. Grasshopper Warblers breed in scrub and tall heath. Trees on the moorland edges provide nesting sites for Lesser Redpoll, Buzzard and Raven. Sparrowhawk, Woodcock and Kingfisher are to be found all year round.

Uncultivated heath and moorland cover about a quarter of Exmoor landscape. Some moors are covered by a variety of grasses and sedges, while others are dominated by heather. There are also cultivated areas including the Brendon Hills, which lie to the east of the National Park.

Wonderful woodland

There are also 7,400 acres of Forestry Commission woodland, comprising a mixture of broadleaved (Sessile Oak, Ash and Hazel) and conifers. Horner Wood and Tarr Steps are prime examples. The country’s highest Beech tree, at 350m above sea level, is at Birch Cleave at Simonsbath, but Beech in hedgebanks grow up to 490m.

At least two species of whitebeam – Sorbus subcuneata and Sorbus vexans are unique to Exmoor. These woodlands are home to lichens, mosses and ferns. Exmoor is the only national location for the lichens Biatoridium delitescens, Rinodina fimbriata and Rinodina flavosoralifera, the latter having been found only on one individual tree.

Red Deer have a stronghold on the moor and may be seen on quiet hillsides in remote areas, particularly in the early morning. A stag, the ‘Emperor of Exmoor’, was Britain’s largest known wild land animal, until it was killed in October 2010.

The moorland habitat is also home to hundreds of species of bird and insect. Due to the loss of large areas of moorland to agriculture, the typical upland birds associated with this habitat are thin on the ground, but species still seen include Merlin, Peregrine, Curlew, Stonechat, Dipper, Dartford Warbler and Ring Ouzel. Black and Red Grouse are now extinct on Exmoor, probably owing to a reduction in habitat management, and for the former, an increase in visitor pressure. Reed Bunting, Linnet, Skylark, Meadow Pipit, Cuckoo, Tree Pipit and Snipe all maintain viable populations on the moorland.

Anywhere on Exmoor with suitable habitat is worth exploring, though the areas of Porlock and Horner Wood stand out. Porlock Weir is less used for seawatching than nearby Hurlstone Point, but can be good in similar west/north-west winds throughout the year.

 Stonechat Mike Lane/Alamy

Stonechat
Mike Lane/Alamy

In spring and summer, Manx Shearwater, Fulmar and Gannet move up channel on feeding forays, with a chance of Storm Petrel or Puffin in strong westerlies.

Autumn rarities have included Sooty Shearwater and Little Auk, while all three commoner divers may be seen in winter, with Red-throated by far the most frequent and numerous, from late November to early February. Guillemot, Razorbill and Kittiwake occur at any time of year, most frequently during late autumn or winter storms. Gore Point, 400 yards north of the harbour, gives the best view, but is very exposed, so the preferred spot is behind the shelter of a pillbox just beyond the cottages over the footbridge across the harbour.

Porlock Marsh on the coast attracts a few wildfowl and waders. It is worth a look in spring and autumn for passage waders. As the only low-lying coastal land between Minehead and the Devon border, the marsh was a magnet for migrants, including an impressive list of rarities. However, since the shingle bar was permanently breached in 1996, the marsh has become little more than tidal creeks, and wader interest is much decreased beyond a few Oystercatcher and Redshank.

The shingle, fields and old lime kilns on the east side, accessed from Bossington, are still worth exploring though: Shore Lark, Great Grey Shrike, Black Redstart and Snow Bunting have all been recorded here in autumn or winter. Singles of Isabelline Shrike, in spring, and Little Bunting, in winter, have been recorded along the west side, accessed by walking back along the road from Porlock Weir. The marsh is easily reached from Porlock village; a public footpath leads to the shingle bank.

 

Raptor viewing

Horner Wood is an excellent and extensive area of hanging Sessile Oak woodland, best in late April to early June, when singing Wood Warbler, Pied Flycatcher and Redstart join a wide variety of resident woodland species. It is also good for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, which are elusive but easiest to locate slightly earlier in the year from late February to early May. Dipper and Grey Wagtail are regular on the two main streams, Horner Water and East Water.

A few Willow Tits might still lurk unnoticed among the relatively numerous Marsh Tits. The track up from the Horner car park is productive, but it does become busy especially at weekends. Quieter spots for the same woodland species are the stretch downstream from Pool Bridge on Horner Water or by the roadside along East Water near the ford at Cloutsham Splash; from here Cloutsham Ball is also a good area to explore. Between Horner and Cloutsham is the viewpoint at Webber’s Post; great for viewing raptors.

The pine, birch and scrub around the large car park host Crossbill, Siskin, Lesser Redpoll, Redstart and Garden Warbler. Nightjars also occur from May to August. It is easy to cover these sites in a circular route via Stoke Pero or Wilmersham Common, or to combine some of them with a visit to Chetsford Water or other high Exmoor combes. Usually it is best to visit the moorland combes first, as the steep-sided woodland combes can be quiet until the sun reaches into them later in the morning.

Two other points of interest: The walk down through the hanging woodlands to the isolated church of Culbone is one of the greatest rural experiences in these isles. Also, look out for Exmoor Ponies, that can be seen roaming freely on the moors. They are a ‘landrace’ rather than a breed of pony, and may be the closest breed to wild horses remaining in Europe; they are certainly one of the oldest breeds of pony in the world.
As for the ‘Beast of Exmoor’? A ‘shaggy cat story’ if ever there was one.

Where to stay in Exmoor

Offering far-reaching views of the surrounding Devon countryside, The Jubilee Inn in West Anstey is located near the southern edge of Exmoor National Park. The inn offers a three-course breakfast, free Wi-Fi and parking. Guests can enjoy an exciting menu in the onsite restaurant or relax in the bar. Packed lunches are also available on request, as are bicycles to explore the local area.

The inn is 35 miles from Exmouth, while Exeter International Airport is only 28 miles away.