Bovey Heathfield, near the town of Bovey Tracey in south Devon, is one of 40 nature reserves managed by Devon Wildlife Trust. Its 50 acres of heath and woodland fringe form only a small part of the Trust's 3,300 acres of nature reserves1, but its appeal and community involvement belie its small size. It is the Trust's only Local Nature Reserve2 and one of 27 of its Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Often shortened to SSSI, or 'triple SI', this is the highest level of environmental protection the Government can bestow on a site and in theory protects it from any damage or development3.
Man and the Heath
Bovey Heathfield lies in the Bovey Basin, an area which was laid down as sediment during the pleistocene era two million years ago. Heath is a man-made habitat, and Bovey Heathfield's history has been influenced by man from its creation through to the present day.
Creators and Early Visitors
Like all heaths, Bovey Heathfield was effectively created by Bronze Age man. Deforestation, in the first place to create places for grazing animals and later in order to develop agriculture, was a key part of man's development in the Bronze Age and where the soil was poor or acidic, land quickly became infertile. Man would then move on elsewhere, leaving just hardy plants such as heather to thrive in these barren places. The plus side was that heaths proved an excellent place to graze sheep4 and heather and gorse were cut for fuel. In a very basic and natural way, man began to manage the heaths he had created.
Bovey Heathfield has two relics from this age, both Bronze Age burial mounds or barrows. Although neither are particularly significant landmarks to the untrained eye, it is interesting to note that one of the heath's original occupants was buried among its heather.
The Romans and Medieval Times
Although Devon was considered a remote outpost by the Romans, who preferred the fertile lands further east in Somerset, they did have enough interest in the county to build a large base at Isca Dumnoniorum, or modern-day Exeter. The land was mainly left to the local Celtic Dumnonii5, although the find of a Roman canoe in the nearby Teign estuary in 1891 suggests that they did explore the area.
There are many tin streams that cross the site in a roughly east-west direction. Although exact dates for their use are impossible to establish, it is likely that they were cut in medieval times as an easy way of extracting the metal.
The Civil War
The south-western counties of England were largely in support of Parliament during the early part of the Civil War, peace having been agreed in Devon and Cornwall by 1643. It didn't last long and by the following year heavy fighting had broken out again, with the Royalists holding major towns like Bristol, Exeter and Bridgewater. By 1645, however, the Parliamentarians were on top, and General Fairfax was ordered to mop up any remaining resistance in the south-west so that Cromwell could begin to turn his attention elsewhere.
At New Year 1646, a contingent of Royalists were camped near the town of Bovey Tracey in Devon, under the command of Lord Wentworth. They were based on the heather of the Heathfield, which covered over 1,000 acres and extended into the town itself. Wentworth's headquarters was known as his 'Drum', and this gave rise to the name 'Drumbridges' - now a busy junction on the nearby A38. The advancing Roundheads, under Cromwell and Fairfax, received word of Wentworth's position, and arrived in Bovey Tracey on 8 January. According to local legend some Cavaliers were surprised at the Front House, now a local 'Bed and Breakfast', where they fled upstairs to hide. When it became clear that the Roundheads were aware of their presence, the Cavaliers threw their money into the street and made their escape while the poorly-paid Parliamentarians lined their pockets.
But their freedom didn't last long. The following day, battle commenced on the heath, and it was a very one-sided affair. Local historian Lance Tregoning, in his book Bovey Tracey - An Ancient Town, quotes Fairfax's chaplain, in a letter to Edmund Prideaux MP:
Sir. I thought fit to send this expresse unto you... We took at Bovey four hundred horse at least, and seven horse Colours, whereof one is the Kings, having a crown and C.R. upon it, some officers and soldiers were taken prisoners. We lost but one man, divers of the enemy were wounded, some slain...
...Your Most Humble Servant, Joshua Sprigg, Ashburton, Jan. 11, 1646 at Noon.
In addition to this, 22 officers and 300 regular troops were killed and 140 prisoners were taken. The capture of 150 cattle must have been a great boost to Roundhead morale, too.
Although more of a skirmish than a full-on battle, it was one of the last major actions in Devon before Royalist resistance was broken for good at Torrington. From here, the action moved north to the crucial battle of Naseby in Northamptonshire. On Bovey Heathfield, a major linear earthwork remains from the time of the battle - this is protected in an archaeological sense as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. It is likely that dead soldiers were buried on the heath.
