Heathercombe Woodlands


The History of the Woodland Plantations

The first plantations at Heathercombe were made in the 1880’s and 1890’s by John Kitson of Torquay. He had previously bought up the farms of North and South Heathercombe, together with other adjacent farms, and built Heatree House where he sometimes resided.

These early plantations in Heathercombe extended over the upper slopes of the valley, leaving only a narrow corridor of fields on the lower western slopes for pasture. The planting was mainly conifer, particularly European Larch, Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar, but also included Horse Chestnut, Sweet Chestnut and Lime alongside the established Oak, Birch, Beech, Sycamore, Ash and Alder.

Areas adjacent to the Burn flowing down from Hameldown were planted in a similar way. The Burn itself was dammed in several places to form ponds and lakes, paths were made and Rhododendrons and Laurels were planted to form what must have been a very attractive series of woodland walks.

Today the early plantations are represented by a number of fine old Beech, Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar trees.

In the 1940’s the estate was broken up. The lakes silted up and vanished, and the paths disappeared under the Rhododendrons and Laurels. Many trees were felled during the war, and the farmland and remaining woodlands were sold to the Devon & Courtenay Clay Company. The company clear felled almost all of the remaining woodland for mining timber but entered into an agreement with the Forestry Commission to dedicate most of the land at Heathercombe to forestry.

Implementation of the tree-planting scheme agreed with the Commission started in 1949. Over the next 15 years the land that had been clear felled was replanted. About 25 hectares were planted with Japanese Larch (this species being favoured because of its suitability for pit props in the underground clay mines) together with about 5 hectares of Douglas Fir and small areas of Sitka Spruce and Norway Spruce.

In 1965 Claude Pike bought the clay company’s land in Heathercombe valley together with woodlands close by at Vogwell (‘Badger’) Wood, Lower Langdon, Gratnar and Jay’s Grave. Over the next 14 years, and in conjunction with Fountain Forestry, which has continued to manage the woodlands, he completed the tree planting scheme, predominantly with Sitka Spruce (because of its high growth rate in the very wet conditions at Heathercombe, and for the quality of its timber). By 1969 a total of 65 hectares had been planted in the valley, including the 25 hectares of Japanese Larch, 20 hectares of Sitka Spruce and 6 hectares of Douglas Fir. In addition, small plantations were made of Norway Spruce, Western Hemlock, Noble Fir, Western Red Cedar and Beech, the latter bringing the area planted with beech or mixed broadleaves up to about 6 hectares.

Rides were made through the plantations to facilitate access to the growing trees, which were thinned about every 10 years to maximise the overall timber yield.

The plantations were awarded numerous prizes at the Devon County Show for the high rate and quality of timber growth. In 1996 the Newman Perpetual Challenge Trophy for the best plantation exhibited was awarded to a 40-year old Japanese Larch plantation.

From the late 1960’s Claude and Margaret Pike set about restoring the lakes, ponds and paths. They began planting a large number of specimen trees and shrubs, including a large collection of Rhododendrons and Azaleas, in different parts of the valley, and established an arboretum close to Manwood, the house that they rebuilt in 1967.  This work was continued by John and Svetlana Pike when they assumed responsibility for Heathercombe on the death of Claude Pike in 2002. They extended the garden areas at the Lower Lake and in Burn Wood, Oak Park and the former Sitka Wood and increased the range of planting. Since 2003 the gardens have been open to the public under the National Gardens Scheme, with regular sculpture trails.

In 2010, it became apparent that a small number of Japanese Larch trees were infected with the fungal disease, Phytophthora ramorum. As a result, the Forestry Commission issued a plant health notice requiring the immediate felling and removal of all Japanese Larch trees in the valley, comprising almost 40% of all the plantations. The required work was carried out in the winter of 2010-11. As a consequence of the sudden removal of so many mature conifers, the remaining conifer plantations became very exposed to wind-throw. In each of the subsequent winters some of the remaining conifer plantations suffered wind-throw in turn, necessitating each year the clear felling of the plantations affected. The last of the ‘pure’ conifer plantations to suffer this fate – a Sitka Spruce plantation in 2017-18 – had in the previous summer been awarded a first prize in the Devon County Show.

