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  Inside Out - West: Monday October 11, 2004


Mike Dilger
Mike Dilger is off to hunt down an elusive character

Walking through Exmoor's stunning and historic landscape is a nature lover's paradise but as Inside Out West discovers, not all the inhabitants of the national park are particularly forthcoming.

Mike Dilger is from the BBC's Natural History Unit, where he is no stranger to the interesting and exotic side of nature.

So when Inside Out offered him a task to carry out in Exmoor, he jumped at it.

He's ventured down caves to find bat colonies in Yorkshire and travelled to far away places to spend time with a camel.

But this is one expedition that won't be easy.

"I've got a real challenge ahead of me," he admits.

Mike is given the task of hunting out one of the country's rather shy and tiny citizens, but at least he has a spectacular journey ahead.

Setting out

Exmoor coastline
Exmoor's coastline stretches some 34 miles (55km)

The expedition begins on Exmoor's spectacular coastline near Porlock Bay, where the land flattens out and is protected by the surrounding high moorland.

Whilst standing looking across the vast land and seascape it's not hard to see why the area was designated a national park in 1954.

"Just check out that view," Mike says happily.

Exmoor's coastline was made a Heritage Coast in 1991, which means work is carried out to conserve the natural splendour and history of the area.

Even though the area is managed by the Countryside Agency, it is still open to natural erosion.

But this process has recently uncovered some archaeological gems from Exmoor's past.

Once the tide has gone out, Mike is able to see clues from the area's past.

Mike looking at ancient tree roots
Due to erosion few of the ancient tree roots are still visible at Porlock Bay

As he discovers some large pieces of wood in the sand Mike explains, "Five or six thousand years ago, if I had been standing here I would have been surrounded by trees."

All that's left now are rotten tree roots, which are slowly being worn down by the waves.

But paddling in the ocean isn't going to find Mike's mysterious creature, so it's back on the road - heading inland.

Can't see the woods for the trees

Compared to other UK national parks, Exmoor is fairly small, covering just 693km² (267sq. miles), yet its moorlands and far reaching views make it seem one of the most remote places in the UK.

Around a quarter of Exmoor's national park is moorland but the entire area was once covered in huge trees.

It was cleared for agriculture thousands of years ago, then generations later even more trees were cut down for timber.

It was an act that impacted heavily on Mike's elusive friend.

Horner Wood
Exmoor is home to some of the most ancient woodlands in the country

To get a little closer to the jackpot, Mike heads to Horner Wood.

Mike is actually hunting an insect that at one time would have been prolific in Exmoor. Now there are very few places you can find this rare creature.

"It's hard to imagine the whole of England looking like this," Mike muses as he walks through the wood.

It has taken around 5,000 years for Britain to clear nearly all of its woods, and now only 1.5% of the land is covered by ancient woodlands.

False protection

Ironically, it was because our forefathers stopped cutting down the trees (coppicing) that our mysterious insect has all but disappeared.

Coppicing, where tree trunks are cut back to force new growth, used to be common practice here.

Mike next to a coppiced tree
This tree had been coppiced in the past and now has three healthy trunks

Cutting back the trees resulted in many sunny glades, which created the perfect habit for the insect nicknamed "woodman's follower".

After the woodmen coppiced an area, the "woodman's follower" would move in and colonise the area.

Once coppicing decreased, so did the habitat for the insect and numbers rapidly declined.

"It's extraordinary to think that man's intervention on Exmoor's landscape actually caused a species to thrive.

"And the moment we left the woods alone it began to disappear," Mike says.

Moving house

Everyone thought that the fragile insect had gone for good.

But in the 1970s our enigma, the Heath Fritillary Butterfly, reappeared - not in woodland but out in the moor.

Heath Fritillary Facts

The Heath Fritillary is characterised by its orange, brown and black colourings

It flies close to the ground in flits and glides

It is fully protected in Great Britain and is a priority species, yet the Heath Fritillary is common in other parts of Europe and Asia

The butterfly has a wingspan of 34-46mm

It lives in either coppiced or newly felled woodland on acid soils, or sheltered heathland combes (valleys) on Exmoor

The butterflies mate and lay a large batch of eggs of up to a 100 or more

Source: Butterfly Conservation

Close to Dunkery Beacon, which is the highest point of Exmoor, the combination of moorland, farmland and woodland is easy to see.

From here you can see Horner Wood. On the flatter areas the wood has been cleared for farmland, but in the valley where the land isn't as useful the trees remain.

As he nears the edges of the woodland Mike discovers the perfect habitat for the Heath Fritillary.

"Slightly rough terrain around here," Mike says as he stumbles down the edge of the valley, but he isn't going to let that stop him now!

After the rediscovery of the Heath Fritillary Butterfly, The National Trust cleared the hillside of dense bracken to encourage it to breed here.

Coppicing the woodland provided a perfect home for the Heath Fritillary and it seems cutting back the bracken does much the same thing.

and the butterflies love it!


"It's hard to appreciate just how incredibly rare this butterfly is," comments Mike as he slowly searches the area.

In fact Exmoor's population of the Heath Fritillary is the entire population of the butterfly in the country, and there are only five colonies in the park.

That is partly due to the fact that the butterflies don't fly well, therefore can't travel far. So if part of the colony dies out - the rest are in trouble.

A Heath Fritillary Butterfly
Heath Fritillary's are known for their distinctive markings

Mike continues to find an elusive Heath Fritillary, and all of a sudden - success!

Sitting delicately on the leaves of a plant is a spectacular specimen sipping the bramble nectar, with its vivid colours showing up beautifully.

Mike is, not surprisingly, ecstatic.

"That is fantastic, my first Heath Fritillary. What a red letter day," he says.

Seeing one of the few remaining Heath Fritillary Butterflies is a treat indeed. Mike has done us proud.

For more pictures of the spectacular scenery of Exmoor and the Heath Fritillary, browse our photo gallery.

See also ...

Wales - Working For Wildlife

On the rest of the web
Butterfly Conservation - The Heath Fritillary
Exmoor National Park - About Exmoor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

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