Misty Otmoor

It was a quiet, misty day when I visited Otmoor today for a bit of birdwatching.

The RSPB had carried out some winter work, cutting the hedge on the track beside Moorleys.

2 Moorleys

It had also cleared scrub along the path to the lookout, opening up the ditch.  I live in hope of seeing a water rail here.

3 scrub clearance

The view over Greenaways was misty and there was little activity.

4 Greenaways

There were plenty of birds in the hedges: tits, bullfinches and linnets.  Where the RSPB had put down seeds by the lookout, there were also reed buntings and yellowhammers.

First hide
The first hide was grey and quiet, but there were plenty of snipe among the teal and other duck.

5a from first hide

At the furthest hide I had a lovely view of a marsh harrier.  I also heard a Cetti’s warbler.

6 Marsh harrier

Male marsh harrier


On my way back I saw many golden plover with lapwings in a field.  I also caught a glimpse of a hen harrier.

7 golden plover

Golden plover and lapwing (take my word for it!)

When I returned to the first hide I met an RSPB voluntary warden who counts birds every Friday afternoon.  He said the hen harrier I had seen was probably a second-winter male. We saw the golden plover rise up in a mass from the field where I had seen them, presumably disturbed by something, and he said that he had counted 4,000 golden plover recently.

I hung around at that hide for a while because another birdwatcher had told me that he had seen three bitterns there that morning.  I was not so lucky.  But there is something therapeutic about watching ducks going about their business in a quiet spot, and I was in no hurry to leave.

And then the sun came out.

8 sun out

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Step up for public access

For the first time in public Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has acknowledged that public access is a public good.  He was speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference last Thursday (4 January) on Farming for the Next Generation.

Those words were not in the prospective speech which was released on Thursday morning.  However, when he spoke, he added the words ‘so public access is a public good’ to the end of the section about access as a part of the post-Brexit payment scheme.

Mr Gove said that I want to develop a new method of providing financial support for farmers which moves away from subsidies for inefficiency to public money for public goods and I want to ensure that we build natural capital thinking into our approach towards land use and management so we develop a truly sustainable future for our countryside.

And what he said about access was:

Public access I know can be contentious and I won’t get into the weeds of the debate on rights of way now.  But the more the public, and especially schoolchildren, get to visit, understand and appreciate our countryside the more I believe they will appreciate, support and champion our farmers. Open Farm Sunday and other great initiatives like it help reconnect urban dwellers with the earth.  And they also help secure consent for investment in the countryside as well as support for British produce.  So public access is a public good.


Homeward bound, near Lane Head, Horndon, Dartmoor

We know he believes that schoolchildren should have the opportunity to visit the countryside; he spoke about that last July in answer to questions.  But now he is talking about the public generally so government thinking is moving on.  And he even said I am moved by the beauty of our natural landscapes, feel a sense of awe and wonder at the richness and abundance of creation …

The user groups (walkers, horse-riders and cyclists) are developing ideas for access post-Brexit.  Farmers should be rewarded for providing new access where people need it, and improving existing arrangements.  Not only could there be new definitive paths and dedicated access land and village greens, but we could see existing paths maintained to a higher standard, with wide headlands and fewer stiles.  There could be more ways of getting on to access land, and they could be properly publicised.


Wildflower meadow near Covey Hall Farm, Otley

There must also be a proper system of cross-compliance, with an efficient mechanism for ensuring that farmers who receive public money respect any rights of way across their land, with penalties for those who infringe the law.

The prospects are exciting, and Mr Gove has opened the door for further discussion—provided that he survives today’s cabinet reshuffle.  I hope he does.

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Bucks Free Press’s boo-boo

Whoops, the Bucks Free Press was so starry-eyed about the Beckhams’ visit to south Bucks that it forgot to check its apostrophes.  This story was at the top of page 3 on 29 December.

Beckham story

Or perhaps the editorial team had enjoyed rather too much christmas cheer.