The English Civil War Society honoured the battlefield in 1977 by erecting a Commonwealth cross towards the north-eastern corner of the heath.
A Shrinking Resource
The extensive heaths of the Bovey Basin were first threatened in the 19th Century, when china clay began to be extracted from various quarries. Much of the habitat was destroyed to uncover the precious resource, and gorse was used to protect the products during transport. There was even a kiln right on the edge of the modern-day heath.
Changes in farming practices also affected the heath. With no regular users, as flocks were taken elsewhere, heaths began to be seen as wasteland. In World War Two, Bovey Heathfield, along with heaths all over the country, was used as training grounds for allied troops. A man-made and managed habitat for centuries, they became open to intrusion by scrub, and the idea of wildlife habitats was unheard of until Sir Peter Scott6 pioneered Slimbridge Wildfowl Trust in 1946. Bovey was not so lucky. The heath here became a site to be used by off-road cars and motorbikes for fly-tipping and dumping, even for burning. In the 1980s, building work began on a major industial site and residential area. It seemed that only the name of Heathfield would live on.
It wasn't until 1989 that the conservation merits of the site began to be taken seriously. The site was designated as a SSSI, the UK's highest conservation status, and questions began to be asked about whether the activities there were appropriate. A consensus began to be held locally that the off-road biking should be stopped - although whether this was more to do with the noise and occasional criminal behaviour in this no-go area could still be debated.
In September 2002, the site was taken over by Devon Wildlife Trust. The new owners, with Community Officer Stephen Carroll at the helm, quickly acted to fence off the site, ban the off-roaders, clear the burnt-out cars and begin the long process of regenerating the heath. Just under a year later, Bovey Heathfield was declared a Local Nature Reserve.
Today, the site is prospering. Wildlife is returning to the site, the old bike tracks are growing over with young heather, and the local community is heavily involved in the site. Volunteers regularly take part in surveying, practical conservation tasks and site patrols. For the first time in a century, the prospects for this much-aligned heath look promising.
So What's So Special?
Lowland heathland (defined as that below 300m and therefore excluding upland areas) in the UK has reduced in area to around 16% of its original coverage - most of that reduction has been in the last century. It is considered a 'priority habitat' by the Government's Joint Nature Conservation Committee and is defined as such in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. Locally, Bovey Heathfield has reduced by an estimated 95% in size over the years, with just this patch and another DWT-owned fragment at nearby Chudleigh Knighton Heath remaining from a habitat that once covered the whole of the Bovey Basin.
Of course, this is a man-made habitat and is odd in that it can only exist with man's continuing influence. Heath would simply turn to scrub if left to its own devices, and is a strangely artificial environment. However, many species have come to depend on this:
Reptiles thrive in the patches of open ground; the skin of a sand lizard was found on Bovey Heathfield in the summer of 2005, which is a rarity for this uncommon, coast-loving species. Indeed, if confirmed, this would be only the second site in Devon to record it.
Insects and butterflies thrive, with many dragonflies flitting above the summer pools and wet areas, and the rare silver-studded blue butterfly has been recorded here. Among the rare insects are the Kugelann's ground-beetle, the bee wolf wasp burrowing into the sand, and bog-bush cricket.
There is even a colony of narrow-headed ants - unknown south of Scotland except on neighbouring Chudleigh Knighton Heath - which was found 20cm from a motorbike track in the 1990s, removed to Paignton Zoo for study and returned to the site in 2004.
In short, this is a true haven for dozens of species. Records of species on the heath are improving, largely thanks to the efforts of volunteer wardens to take great pride in 'their' reserve.
How To Find It
Travelling along the A38 (from the direction of Plymouth or Exeter), turn off for Bovey Tracey and take the first right turn into Heathfield estate. Turning second left into Cavalier Road and continuing to the turning for Dragoon Close leads to the main compartment of the heath.
Devon Wildlife Trust
DWT maintains a series of pages about Bovey Heathfield:
- Bovey Heathfield Home.
- Looking after Bovey Heathfield’s wildlife.
- History of Bovey Heathfield.
- Learning about the heath.
- Volunteers page.