The policy followed in replacing the conifers that were felled between 2010 and 2018 was to replace those in the lower levels of the valley with broadleaved trees – 40% of the total planted area – and those in the higher levels with a wide range of conifer species. However several areas in which conifers had been felled were left unplanted, such as Snipe Bog and parts of Oak Park, Sitka Wood and areas close to High Heathercombe, as well as other areas intended to allow wildlife to move more freely around the valley. These unplanted areas supplemented the existing extensive open areas of Heathercombe North and South Meadows, the Orchard, the Park and Heatree Down and are valuable for the biodiversity of Heathercombe.

The objective in planting the broadleaved trees was, similarly, to improve the biodiversity and amenity of the valley. Planting broadleaves instead of conifers in the lower levels was intended to enhance the character of the adjacent garden areas. They were planted in a mixture that comprised typically about 55% Sessile and Pedunculate Oak, with the remainder normally being Hazel, Silver Birch, Rowan, Hawthorn and Wild Cherry. The intention is that they will be managed to produce a crop of fine Oak trees in about 100 years. A large area of pure Hazel was planted below High Heathercombe to generate some income by regular coppicing for firewood, and to preserve the views from the residential centre. Some other areas were planted in whole or in part with Sycamore, Willow and non-native trees such as Sweet Chestnut and Norway Maple. The broadleaves are all of UK provenance except for some Pedunculate Oak and some Hazel. The total area in the valley planted with broadleaved trees is about 22 hectares.

The objective in planting the wide range of conifers was to broaden their diversity, partly as an insurance against disease, and partly to learn how the different species will respond in the event of climate change. As a result there are plantations of about 10 species including Sitka Spruce, Douglas Fir, Noble Fir, Coast Redwood, Japanese Red Cedar, Western Red Cedar, Grand Fir, Norway Spruce, Nordmann Fir and Scot’s Pine. In large areas of Newtake, which had been planted with Sitka Spruce, intense regeneration of Sitka made re-planting unnecessary. The boundaries of Newtake against the open moor and Kendon Farm were planted with either a line of Beech and Sycamore trees or a mixture of native broadleaved trees. The total area in the valley on which conifers are growing is about 33 hectares.

For a Gallery of Photographs of the Woodlands, click here >


Claude & Margaret Pike Woodlands Trust:
Trustees’ Statement of Policy and Objectives for the Management of Heathercombe Woodlands

The Trustees of the Claude & Margaret Woodlands Trust, a registered charity, acquired Heathercombe Woodlands in 2004. At that time the great majority of the woodlands in Heathercombe valley and practically all of the woodlands at Badger Wood (Vogwell Wood), Jay’s Grave Wood, Lower Langdon Wood and Gratnar Wood were planted with a limited variety of conifer species, particularly Japanese larch, Sitka spruce, Douglas fir and Norway spruce that were managed on a commercial basis. However in Heathercombe valley approximately 30 acres of land comprised deciduous woodland, fields, down, water features and gardens which were managed primarily for amenity and horticultural interest.

At their meeting on 17 December 2004, the Trustees agreed the following objectives for the management of the woodlands:

  • the protection and enhancement, in conjunction with good silvicultural practice, of the landscape and amenity value of the woodlands;
  • the advancement of wildlife conservation and biodiversity in the woodlands and adjacent environment;
  • the development of Heathercombe arboretum and collections of plants of special horticultural interest;
  • the furtherance of public access to Heathercombe and appreciation of its flora, fauna, management and history; and
  • the maintenance and development of the footpaths, lakes, waterfalls, plantings and other amenities that enhance public interest and enjoyment of the woodlands.

