Wistman's Wood

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Wistman's Wood
Site of Special Scientific Interest
Wistman's Wood in winter
Area of Search Devon
Grid reference SX612774
Interest Biological
Area 3.5 hectare
Notification 1964
Location map English Nature

Wistman's Wood is one of only three remote high-altitude oakwoods on Dartmoor, Devon, England.[1] It lies at an altitude of 380–410 metres in the valley of the West Dart River near Two Bridges, at grid reference SX612774.

This is one of the highest oakwoods in Britain and, as an outstanding example of native upland oak woodland, was selected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1964.[2] It is also an NCR site and forms part of the Wistman’s Wood National Nature Reserve. The wood was also one of the primary reasons for selection of the Dartmoor Special Area of Conservation.[3]

The wood is split into three main blocks (North, Middle and South Groves or Woods), which in total cover about 3.5 ha. These occupy sheltered, south-west facing slopes, where a bank of large granite boulders (clitter) is exposed, and pockets of acid, free-draining, brown earth soils have accumulated. It is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall and has been managed since 1961 under a nature reserve agreement with the Nature Conservancy Council, English Nature and Natural England. There is no active management, but many people visit the site on foot (mostly accessing the southern end of South Wood), and cattle and sheep have free access where the terrain permits, outside of a inside a small fenced exclosure in South Wood.

The vegetation conforms mostly to W17a Quercus petraea-Betula pubescens-Dicranum majus woodland, Isothecium myosuroides-Diplophyllum albicans sub-community in the British National Vegetation Classification. The trees are mainly pedunculate oak, with occasional rowan, and a very few holly, hawthorn, hazel, and eared-willow. Tree branches are characteristically festooned with a variety of epiphytic mosses and lichens and, sometimes, by grazing-sensitive species such as bilberry and polypody. On the ground, boulders are usually covered by lichens and mossy patches – frequent species include Dicranum scoparium, Hypotrachyna laevigata, Rhytidiadelphus loreus and Sphaerophorus globosus – and, where soil has accumulated, patches of acid grassland grow with heath bedstraw, tormentil and sorrel. In places protected from livestock, grazing-sensitive plants such as wood sorrel, bilberry, wood rush and bramble occur. A fringe of bracken surrounds much of the wood demarking the extent of brown earth soils.

Photographic and other records show that Wistman’s Wood has changed considerably since the mid-nineteenth century; at the same time climatic conditions have also generally improved.[4][5] Not only have the older oak trees grown from a stunted/semi-prostrate to a more ascending form, but a new generation of mostly straight-grown and single-stemmed oaks has developed. The oldest oaks appear to be 200–400 years old and originated within a degenerating oakwood that survived in scrub-form during two centuries of cold climate. In c.1620 these old trees were described as "no taller than a man may touch to top with his head". Tree height increased somewhat by the mid-nineteenth century, and during the twentieth century approximately doubled (in 1997 the maximum and average height of trees was around 12 m and 7 m respectively).[5] In addition, a wave of marginal new oaks arose after c.1900, expanding the area of wood approximately twofold. Part of the evidence for these changes comes from a permanent vegetation plot located in the southern end of South Wood. This is the oldest known its kind in British woodland, with a small part having been recorded by Hansford Worth in 1921.[6]

The wood has been the inspiration for numerous artists, poets, photographers and appears in hundreds of nineteenth century accounts.[7] It is described in detail and discussed as a point of great interest in The Tree, a 1978 essay on naturalism by English novelist John Fowles.

The name of Wistman's Wood may derive from the dialect word 'wisht' meaning 'eerie/uncanny',[8] or ‘pixie-led/haunted’.[9] The legendary Wild Hunt in Devon is particularly associated with Wistman's Wood – the hellhounds of which are known as Yeth (Heath) or Wisht Hounds in the Devonshire dialect.[10]

The source of the Devonport Leat, at a weir on the West Dart River, is just north of the wood.


  1. ^ The other two are Black Tor Beare at SX565892 and Piles Copse at SX644620.
  2. ^ "Natural England - SSSIs : SSSI information". www.english-nature.org.uk. Retrieved 2008-10-13.  Choose "View citation" to access the citation (pdf file).
  3. ^ Dartmoor SAC web page http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/ProtectedSites/SACselection/sac.asp?EUCode=UK0012929
  4. ^ Proctor, M.C.F., Spooner, G.M. and Spooner, M. 1980. Changes in Wistman’s Wood, Devon: photographic and other evidence. Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science Volume 112, Pages 43-79.
  5. ^ a b Mountford, E,P., Backmeroff, C.E. and Peterken, G.F. 2001. Long-term patterns of growth, mortality, regeneration and natural disturbance in Wistman’s Wood, a high altitude oakwood on Dartmoor. Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science Volume 133, Pages 231-262.
  6. ^ Christy, M. and Worth, R.H. 1922. The ancient dwarfed oak woods of Dartmoor. Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science Volume 54, Pages 291-342.
  7. ^ Legendary Dartmoor web page http://www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk/wistman.htm
  8. ^ Westwood, Jennifer (1985), Albion. A Guide to Legendary Britain. Pub. Grafton Books, London. ISBN 0-246-11789-3. P. 32.
  9. ^ Eric Hemery (1983). High Dartmoor. London: Robert Hale. pp. 454–455. ISBN 0-7091-8859-5. 
  10. ^ Westwood, Jennifer (1985), Albion. A Guide to Legendary Britain. Pub. Grafton Books, London. ISBN 0-246-11789-3. P. 155 - 156.

Further reading[edit]

  • Worth, R. Hansford (1967). Worth's Dartmoor, new edition. Newton Abbot: David & Charles. pp. 74–83. 

Coordinates: 50°34′40″N 3°57′41″W / 50.57778°N 3.96139°W / 50.57778; -3.96139