Wild Pear Beach - how wild is it?


Over the last year or so, I have been seeking out the wilder places on my walks, and working out what it is that makes them wild (see Walking the wild places (1)). At the same time, my review of wildland in Europe turned up increasing evidence of national protected area systems that set out to maintain the wildness in protected areas, and that had a keen sense of what that meant (2). Thus in the protected area legislation of many countries across Europe – from Portugal to the Ukraine, and from Norway to Greece – can be found restrictions on extractive use as well as on physical development as the means for protection. Some key words in the legislation are (number of countries out of 45):
ecosystems” (31), “natural processes” (18), “biological diversity” (18), “biocenosis” (12), “ecological balance” (7), “natural balance” (7), “natural resources” (5), “natural areas” (5), “natural ecosystems” (4)

A widespread aim in this legislation is of “undisturbed natural development; undisturbed natural environment; undisturbed life cycles; undisturbed natural processes and dynamic development; undisturbed state; undisturbed progression, as far as possible, of natural processes in their natural dynamics; undisturbed by human intervention; natural processes, in their natural dynamics, can take place in the most undisturbed manner possible; habitats that are kept in an undisturbed state as possible; ensuring long-term undisturbed natural processes and dynamic developments; undisturbed life balance; a largely undisturbed natural environment”

This is evidence of a rich language that while it does not use the words “wild” or “wilderness” is synonymous with that state of the natural world. Thus it is interesting to see the term biocenosis used, which was coined by Karl Möbius in 1877 to describe a community of biologically integrated and interdependent plants and animals (3). Möbius recognised that an ecological system must be taken as a whole, a living community. This principle would appear also to be the basis for wildland protection in much of European protected area legislation, that an ecological system must be taken as a whole and safeguarded.

The greatest restrictions on use across that legislation occur for protected area types that are classified as IUCN Category Ia&b protected areas (4).Thus of the 38 countries across Europe that classify protected areas in IUCN Categories Ia&b, eleven have Strict Nature Reserve as a protected area type in their national legislation. A further 21 have protected area types that are also based on restrictions on extractive activity and are called State Nature Reserve, National Nature Reserve, Scientific Reserve, Absolute Nature Reserve Area, Integral Reserve, Forest Reserve, and Protected area of national interest - Nature Reserve. The legislation for these protected area types use phrases such as:

  • excludes any human intervention in natural processes

  • without human intervention

  • minimal human intervention

  • Habitats are called natural when their existence is not due to human intervention

  • self-regulation without direct human intervention

  • complete and permanent cessation of direct human intervention in the health of ecosystems

  • nature protection is the restriction of interventions that can endanger, damage or destroy conditions and forms of life

  • the undisturbed, dynamic development be left and in which all human activities are undesirable

  • to be left undisturbed by human intervention as possible

You will probably not be surprised that the UK has no protected areas classified in IUCN Category I – or II and III. That puts us in a minority of one in the 45 countries across Europe, but we also don’t have any of that rich language in our protected area legislation either. Our lack of breadth of protected areas led to a letter being sent in December 2009 to the IUCN-UK Committee by Nikita Loupukhine, Chair of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas (5). He considered the UK to be lagging behind other European countries in the quality of its reporting of protected areas. He encouraged the IUCN-UK National Committee to work with its members and the wider protected area community to consider a more thorough use of the IUCN categories nationally. He wrote that this was particularly important as the reporting of protected areas using the category system is a requested action in the Program of Work on Protected Areas under the Convention on Biological Diversity, to which the UK is a signatory (6). In response to this request, IUCN-UK set up a project - Putting Nature on the Map - which began in September last year (7).

Non-intervention means doing nothing

It will be interesting to watch the progress of this project. I have some involvement with its advisory panel, and made the point at outset that the current legislation supporting terrestrial designations in the UK was not intended to safeguard protected areas in IUCN Categories I, II or III, as it was either based on individual species and habitats, or on scenic beauty, rather than it is the case elsewhere in Europe, where there is area protection for whole ecosystems through restriction of extractive activity. The emphasis thus in UK legislation is on regular management intervention to maintain stasis. The “biodiversity” in the mostly secondary habitats associated with our main type of protected area - Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI - IUCN Category IV) - requires extractive or management activity to maintain those species and habitats in the face of the natural dynamics of whole ecosystems.

