"A Brief History of Wildlife Decline since 1964"
Sally Elliott - long-term Woodbury Salterton resident, wildlife campaigner, and former Parish Tree Warden
See here for Sally's more detailed observations and reflections on birdlife in the parish,
revealed by her records of the spring dawn choruses over the last 50 years.
I have lived in Woodbury Salterton since 1964 and have seen many changes, mostly detrimental to wildlife. Back in the 1960's and 70's, the village environs offered a rich and diverse source of food and habitat compared with the present day. The lanes were much narrower, with wide verges for wild flowers. The banks were unspoilt and covered in primroses, and there was a more extensive treescape, including elms. Far less traffic, and fewer houses and street lights, meant less disturbance and habitat fragmentation. Farming practices were in harmony with the rest of the landscape and its wildlife, with smaller fields and thereby more hedgerows. Cropping rotations encouraged biodiversity, and farm machinery was considerably smaller. I remember Farmer Sage (of Bridge Farm, Woodbury Salterton) still using working horses in nearby fields up until 1970. The many small farms and their outbuildings provided a wealth of food and habitat for a range of species, and field ponds were valued for livestock.
Bill Alford cutting corn in Exton (date unknown).
Image courtesy of Roger Stokes' local history archive.
It is against this background that I have recorded the following:
Barn owls patrolled the field boundary hedgerows on a regular basis. Tawny owls flourished and raised broods - I remember seeing a line-up of five owlets on a tree in the garden. A family was consistently resident in the school's giant fir. Little owls were also present. I used to watch them in the Postlake area, and along Honey and White Cross Lanes. They were around in the daytime.
There were more surviving orchards, ponds, and odd corners of fields and neglected areas, all of which were ecological power-houses. Thereby, the number and variety of birds which could be identified in the dawn chorus was considerable.
Cuckoos were commonplace every spring, swallows and house martins thrived around small working farms, and nightingales could be heard on the approaches to the Common and on the Castle itself. Large air displays of swifts could be seen over Woodbury and other localities.
Skylarks sung over neighbouring fields and held their own up to recent years, but now are virtually silenced.
I remember watching kingfishers by Grindle brook at Grindle Bridge adjacent to Higher Greendale, now Brooklands. Wild daffodils grew in that vicinity.
Bats could be seen on most fine evenings, and a sighting could be guaranteed around street lights. The school porch was a regular nesting/ roosting site.
Cockchafer beetles blundered against the windows most nights in spring, and the variety and number of moths was astonishing by today's standards. The sound of crickets were common along the lanes during late summer.
Hedgehogs were quite frequent garden visitors, as were toads and frogs. Land-reclamation of wet areas during the late 1960's and early 70's resulted in the loss of such birds as curlews, lapwings, snipe, and woodcock. I especially remember watching and listening to curlew and lapwing on the fields north of Honey Lane, which have been obliterated since by industrial development. A large open field below the Beacon was also a favourite haunt of these lovely birds. In recent years, the buzzard has made a comeback, and the bullfinch is beginning to return to the more secluded lanes. The sighting of a goshawk in the village - which I have also heard - has proved exciting news .
From the 1980's onwards, the steady advancement of urbanisation, industrial sites, and agribusiness in the Parish, has taken a terrible toll of wildlife, and makes the above account appear as if it was written 300 years ago! Such is the pace of destructive change to which I have been a witness.
Sanctuary Lane in Woodbury Salterton, close to Winkleigh Farm.
This is one of the few places where you can still experience some of what Sally describes.
Photographed in 2014 by Diana Wackerbarth.