Since 2004 the Trustees have progressively increased the emphasis on achieving the management objectives set out above, while continuing to manage the woodlands on an essentially commercial basis with a view to financial sustainability. The felling in 2010-11 – due to Phytophthora Ramorum – of the larch plantations, comprising approximately 40% of the original plantations in Heathercombe valley, and the clear felling in subsequent years of a further approximately 25% of the original conifer plantations as a consequence of windblow, gave the Trustees the opportunity to take significant steps towards furthering the management objectives agreed in 2004.

At their meeting on 2 February 2012 the Trustees agreed a re-planting scheme for Heathercombe valley which had been discussed with Fountains Forestry and the tree and biodiversity officers of Dartmoor National Park. The scheme took account of the management objectives and also an additional objective of increasing the biodiversity of the woodlands with a view to addressing the effects of climate change and the threat of disease.

The Trustees intend to continue to develop the approximately 30 acres of land comprising deciduous woodland, fields, down, water features and gardens, to manage them primarily for amenity and horticultural interest and to continue to open the most interesting and attractive parts to the public under the auspices of the National Gardens Scheme.

For the greater area of woodland and conifer plantations the Trustees plan as follows:

Long Term Plan for Heathercombe Valley

1. The higher western slopes of the valley (approx. 17.7 hectares)

  • Species: Sitka spruce, being tolerant of exposure and currently probably the best commercial crop;
  • Purpose: to provide a reliable source of income as a contribution towards medium term financial sustainability;
  • Management objective: to optimise commercial returns.

2. The intermediate valley slopes (approx. 15.5 hectares)

  • Species: a diverse range of conifers that either have known good value as a commercial crop or that have potential as such under conditions that may emerge with climate change, namely Douglas fir, Noble fir, Grand fir, Norway spruce, Western Red cedar, Scots pine, Coast Redwood and Japanese Red cedar.
  • Purpose: (a) to test the commercial value of the different species in relation to the current and possibly changing conditions at Heathercombe and in relation to their eventual marketability, whilst contributing to financial sustainability; (b) to give members of the public, including walkers on the Mariners’ Way, the opportunity to learn about and appreciate different conifer species.
  • Management objectives: (a) to optimise the commercial returns of each species; (b) to facilitate public access.

3. The slopes immediately below Heathercombe Brake (approx. 2.4 hectares)

  • Species: hazel, being low-growing and capable of providing low-cost poles and firewood.
  • Purpose: (a) to plant with a species that will not obscure the fine views from Heathercombe Brake; (b) to provide a reliable source of income from coppiced hazel and contribute to financial sustainability.
  • Management objective: to maximise the commercial return from coppicing.

4. The lower slopes adjoining the existing deciduous woodland, fields and down (approx. 14 hectares)

  • Species: primarily mixed native broadleaves, namely pedunculate and sessile oak (c. 50%), silver birch, rowan, hawthorn and hazel, but varied in some areas with inclusions of other broadleaved species including wild cherry, small-leaved lime, field maple, sycamore, Norway maple, sweet chestnut, downy birch, alder and goat willow.
  • Purpose: (a) to create woodland habitat of native – primarily UK-provenance – broadleaved trees that is beneficial to biodiversity and wildlife; (b) to produce a crop of fine oak trees that in the long term will have a good commercial value and contribute to financial sustainability; (c) to provide a natural setting and extension for Heathercombe’s woodlands and gardens open to the public
  • Management objectives: (a) to give priority to the development of a fine crop of oak trees guided by the principles set out in the publication “Oak: Fine Timber in 100 Years” by Jean Lemaire, translated from the French by Bede Howell; (b) to foster the wildlife and amenity value of the deciduous woodland areas; (c) to facilitate public access.

5. Amenity plots, boundaries and rides

  • Species: (a) Amenity and Boundaries: Scots pine, Western Hemlock, native broadleaves incl. silver birch and rowan, wild cherry, horse chestnut and beech; (b) Rides/Public Footpaths: small-leaved lime and beech.
  • Purpose: to enhance the amenity and biodiversity of Heathercombe.
  • Management objective: to raise good quality trees, with public access.