There will be a measure of the statutory agencies and NGOs identifying those SSSI where no or minimal intervention is already the management approach, and I gave the example of Lady Park Wood NNR in the Wye valley (8) and Ling Gill NNR a ravine woodland in North Yorks (see Walking the wild places (1). There are also examples of local initiative either by statutory agencies, or voluntary organisations with the concurrence of statutory agencies, where ecological restoration is taking place on individual units of SSSIs through exclusion of livestock grazing, combined sometimes with tree planting, such as at Scar Close and South House Moor in Ingleborough NNR (see Walking the wild places (1) and Carrifran Wildwood in the Borders (see Woodland creation - in need of strategic direction and larger scale (9). These new wildwoods are the secondary wilderness areas of the future.

The timescale of these initiatives range from 10-35 years during which extensive change has occurred in the vegetation of the units such that they are or will very shortly be failing evaluation under the Common Standards Monitoring (CSM) guidance for SSSIs – they have not been held in stasis to a set of attribute targets, as is required under the guidance (10). Their continuing trajectory towards functioning whole ecosystems is thus outside of the current statutory process of nature conservation in the UK, and could be lost at any time if the support for these local initiatives is reversed. Some tinkering with the notification, or interpretation of the guidance, may in some cases forestall this threat, but it is not a long term basis for securing the classification of areas in the UK in IUCN Category I. It’s a can of worms that still eludes proper discussion, and it will continue to do so as long as there is a conservation industry in the UK that feeds off funding for intervention management – non-intervention as in doing nothing doesn’t need funding.

It is generally regarded that non-intervention succeeds in meeting the objectives of SSSI designation in the UK only in the very few areas that are outside of extractive use, and where the natural forces of sun, wind and rain plus the underlying soil conditions are the primary determinants of vegetation cover. The absence of any significant large wild herbivore activity in these places is either because of their inaccessibility, or can be logically justified by the absence also of the modifying affects of large wild carnivore interaction. Amongst these are the seashore between high and low tide; rocks and screes; cliffs and ravines; some ancient woodland such as Scar and Castlebeck Woods (see The most natural succession of woodland (11)); a very few bogs and fens; and a very small part of our mountain top area. They tend to be places with extremes of exposure or moisture, or are inaccessible.

I am looking always, when I go walking now, to see if can identify parts of SSSIs that appear to have no management intervention, and which are shaped by those natural forces so that they would be consistent with classification in IUCN Category I. I had thought I had seen a potential example last December in the ancient ash woodland of Dovedale Wood, on the western side of the valley of Dove Dale NNR in Derbyshire (see in The Tayside beavers - living wild and free in Scotland (12)). I thought the steepness of this valley side, that is dotted through with towering ivy-clad limestone pinnacles, had probably kept the woodland safe from sheep grazing and perhaps much else in the way of intervention. It is by far the most interesting aspect of the Dale because of the apparent inaccessibility and the appearance of a freely evolving landscape. However, the Condition assessment of Units 37 and 41 of the SSSI from February 2008 tell me that there had been some cattle grazing (on this slope??!) and that scrub clearance had taken place around the pinnacles of the Twelve Apostles to open them up to view (13) a typical estate management approach of the National Trust. As the assessment noted, the clearance had led to a lot of new young ash saplings developing, locking the National Trust into similar clearance on a regular basis. Thus it fails on non-intervention.

Maritime cliffs and slopes

Three weeks ago, I walked parts of the dramatic coast between Combe Martin and Lynmouth in North Devon. For some truly inaccessible landscape, the coastal cliffs that tower up from Wild Pear Beach combine the sheer geology of Lester Cliff with a complex clothing of vegetation, shaped by maritime exposure and the thinness of soils. Here you can see small scrubby trees hugging the sheer slope, hardly forming a canopy, their small size belying their age. They are the deciduous trees of ash, rowan, birch, blackthorn and oak that are colourless in mid-March except for the yellow of the hazel catkins, but also the dark green of the windswept evergreen yew, and that of the ivy that drapes and falls down the rocky surfaces. Perhaps there was one wild pear identifiable from the narrow and enclosed path from the beach, but the understorey where a canopy had formed was rich in ferns and wood spurge, wild privet, and with wild madder growing up through an occasional gorse. As the cliff reaches over its apex, the trees are larger but shaped like an octopus as they grow shrubbily and bend inland from being blown by the wind. A luxuriant swathe of woodrush carpets the undergrowth there, along with wood sorrel, celandine, arum, and more ivy. There is then, immediately across the other side of the coastal path, a sharp transition as the land becomes physically accessible and is predictably the improved grassland of farming. It jars heavily. It leaves hanging the question of what would be the natural state of that land if it too was left to natural forces.

