The other day I called on Naomi Oakley at Challacombe Farm, near Postbridge on Dartmoor. I had last visited 34 years ago when it was run by Peter and Min Cullum.
Now their daughter Naomi is in charge with her partner Mark Owen. On a July afternoon it was a tranquil place, and I learnt how they manage the farm to benefit flora and fauna, archaeology and public access.
We sat by the pond and watched a mass of swallows swooping across, catching insects on the wing.
The British Trust for Ornithology had counted 600 fledged swallows from nests here in the last five years.
Then we strolled along the bridleway to Headland Warren, where the (mostly absentee) owners discourage people from using the official route past the old farmhouse and try to get them to walk round, with a permissive path sign endorsed by the Dartmoor National Park Authority—shame!
We walked determinedly through on the ancient way. Then we climbed up onto Challacombe Down, with its prehistoric triple stone-row and field systems.
We had a good view down to Soussons forestry plantation which has been mucked around with by the Forestry Commission so that it is even more of an eyesore with a bare patch in the middle.
Naomi is employed by Natural England and Mark is the South West Coast Path National Trail Officer. They run the farm as well as carrying out these demanding jobs; they are impressively hard workers. Naomi is also a minister’s appointee on the Dartmoor National Park Authority.
The 300-hectare farm is mixed livestock, mainly beef and sheep: they have are over 100 Black Welsh Mountain and Wensleydale sheep and about 50 cattle, mostly Welsh Blacks. They end up hand-rearing quite a few lambs, which is more hard work!
The animals are grazed extensively making use of the common rights which go with the farm. There are some improved fields which produce winter fodder, so the farm is self-sustaining. It is species rich, with a good piece of wetland along the valley. One field, which to me did not look promising since it was well grazed and covered in dung, was a scheduled site for waxcap fungi. They also have a good selection of butterflies.
The farm is part of a wonderful ancient landscape, with the stone row and lynchets and the mediaeval settlement.
You can keep in touch with their activities via their Facebook page.
My previous visit, in 1982, was rather different. I was then secretary of the Dartmoor Preservation Association (DPA). The farm is a tenancy with the Duchy of Cornwall. In 1981 the tenants applied for an agriculture and horticulture development scheme involving the erection of three barns, silage pit and sheep-handling area, fencing and pasture renovation. There was a bit of a row, since much of the area is a scheduled ancient monument (because of the prehistoric field systems and lynchets and the medieval village) and it is open country where the public was accustomed to roam freely (no Countryside and Rights of Way Act then giving us rights to roam). We were concerned that the archaeological landscape and access would be damaged.
Correspondence flowed between the Duchy, Department of the Environment Ancient Monuments Secretariat, Council for British Archaeology, Prince Charles, Michael Heseltine (Environment Secretary), the Countryside Commission, Dartmoor National Park Committee and many others. Sylvia Sayer reminded the Duchy that in 1963 there was an agreement between the tenant and the Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments not to disturb the lynchets. We feared the agreement would be breached. Unfortunately, the Dartmoor National Park Committee approved the scheme.
The Cullums invited the Open Spaces Society to visit and the OSS asked me to go, which I did on 28 November 1982. I reported to John Higgs, secretary of the Duchy, that there was plenty about which we did not agree but that ‘we parted on good terms’. My file and the DPA Newsletters do not conclude the story so I was uncertain what happened, but Naomi confirms that it didn’t go ahead.
That was a long time ago and it’s good to see Challacombe so welcoming to people and wildlife and in such good heart.