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
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
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
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.
|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
|Exmoor is home
to some of the most ancient woodlands in the country|
To get a little closer to the jackpot, Mike heads to
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
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.
|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
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.
Everyone thought that the fragile insect had gone for
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
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
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.
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
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