The beach is certainly left to natural forces between high and low water, but it would appear also to be the case from the high water mark to the base of the cliffs where fresh water falls and seeps on to the beach The beach is about 150 metres long and is a mixture of sand; scattered rocks that are striated with mauve-purple and dull gold, and spotted with dark green; and sand-scoured fissured reefs. Rising above this are the exposed patterns of the Variscan fold structures in the slates and limestones of the cliffs, from the characteristic fish-hook folds of the thin limestones to the larger folds of the slate. Low water reveals a few small sea caves in the making with their encrusted sponges, and the rock pools with coloured seaweeds, little pink forests of the coralline alga, naked green sea anemones, and occasional blenny. The seaweed flora on exposed rock surfaces and reddish orange of sponges on underhangs, attract grazing snails such as limpets, top shells and periwinkles. I was fortunate to be on the beach at an exceptionally low tide, as the normally submarine forest of kelp was exposed, revealing the tree-root like structure of its feet that cling to the rocks.

The degree of exposure is one of the many factors determining the distribution and occurrence of the varied marine life of Wild Pear Beach, along with the composition and configuration of the rock in the way it has fissures and crevices, the character of its weathered surface, and the direction and amount of beach slope is also important. These features and the conditions of exposure predict the flora and fauna of the area between high and low tide. In a delightful find, I came across a manual from the Field Studies Council from 1961 that uses the observed flora and fauna of rocky shores as an indicator of the position on a biologically-defined scale for the extent of exposure (14). Wild Pear Beach is “moderately exposed”, the force of the waves over long periods resulting in a gently sloping, relatively flat shore (15).

As the rocky cove of Wild Pear Beach arcs around eastward beyond Lester Cliffs to below Little Hangman, the slope is less and the sun plays on it for much longer during the day. The lower slopes above the exposed rock here have maritime grassland, stable to the encroachment of shrubs and small trees, which themselves grow on the wetter, deeper soils upslope as a mix with more gorse and bramble, and grading into a dotting of heath and gorse, before giving way to a wide band of unenclosed grassy heathland and gorse that fringes along the coastal axis, and separates the coastal cliff edge from the improved grass of farmland. It is that heath of ling and bell heather on these easier slopes and relatively flatter terrain that slots this land into the management pattern that is seen along much of this length of North Devon coast. It is a landscape managed by swailing (burning), mechanical scrub clearance, and by grazing with sheep, reminiscent of common land but only portions of which are registered as such. It is very hard to see where, or if there is any natural heathland along this length, spared from incursion by trees and blackthorn through the severity of coastal exposure at cliff apices. The presence of scattered rowan saplings in from these apices, and thus in from the boundary of physical accessibility for grazers (but where physical management methods would be difficult) pretty much confirms that conclusion.

Lester Cliff, Wild Pear Beach and a swathe of the inaccessible lower slope toward Little Hangman, form Units 4 and 7 of the Hele, Samson’s and Combe Martin Bays SSSI. This is an Earth Heritage designation, a SSSI notified for its geological features and these are the attributes that are monitored in the Condition assessment for the SSSI. You would not be surprised that the Condition assessment from February 2009 has this (16):
“Exposure is generally very good from a couple of metres above high tide mark to below low tide. The geological interest is maintained by natural coastal processes, which operate unconstrained”

These vegetated maritime cliffs and steep slopes above Wild Pear Beach, and the fabulous beach itself, which together make up Units 4 and 7 are certainly worthy of classifying in IUCN Category I. However, this same area is also covered by the Exmoor Coastal Heaths SSSI (17). As its name implies, it lumps the Earth Heritage Units 4 and 7 into a much larger Unit that stretches eastwards along the coastal cliff, and includes the managed heathland that starts just before Little Hangman and that swings past it along the top of the cliffs to Rawn’s Rocks. This larger Unit 1 is designated as “Dwarf shrub heath – upland”. The condition assessment ignores the Earth Heritage area of the Unit other than to comment on the “difficult access amongst tall scrub cover and long steep slopes” and then zeros in on the managed heath above it, remarking that "bracken and gorse cover, as well as bramble too high in places, with eastern section little grazed”. However, there is “high grazing pressure in west and upper slope”, which is the area adjacent to the Earth Heritage area.

