Call of the wild

3rd February 1995 at 00:00
Mike Fielding finds out what attracts schools to Exmoor's rugged landscape Riders silhouetted against a billowing sky; red deer alertly grazing in a shaded hollow; a circle of shaggy coated ponies. These and many other images are what bring more than a million visitors a year to Exmoor, even though it's one of Britain's smallest national parks.

They also help generate a thousand written enquiries a year from school and youth groups to Dave Gurnett, the park's education ranger. Based in Dulverton on the Devon and Somerset border, Dave splits his work between providing information, visiting schools and helping parties to make the most of their time on the moor.

The idea of a national park - not belonging to the nation and not really a park - is difficult to convey. When working with small children, Dave talks about Yogi Bear, Booboo and the Jellystone Park they have seen on television. It may not be strictly accurate but it grabs their imagination.

"I want them to understand that Exmoor is a living, working landscape that belongs to farmers," he says. But Exmoor also contains a multitude of learning opportunities and visitor enquiries range from nursery schools to higher education institutions.

Whether it's a simple nature walk, outdoor pursuits of the safer sort or serious study of the politics and economics of conservation, Exmoor can provide a suitable focus. A mix of farmland, moor and heath, it covers 267 sq miles (692 sq km) of Devon and Somerset and has the biggest population of red deer in the country. The deer have lived on Exmoor since prehistoric times. Stag-hunting is a popular pastime for residents of the moor but also a focus of fierce debate, particularly among visitors.

The other main animal attraction is the Exmoor pony, with its double-coat protection against the weather. No longer strictly wild - all the herds are owned and protected - the ponies roam freely on the moor in even the most bitter winters. Equally tough are the 500,000 sheep (50 to every human being) which are still the main source of farming income.

People have eked a living on Exmoor since the Mesolithic period, first as hunters then as farmers and now extensively from tourism. The economy thrives on visitors, but they do bring an environmental and social cost. Too many walking boots on narrow paths, vehicles down twisting lanes and sightseers at certain viewpoints add to the need for conservation. And that's part of the National Parks Authority's role.

"Conservation, recreation and community," says Dave Gurnett. "These are key responsibilities for everyone interested in the moor."

It is the conservation aspect which attracts many young people anxious to learn by doing. There are opportunities for helping with tree planting, rhododendron clearing or, as 350 Minehead children recently discovered, spreading bark to help keep paths intact.

Dave and his ranger colleagues promote a wide range of activities from bug hunting to woodcraft skills. There is also an organisation to take you on safari in pursuit of the Exmoor beast. Once, beast sightings were rare; now they are more frequent and usually attributed to the release of pumas previously cared for on behalf of zoos.

As well as its wildlife attractions, Exmoor can also be a romantic place and tourists from all over the world come to to view the sites described in Lorna Doone, and there are also well recorded visits to the area by Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley and Southey.

Many of the Romantic poets were attracted by the rugged coastline and steep wooded combes reaching out to the sea. The most famous of these contain the East and West Lyn Rivers which on the night of August 15, 1952 burst onto the small town of Lynmouth killing 34 people.

The Lyn and Exmoor Museum at Lynton tells the story of that fearful night in pictures and graphic description. Five other museums in the area contain exhibitions of moorland life over the centuries.

Exmoor is a place of many moods. In summer, with buzzards wheeling beneath blue skies, it can seem idyllic. More often, however, it is wet. The high moor causes damp warm air from the Atlantic to rise, cool and drop its moisture at a rate of 2,000mm a year in the wettest places. Snow can block narrow lanes and cut off isolated farmsteads for weeks at a time. When that happens, helicopters fly in fodder for both domestic and wild animals. Many of the moor's most interesting terrain is inaccessible to coaches, so school parties are encouraged to visit in minibuses.

As Dave Gurnett says, "you can learn a lot in a day," but for groups wanting a more extended visit there are several residential centres including the Exmoor's own Pinkery Centre for Outdoor Education.

o Further information: Dave Gurnett, Education Ranger, Exmoor National Park Dept, Exmoor House, Dulverton, Somerset TA22 9HL. Tel: 01398 23665. Visitors Centres at Combe Martin (01271 883319); Dunster (01634 821835) County Gate, Countesbury (015987 321); Dulverton (01398 23481); and Lynmouth (01598 52509).

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