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Have a wander in the waste

The Dartmoor Preservation Association (DPA) has published a guide to its land at High House Waste, near Cornwood on south-west Dartmoor.  Entitled Walk this way to High House Waste … it is an eight-page booklet with illustrations.

418553 Dartmoor Preservation Trust Association Booklet_Page_1 (1)
The cover of the DPA booklet

This superb corner of Dartmoor is not well known.  High House Waste is 145 acres of varied habitat including moor, heath, mire and woodland.

It is rich in archaeology: Bronze Age reaves (land boundaries), abandoned longhouses, a Bronze Age settlement, extensive field-systems and areas of possible mediaeval tin-streaming.

P4 Fig 2 newtake wall

Looking south-west over Broadall Lake at the newtake wall of High House Waste. Photo: Bob Bruce

Because of its mosaic of habitats it supports a wide range of flora and fauna.

Small Heath

Small Heath butterfly. Photo: Hil Marshall

We are pleased to have good-sized patches of the uncommon White Beak-sedge, Rhynchospora alba, particularly in the southern mire.

White beak-sedge

White Beak-sedge. Photo: Hil Marshall

The DPA volunteers carry out regular work here to maximise its conservation potential.

P7 pic

Volunteers on High House Waste

The DPA bought the land in 1964 when it was threatened with coniferous afforestation by Economic Foresty Ltd.  Time was short and the DPA’s then chairman, Lady (Sylvia) Sayer, put up the necessary £2,000 to buy it.  The DPA ran an appeal to recoup the money, and raised more than the required sum, such was the public’s concern for the land.

P2 pic

The view south from above the mire. Photo: Adam Sparkes

It is thanks to the foresight of Sylvia Sayer that the DPA bought this magical place and saved it from becoming a dreary blanket of impenetrable conifers.  We were also proud that the gates to high House Waste were unique on Dartmoor in welcoming people onto the land.

I remember my first visit there, with Guy and Sylvia Sayer on Remembrance Sunday 1973.  By chance we met Bob and Pippa Woods, from Aveton Gifford in south Devon, on the same venture.  Pippa was a founder of the Family Farmers’ Association and often appeared with us at public inquiries and meetings.  I had heard a great deal about High House Waste and it was thrilling to be there with the Sayers and the Woods, and to sit on the walls of the old farmhouse and look across to Stall Moor and down the valley to Hanger Down and the sea.

In the summer of 1975 a small group of us bashed some of the bracken there.

6 Jun 1975 HHW bracken Hil, Lis, Marcus, SS cropped

Bracken-bashing expedition to High House Waste. Left to right: Hil Scott (now Marshall), Lis Hawkins, Marcus Hawkins and Sylvia Sayer 6 June 1975

A week later I camped by the ruined farmstead with my friends Drusilla and Mary from university.  But it was not until about 1995, encouraged by Sue Eberle from the Dartmoor National Park Authority, that the DPA seriously began to consider the management of the waste.

High House Waste 13 Jun 75

Our two tents on High House Waste at 7.30am on 13 June 1975

Most of the land was mapped as access land under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW), giving people the legal right to walk here (although the DPA had always welcomed walkers).  Subsequently the DPA dedicated additional rights to ride horses and camp here, bringing it in line with the adjoining Dartmoor commons.  The DPA is one of very few private landowners to have used section 16 of CROW to create additional, permanent rights for the public.

P4 Fig 4 farmstead

Looking east-south-east over the ruins of High House farmstead, across the valley of Broadall Lake towards Hawns and Dendles Waste. Photo: Bob Bruce

High House Waste is a well-kept secret, with limited car-parking and a two-mile walk in—but it is well worth the effort.  It is a site of magnificent beauty and interest with fine views.

The booklet tells you all you need to know to explore this lovely place.  It has a page on the history of the DPA’s acquisition of the site (by me), two pages on archaeology and history (by Bob Bruce), two pages on the natural history (by Hil Marshall) and a page about the volunteers’ work (by Val Barns).  There are lots of photos and a detailed map.