6. Small trial plots

  • Species: Southern Beech (Rauli and Roble), European Silver fir, Pacific Silver fir, Nordmann fir etc.
  • Purpose: to provide evidence of the growth characteristics of a diverse range of trees having potential as timber crops.
  • Management objective: to raise good quality trees, with public access.

7. Open ground

  • (a) Snipe Bog; (b) East-west corridor between the open moor and Snipe Bog; (c) South Heathercombe and Heathercombe meadows; (d) Heathercombe North orchard; (e) North-south corridor between Vogwell Farm and Oak Park/Heathercombe North Meadow; (f) Heatree Down.
  • Purpose: to provide routes for wildlife to move around Heathercombe.
  • Management objective: to maintain wildlife value.

Long Term Plan for Other Areas

1. Badger Wood (approx. 5.4 hectares)

  • Species: primarily Sitka spruce with areas of beech and other native species.
  • Purpose: (a) to provide a reliable source of income as a contribution towards medium term financial sustainability; (b) to conserve the amenity and biodiversity of the deciduous woodland.
  • Management objectives: (a) to optimise commercial returns of the conifer plantation; (b) to foster the wildlife and amenity value of the deciduous woodland areas.

2. Jay’s Grave Wood (approx. 3.4 hectares)

  • Species: primarily Sitka spruce with Noble fir; near road and centre: beech.
  • Purpose: (a) to provide a reliable source of income as a contribution towards medium term financial sustainability; (b) to conserve the amenity and biodiversity of the deciduous woodland.
  • Management objectives: (a) to optimise commercial returns of the conifer plantation; (b) to foster the wildlife and amenity value of the deciduous woodland areas.

3. Lower Langdon (approx. 13.7 hectares)

  • Species: primarily: Sitka spruce, being tolerant of the damp conditions, and Norway spruce; beside lane: mixed native broadleaves and open ground; near stream: open ground.
  • Purpose: (a) to provide a reliable source of income as a contribution towards medium term financial sustainability; (b) to conserve the amenity and biodiversity of the deciduous woodland; (c) to restore Rhos pasture to the boggy areas near the stream.
  • Management objectives: (a) to optimise commercial returns of the conifer plantations; (b) to foster the biodiversity, wildlife and amenity value of the deciduous woodland and Rhos pasture bog areas.

 4. Gratnar (approx. 5.4 hectres)

  • Species: primarily Sitka spruce and Douglas fir; near stream: native broadleaves; near road: beech.
  • Purpose: (a) to provide a reliable source of income as a contribution towards medium term financial sustainability; (b) to conserve the amenity and biodiversity of the areas near the stream and road.
  • Management objectives: (a) to optimise commercial returns of the conifer plantation; (b) to foster the wildlife and amenity value of the deciduous woodland areas.

General Management Issues

Financial Sustainability
It is envisaged that the conifer timber production will be managed to generate a financial surplus that, together with modest income from hazel and other deciduous fire wood and saw mill sales, will, over time and with the benefit of more regular crop rotation, at least cover the maintenance and management costs of Heathercombe woodlands.

Pest Control

  • To avoid severe damage to the oak and other deciduous trees in Heathercombe, rendering them commercially and aesthetically valueless, it will be necessary to maintain the complete elimination of grey squirrels indefinitely. Shooting seems to be an effective means of control.
  • To avoid severe damage to young conifer and deciduous trees it will be necessary to minimise the presence of roe, fallow and red deer in Heathercombe. Shooting seems to be a reasonably effective means of control.

Invasive Species Control
Invasive alien species such as Rhododendron ponticum, Himalayan balsam and American skunk cabbage and invasive native species such as bracken will require ongoing monitoring and control or elimination.

Public Education and Access
It is intended that, with the benefit of good signage, the public will be able to learn about the flora and fauna of Heathercombe’s woodlands, including the various conifer and deciduous tree species and their management, either as walkers along the Mariners’ Way or by having access on garden open days to representative parts of the conifer plantations and deciduous woodlands.

April 2016