Book review. Dartmoor – A Statement of its Time

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Author(s): Greeves. Tom; Year published: 2010; Origin: DA Transactions; Pages: 431–432
Topic(s): agriculture, archaeology, botany, and environment; Location(s): Dartmoor

Ian Mercer, Dartmoor – A Statement of its Time (Harper Collins, London, 2009), xiv + 402 pages, numerous colour illustrations. ISBN 9780007184996 (hardback) and 9780007185009 (softback). £50. 00 (hardback), £30. 00 (softback).

This substantial volume, which is no. 111 in the prestigious ‘New Naturalist Library’, is a very worthy successor to Dartmoor (no. 27) by L. A. Harvey and D. St Leger-Gordon, first published in 1953. A splendid cover by Robert Gillmor, high-quality design, splendid images, and impressively clear cartography by Hanno Koch, are combined with a very readable and informative text by an author with impeccable credentials as a geographer, former National Park Officer and now Chairman of the Dartmoor Commoners Council. A nine-page index, laid out in three columns, is very welcome, and there are 6½ pages of further reading and bibliography.

There is nothing dull here in this most useful synthesis. The first chapter is a clear summary of the topography, history and contemporary political framework of Dartmoor. Chapter 2 explores the underlying physical structure more closely (but what does ‘sub-parallel’ mean?!). The beginnings of colonisation of the landscape, from about 15,000 BP by plants and then by humans, is very well expressed in Chapter 3. Next there is the longest chapter, which covers the last thousand years of vegetation. In an interesting discussion of maps, Mercer neatly observes that a vegetation map drawn up in 1994 makes no mention of gorse at all. He also wisely remarks on the fact that many ecologists consider a heather-dominated landscape to be ecologically impoverished. Many of the plant communities are referred to in terms of their colour: a visual approach.

Dartmoor fauna of the twenty-first century are the subject of Chapter 5 – the diversity of the symbiotic relationship with humans and plants is well-expressed on p. 167. The description of the chain of myriad creatures, and what each feeds on, is admirably presented. The chapter concludes with the statement that man ‘now has to show whether or not he can cope with the wonderful Dartmoor complex in a changing economic climate, a changing real climate and a set of changed public attitudes.’

‘Working the Landscape’ is the topic of Chapter 7, which has a somewhat male-centred bias. The exploitation of minerals and stone is covered, as well as farming. The last century of farming activity is explored in Chapter 8. Pages 309–313 comprise a particularly interesting analysis of the current state of play, revealing its complexity. Undergrazing is recognised as ‘the major management problem’. Not surprisingly, perhaps, given his background, Mercer is a supporter and advocate of ‘The Dartmoor Vision’ of 2005, but seems to have too much blind faith in its composition and what it might achieve.

New ground is broken in Chapter 9 which is titled ‘The Contemporary Conservation Scene: Its History and Its Future’. This is a most useful and important summary of how we have arrived at the current devilishly intricate situation, written by someone who has been intimately involved in much of the process, and it will stand as a text-book account. Mercer’s advocacy is for the National Park Authority to become the primary ‘conservation agent’.

The final chapter, ‘Dartmoor From Now On’, emphasises the very real threat to the continuance of moorland management by hill farmers. It is short on discussion about social and economic well-being, and on issues such as energy, but these perhaps properly fall outside the remit of the book.

The overall achievement of this book is splendid. However, the publishers of such an expensive and high-status book must be taken to task for allowing far too many minor (mostly typographical) errors to creep in, which should have been picked up by editors. Mercer himself commits a few blunders – the Devonport Leat was not begun by Francis Drake (p. 18); the land bridge to the continent was severed about 8,000 BP not 4,500 BP (p. 87); the Princetown railway was opened in 1883 not 1878 (p. 272); Sheepstor is not named after an animal (p. 8); there is no evidence for the rabbit warren at Trowlesworthy before the seventeenth century (p. 297); the tinners’ Great Court did not deal with disputes (p. 264); Fig. 202 is not of Walna tenement (p. 261); etc. Surprisingly, Pat Milton’s highly informative The Discovery of Dartmoor (2006) receives no mention. But these quibbles fade into insignificance compared to the value of the book as a whole. Ian Mercer has done Dartmoor proud and all will benefit from reading this magnum opus.

Tom Greeves
(First published in Transactions 2010)