Bob's map with border

Map by Bob Bruce

The booklet can be downloaded from the DPA website or bought from the DPA for £2 including post and packing (Old Duchy Hotel, Princetown, Yelverton PL20 6QF, tel 01822 890646).  If you join the DPA you will get a free copy!

The DPA also owns land on Dartmoor at Sharpitor, Swincombe and Pudsham Meadows near Widecombe-in-the-Moor.

Front cover

Welcome! The Oliver Sayer gate opens on to High House Waste

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A companion to Tippett’s music

Today the composer Michael Tippett, who joined the trespassers on Kinder Scout in 1932, would have been 113 years old.  


The Kinder trespassers set off from Hayfield

In celebration, Radio 3 invited listeners to Essential Classics this morning to nominate music which would make a suitable companion to the five negro spirituals* from Tippett’s oratorio, A Child of Our Time.  This sombre work was inspired by the persecution of the Jews and was published in 1941.

I studied those spirituals for music O level and remember learning how in Tippett’s oratorio they served the purpose of the chorales in Bach’s oratorios, notably the St John Passion.   They punctuate the text and provide a familiar landmark to lighten the gravity of the work and enable you to find your bearings.

Therefore, I volunteered the St John Passion to Radio 3 as a companion piece (by email, text and twitter).  Unfortunately the presenter, Ian Skelly, did not select my suggestion.  However, he did mention a comment from another listener who said that apparently Tippett used spirituals as the equivalent of Bach’s chorales, so the point was made.


* The spirituals are: Steal away; Nobody knows the trouble I see, Lord; Go down, Moses; O, by and by, and Deep River.




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My bird year 2017

This year I saw a respectable 120 species plus one which I heard but did not see (grasshopper warblers at Otmoor).  These are my highlights.

A walk along the River Hamble in March gave me plenty of Brent geese.

1 Brent geese

Brent geese

Also in March, on an early-morning walk in Dunblane I saw grey wagtails flitting about by the Allan Water.

Grey wagtail

Grey wagtail by the Allan Water

The gravel pit at Little Marlow was rewarding: here I saw my first chiffchaff of the year, on 17 March and first willow warbler on 7 April.

Chiffchaff tree small

The tree where I saw my first chiffchaff of the year, Little Marlow

A memorable walk in April along the Pembrokeshire coast near Stackpole gave me choughs and a rock pipit.


Choughs near Stackpole Head

My first swallow of the year was on 8 April, near Nuffield, Oxfordshire.

I spent a glorious morning on 21 April in White Wood on Dartmoor, with my friend Hil Marshall.  We saw wood warblers, pied flycatcher, redstart, tree pipit, siskin and many other species, and I heard my first cuckoo of the year.

1a track

The path into White Wood, 21 April 2017


On an early walk up Tavy Cleave on 23 April I saw ring ouzel and whinchat.

Ring ouzel

Ring ouzel perched on tree in Tavy Cleave, 23 April 2017

As I came back along the leat to Lane End I saw a redpoll on a gorse bush.

Redpoll on gorse

Redpoll on gorse bush, slightly to the left of centre.

When I was at Tynrhyd in Ceredigion for Ramblers Cymru’s Big Welsh Walk I had a very special early-morning walk on Dawn Chorus Day in nearby Coed Rheidol.  Here I saw and heard wood warblers displaying, my best sighting ever.  You can listen to my recording here.

4 Coed Rheidol

Coed Rheidol

Wood warbler

Wood warbler in Coed Rheidol

On 14 May I saw hobbies over Otmoor in Oxfordshire.  I visited Otmoor many times during the year and also saw marsh harriers, a female hen harrier, a Cetti’s warbler and many other species.

I helped with the annual nightjar survey at Barossa, near Camberley in Surrey on 12 June and saw and heard nightjars and woodcock, but sadly no Dartford warblers.

8 getting dark

Sunset over Barossa


I had a snatch sighting of a little owl on a telegraph pole as I drove past Quainton in Bucks on 13 June.

Unusually for recent years, I had four sightings of spotted flycatchers: in Turville (19 June), at Hidcote Gardens, Gloucestershire (20 June), Hanbury Hall, Worcestershire (1 July) and Piddington near Wheeler End, Bucks (11 August).