This too begs the question of what would be the natural state overall of Unit 1 if it were left to natural forces that certainly seem capable of maintaining without intervention the rich and varied vegetation cover of the inaccessible cliffs and slopes. In fact the latter is explicitly recognised in the Condition assessment for Unit 24 of the Exmoor Coastal Heaths SSSI, an area further east from Wild Pear Beach that covers the coastal cliffs from just before Blackstone Point eastward to another point at The Mare and Colt. This was “surveyed by boat” in December 2010 and consequently “No samples individually assessed as any maritime grassland and rock crevice/ledge vegetation is inaccessible”. The “habitat mosaic of mixed scrub, gorse, bracken, heath, maritime grassland and bare ground/rock habitats” had to be visually baseline mapped from the boat, with the comment that these “appear to be climax communities maintained by moderate exposure to salt spray”. It remarks that most of the “ungrazed climactic Maritime grassland” met the targets for vegetation structure and composition (only most?!), and that bracken and scrub were “suppressed by exposure & erosion in maritime climax community”. It seems perverse that this Unit is also designated “Dwarf shrub heath – upland” since the ecology described in the Condition assessment of the inaccessible areas has very little in common with the managed heathland above the apices and of the Units adjacent to it, much in the same way that the ecology of the Earth Heritage areas of Wild Pear Beach have little in common with the adjacent managed heathland there.

Coastal and inland woodland

There are stretches of canopy woodland along this coast, as could be expected from its name as you reach Woody Bay after walking along the cliffs from Highveer Point. I could not see the climax communities of the steeper slopes below the path (its condition assessed by boat again!) but they had graded into the managed heathland on the accessible lesser slope across which the path traverses and, as expected, this heathland is dotted with rowan saplings indicating that it wasn’t a climax community. The managed heathland is consistent with it being in Unit 20 of the West Exmoor Coast and Woods SSSI (18) but what about the ungrazed climactic communities of the inaccessible slopes that are also in this Unit of the SSSI?

The woods on the contour of this path came later after it had turned briefly inland at Hollow Brook Coombe, where Hollow Brook dropped through a series of waterfalls, over the path and on down the widening coombe (a short valley or hollow on a hill or coastline) before the last drop into the sea. Areas of low, scrubby oak woodland and ivy clothed the steep, rocky sides of the narrow coombe above the path, and yew tumbled from its eastern side down to the bottom of the coombe. This is a delightful spot, and marked the beginning of an increasingly wooded section of the coastal path, albeit with only scattered trees either side at first.

The dormancy of late winter is a good time to observe the shaping of trees by natural forces, as the spindly tracery of their wind shaped branches is easier seen without the leaves. Oak clings to the rising surface where it is most exposed on steep cliffs, the crown of the tree looking like the tentacles of an octopus. As the maritime cliffs turned in towards a sheltered bay, the woodland closes in as the trees of West Woodybay Wood straighten and grow taller, covering the whole of the long slope that rises above the path, and falls down all the way to give glimpses of the sea below. With a canopy here, ivy, mosses and small ferns clothe the oak, holly is dotted throughout, and the understorey is luxuriant with woodrush.

West Woodybay Wood is a part of Unit 14 of the West Exmoor Coast and Woods SSSI, which also contains East Woodybay Wood. Both woods are ancient, and the Unit is designated for “Broadleaved, mixed and yew woodland – upland” (18). The Condition assessment from last August notes in relation to the lichen assemblage that “rhododendron clearance well underway but grazing restoration will be necessary to maintain recovery”. Rhododendron is a non-native scourge, and the ecology of our native woodland is disrupted by the way it grows. Thus its removal is a worthwhile measure, and not just for what effect it may have on lichen growth. It is the case that I didn’t notice any rhododendron in West Woodybay Wood. However, the prescription for grazing is straight out of the dogma manual in the mind-numbingly simple equation that says if all the understory is cleared out by grazing, even the native ground cover, then the lichens will not be overshadowed and will grow. Fortunately, West Woodybay Wood does not appear to be stockproof, and so it is very unlikely to be grazed. If the lack of any obvious management now is maintained, then this coastal woodland out to the waterfall is a wild and exciting walk that could be classified as IUCN Category I.

For a comparison, I walked in a large woodland area a short way inland from the coast, but which also had steep slopes as it occupies the deep and winding valley system of the East Lyn river and its tributaries near Lynmouth. I walked north through woodland from Hillsford Bridge by the side of Hoaroak Water until Watersmeet, where it joins the East Lyn river, and then made a loop eastward along by the river though Horner Neck Wood, crossing at Ash Bridge and returning on its south bank through Border Wood to Watersmeet. This was just part of the extensive area of ancient oak woodland that hugs the valley sides, and which gave a great opportunity to see the variation in composition and growth between north and south facing slopes, and of the well-drained, poor soils of the valley tops down to the nutrient rich, wetter and deeper soils of the lower slopes and valley bottoms. Thus on the uppermost slopes, scattered birch mix with octopus-shaped and clinging oak. Oak dominates the mid-slope closed canopy, even on the steepest scree slopes, where again it may show signs of shaping from exposure. Lower down on deeper soil it is joined by an understorey of hazel, rowan, occasional spindle, and holly, but with ash occurring on mid-slope wet flush areas. On the lowest slopes and in the valley bottoms, the soil is richer and the water table is permanently high. This is where ash, alder, willow and some Wych elm replace the oak in the canopy.

