Dartmoor’s protected landscape is abundant with wildlife on its granite tors, peat bogs, ancient woodlands, sweeping moorland and wildflower meadows.
These varied habitats offer homes to birds such as the now rare cuckoo, skylarks and snipe and the meadow pipit and stonechat.
There is a wide range of common mammals making Dartmoor their home such as foxes, badgers, deer, hedgehogs, salmon, adders and rabbits to name a few but also rare species such as otters, hazel dormice and horseshoe bats.
Many rare insects are thriving on Dartmoor due to the protection of their habitats. Several varieties of fritillary butterflies, southern damselflies, blue ground beetles, bilberry bumblebees, Emperor moths and the Ash black slug, the largest land slug in the world!
Dartmoor’s acid soil and high rainfall is ideal to many plants such as bog mosses, heathers, violets, gorses, rare orchids, eyebright, and Devil’s bit scabious. The woodlands are classed as temperate rainforests and are home to varieties of lichen, moss and bluebells. During the autumn many types of fungi can be found.
If only stones could talk! Humans have made Dartmoor home for 10,000 years, and its archaeology tells their stories.
During the Mesolithic period (c. 10,000 – 4000 BC) the climate rapidly warmed following the Ice Age and forests spread all over Dartmoor. Humans hunted and moved around the moor during that time but the only traces that they were there are the ‘lithics’, scraps of waste from the manufacture of tools.
Humans began farming during the Neolithic period (c. 4,000 – 2,500 BC) the trees were gradually cleared for building with and for burning and ceremonial monuments appeared, where their dead were buried, such as Spinster’s Rock.
Living on Dartmoor
From the Bronze Age onwards Dartmoor has been a busy place. Both locals and invaders have helped shape life as it is today.
Bronze Age farmers were the fist to settle in large numbers, living on the cleared high ground and clearing the wooded valleys to help build their round huts. The huts had granite walls and wooden thatched roofs. They divided the land into reaves with strong stone boundaries. Stone circles, rows and burial mounds appeared though we will never know exactly how they were used.
During the Iron Age (c. 700 BC – 43 AD) the population moved down from the high ground to the valleys most probably because the climate changed again. Hill forts were built to protect people from marauding locals.
The Romans were present around Dartmoor (c. 50 AD – 400 AD) most probably for its good summer grazing and minerals such as copper, tin, silver, gold and iron. New archaeological evidence has been discovered in Okehampton and stones with Latin inscriptions can be found in several Dartmoor villages.
Vikings are not known to have settled but they ransacked villages and were paid off with silver Lydford coins minted in the village.
European Saxons conquered Devon after the Romans left and they invaded the local communities and developed the villages we still see today.
In Medieval times (c. 410 – 1500 AD) the weather got warmer again and farmers settled in longhouses on the higher edges of the moor. Towns flourished due to the lucrative tin and wool industries. After the Norman Conquest in 1066 several Castles were built on Dartmoor. The population grew considerably at this time and settlements expanded until the Black Death in the 14th century wiped out many residents.
The Stuart era (c. 1603 – 1744 AD) sees Civil War break out in England and there were significant battles between Roundheads and Cavaliers on Dartmoor and towns and villages were divided by their allegiances.
The Industrial Revolution and Victorian period created major changes on Dartmoor. New machinery led to business growth and the introduction of the railway opened the moors to the rest of the country and the first tourists arrived. The military started to use the moor for training.
Working on Dartmoor
Starting with the first hunter gatherers and followed by millennia of farming, mining and the wool industry, Dartmoor has always been a working landscape. Grazing and mining have helped shape the landscape as it is today.
Farming has always been the main industry on the moors. Over 90% of the land within the National Park is used for grazing as the harsh climate and poor soil is best suited to stock rearing, mainly sheep, cattle and ponies.
When the intense heat and pressure of volcanoes formed the granite of Dartmoor a rich mineral layer was also created, containing tin, copper, iron and even gold and silver. Early settlers panned for these minerals from streams, but ingenious man evolved technologies to mine underground. Mining continued on Dartmoor into the 20th century when the last mine, Gold Dagger Mine, was closed in 1930. Mining was a hard and dangerous life for men, women and children.
The wool industry has been central to the growth of Dartmoor villages and towns. Sheep were kept for their wool which had a high value and lamb was never eaten, only mutton. In the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly, many households were involved in either farming sheep, carding and spinning fleece, dyeing yarn or weaving and fulling woollen cloth. The Industrial Revolution introduced woollen mills to the area and production grew making many wealthy. Today fleeces are worth very little and sheep are mainly farmed for meat.
These days many Dartmoor folk work in the tourism industry and make it a wonderful place for people from all over the world to visit.
Myths & Legends
Oral traditions explain how people perceive the world, they transmit customs and values and also can help shape behaviour.
In a place as ancient as Dartmoor there are old tales passed down from generation to generation as stories around the fires at night and through local folk songs. Tales of ghosts, pixies, witchcraft and strange happenings, abound and it is easy to believe many of the legends when you are out walking on the moors and the mists roll in. Witches, black dogs and hairy hands await you!
Transport & Travel
People have always traversed the moor, with packhorses carrying goods on the Jobbers Road, locals carrying their dead along the coffin trails and railways bringing opportunities.
But even after millennia, the best way to see Dartmoor is still on foot. Ancient pathways crisscross the tors and valleys, the shadows of feet that have gone before, lead you along pilgrims’ trails and workers’ routes to experience the stunning scenery that has little changed.
Riding was also popular, for those who could afford a horse, and still is. Carts and carriages came with time, but these had limited access. Motor cars, charabancs and buses followed and bicycles were, and still are, a great way to follow some of the trails.
During Victorian times the railway came to the moor, opening up trade, communications and travel links to the area and bringing the first tourists to experience everything Dartmoor has to offer. Visitors kept on coming, even though the railway slowly disappeared and cars took over. In 2021 the railway once more opened to Okehampton, introducing an environmentally friendly way to access Dartmoor.