There were two kingfishers on the Rochdale canal at Hebden Bridge, Calderdale on 15 October.

9 canal

Rochdale canal

I also did quite a few surveys.  There were my usual two Breeding Bird Survey visits, for the British Trust for Ornithology, to Prestwood in Bucks (30 April and 18 June).  I made four visits for the River Thame Conservation Trust—three to Wormsley in Oxfordshire on 26 February, 17 April and 27 May, and one to Sydenham on 2 December.  And I did house martin surveys on the houses in Turville.

LH nest feeding

House martin feeding young

So although I did not visit that many different habitats during the year I didn’t do badly on species.

Now for my 2018 list.  My first sighting this morning was a colourful one, a great spotted woodpecker, followed by marsh, coal and blue tits.

Happy new year everyone!



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Mass Observation at eighty

When I was writing my blog about the seventieth anniversary of Exmoor Village it struck me that 2017 was the eightieth anniversary of Mass Observation, the organisation which commissioned the diarists to study Luccombe on Exmoor, and countless other projects. 


The 1947 edition of Exmoor Village

The anniversary seems to have been largely overlooked, beyond a conference last summer, which is a shame as it was a significant social experiment.

Mass Observation was founded by the ornithologist and anthropologist Tom Harrisson, the poet and journalist Charles Madge and the experimental film-maker Humphrey Jennings.  It became a market-research firm in 1949 and the material it had collected went into storage until it was transferred to the University of Sussex, to become the Mass Observation archive.

One of the first contributors was Naomi Mitchison (1897-1999), sister of JBS Haldane FRS and wife of the Labour Politician Gilbert Richard (Dick) Mitchison.  Dick was Labour MP for Kettering from 1945 to 1964 after which he was given a life peerage.  Naomi was a poet, novelist and left-wing political writer.

Wartime diary
Dorothy Sheridan, from 1990 to 2008 the director of the Mass Observation Archive held at the University of Sussex, edited Naomi’s wartime diary Among you taking notes … Dorothy wrote in the introduction how Mass Observation at first functioned with about 500 people who, through questionnaires or ‘directives’, recorded their reactions to key events.  In 1939, only two years after its inception, Mass Observation was faced with the problem of how to continue its activities during wartime when it feared that there would be no reliable postal service to dispatch the monthly or bi-monthly directives.  Instead, Mass Observation recruited people from all parts of the United Kingdom to keep a continuous record of their everyday lives.  Naomi was one of about 200 people who agreed to keep a wartime diary.  She was living for most of the time at Carradale House, Kintyre, on the west coast of Scotland.


Carradale © Anne Burgess and licensed for reuse under this creative commons licence.

Naomi was a long-standing member of the Open Spaces Society and we published a letter from her (then aged 92) in Open Space summer 1990:

It might interest you to know a small history. I am selling a beautiful caravan site by the sea at Carradale which has been enjoyed and friendly for many years.  The gravel road down to the sea runs through it, and is much used by people walking to and from the sea.

After reading Open Space, always interesting, I suddenly realised that there must now be a right of way for walkers to and from the beach, so at once I rang the regional council and it was delighted to put it through.  Of course the new owners might have agreed to let people walk through, but one never knows.  Anyhow it was done in time!

 My late husband was always very keen about public rights and, I think, helped you when he was in the Lords.

This was before the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 which gave the public rights of access to most of Scotland.

The Listening Project
It struck me that the BBC’s The Listening Project was a sort of modern Mass Observation, and I was interested to find that Fi Glover of the project interviewed Dorothy Sheridan on 25 November 2012 to talk about the project’s value to oral history.  It is worth hearing.  Dorothy observes that The Listening Project offers a level of intimacy which is not found in Mass Observation.

Meanwhile, Mass Observation project carries on but in a different format.  You can read here how current observers respond to open-ended questionnaires about three times a year, on broad themes, such as the countryside, age and care and what makes you happy?

Long may it continue.

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