You can, however, trace a history of woodland management and use that cuts across the natural sequence. The remnants of a former crop of larch can be seen in the more easily accessible slopes in part of Barton Wood, and which were then replaced by beech. There is little understorey growth here, its suppression started with the larch and is continued by the beech. Watersmeet SSSI covers all this valley woodland, and the route I walked sits in Unit 2 of the SSSI (19). The Condition assessment from August 2010 notes that Barton Wood fails to meet the target for the Composition Attribute “because of the excessive amount of beech that was found during the current survey”. Then, looking immediately across Hoaroak Water, the east facing slope below the road is recently coppiced along its entire length. I won’t be taking the path along there. Up over the road and along the valley side that runs from Myrtleberry Cleve up to Hillsford Bridge, the woodland composition is suspiciously uniform. A clue to as to why this is so comes from the notification for the SSSI:
“In some parts of the woodland, the natural sequence has been significantly altered by past management. Thus, pure oak coppice occupies the valleyside from top to bottom; the usual tree and understorey species largely having been selected out. Grasses now dominate the ground flora where stock grazing has been a long-standing practice”

The water courses in these wooded valley arms have great energy, with rocky stretches, cascades, pools and waterfalls, making the combination of mostly natural woodland and water irresistible as an experience of wild nature, and especially the verdant dampness of mosses, lichens and wetland plants. That natural forces can shape this woodland is self-evident, and brings an expectation and an excitement to their exploration. It will take a commitment though over a long term to see those natural sequences restored for the most part of these woodlands, begging the question of whether the more natural species distributions should be restored before non-intervention becomes the rule.

It is these hard issues that have to be faced, as well as the principle of non-intervention, if we are ever to have any of our protected areas classified under IUCN Category I. They bring in to question whether our protected area system of SSSIs is in any way fit for that purpose, especially since its main aim is to maintain a stasis that is offset from a climactic community. The spatial division of SSSI into Units seems a blunt tool for ecological discrimination most illogically when it incorporates a road, as is the case for Unit 2 of Watersmeet SSSI, but also when it combines evident non-intervention areas along with managed areas, as do most of the Units along the maritime cliffs. It is only at Wild Pear Beach where the non-intervention areas are spatially discriminated, but that is because a geological SSSI overlays a biological SSSI. We need to recognise what makes Wild Pear Beach what it is, what Hollow Brook Coombe to West Woodybay Wood as well as Watersmeet could be, and bring about the wholesale reform of our protected area system so that wild, non-intervention areas can exist for their own sake, and not by default.

Mark Fisher 5 April 2011

(1) Walking the wild places, Self-willed Land September 2010


(2) Fisher, M., Carver, S. Kun, Z., McMorran, R., Arrell, K. and Mitchell, G. (2010). Review of Status and Conservation of Wild Land in Europe. Project commissioned by the Scottish Government


(3) Karl August Möbius, Kiel University, Germany


(4) Guidelines for Applying Protected Area Management Categories, IUCN 2008


(5) Putting Nature on the Map, Protected Areas Project, IUCN-UK


 (6) Review of implementation of the programme of work on protected area, Protected areas, Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity 9/18, Bonn, 2008


(7) Putting Nature on the Map – a project to identify and categorise the places in the UK where the conservation of nature and landscape comes first, IUCN-UK


(8) Lady Park Wood NNR, Natural England


(9) Woodland creation - in need of strategic direction and larger scale, Self-willed Land November 2008


(10) Key aspects of Common Standards Monitoring (CSM), Joint Nature Conservation Committee


(11) The most natural succession of woodland, Self-willed Land November 2009


(12) The Tayside beavers - living wild and free in Scotland, Self-willed Land January 2011


(13) Dove Valley And Biggin Dale SSSI, Natural England


(14) Ballantine, W.J. (1961) A biologically-defined exposure scale for the comparative description of rocky shores, Field Studies 1:1-17


(15) Ilfracombe to Combe Martin, Aethne Cooke, Rockpooling Reports, British Marine Life Study Society


(16) Hele, Samson's And Combe Martin Bays SSSI, Natural England


(17) Exmoor Coastal Heaths SSSI, Natural England


(18) West Exmoor Coast And Woods SSSI, Natural England


(19) Watersmeet SSSI, Natural England



www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk