Exploring the wild haven of Baronsdown Wildlife Sanctuary

PUBLISHED: 16:41 07 May 2019

Hazel dormice live (and sleep) at Baronsdown; a healthy dormouse population is indicative of a healthy species-rich wider environment

Hazel dormice live (and sleep) at Baronsdown; a healthy dormouse population is indicative of a healthy species-rich wider environment

Paul Tillsley

Simone Stanbrook-Byrne shares her passion for a wildlife sanctuary set among Exmoor’s southern combes and hills, one which she first visited three decades ago

There are moments in life that stay with you forever.

Early summer. Sunlight entwines itself with birdsong, trickling through the oak leaves above to dapple lush grass at my feet. A bee bumbles past. The afternoon is mellow; the countryside steeped in serene idleness. But I know that, as I am watching, so I, too, am being watched.

Way across the field, heads up, ears pricked, a herd of red deer keeps a wary eye on me. I hope they sense I'm no threat, for at my feet lies one of their offspring: a calf, just a few hours old, hidden and immobile in the long grass, awaiting mum's return. It is utterly enchanting.

I back away quietly; this brief encounter is one to treasure, my welcome not to be outstayed. Accompanied by Graham Floyd, one of the team who looks after this wildlife sanctuary at Baronsdown, I return to the waiting Landrover.

I first came to the woodlands of Baronsdown Wildlife Sanctuary, high above the Exe Valley, around 30 years ago, working with a group of volunteers on this flagship site that has belonged to the League Against Cruel Sports since the late 1950s. It is a stunningly lovely place, an enduring landscape of wind-hushed heights, deep woods and suddenly sun-drenched open spaces.

Since the initial purchase more parcels of land have been added, creating a wildlife-rich whole that has evolved to become a haven for fauna and flora of all kinds. Baronsdown is just one of five such sanctuaries in Somerset, totalling around 350 acres and augmented by the ownership of sporting rights on more than 20 other land parcels, as well as sanctuaries in other counties.

Swathes of spring bluebells carpet the woodlands of BaronsdownSwathes of spring bluebells carpet the woodlands of Baronsdown

Paul Tillsley is the head of conservation and education. Along with his wife, Michelle, Baronsdown has been his home and workplace for 19 years, giving him an extensive knowledge of the land and the wildlife that chooses to live here.

"Yet," he tells me, "I am still learning and it can still turn up surprises. On a quiet summer's evening, with the sun setting over distant Dartmoor, there can be few better places to be, but during a cold winter's day with horizontal sleet lashing down it can be rather less attractive! Wildlife is harried and exploited in many ways and these sanctuaries are some of the few places where it can get a break."

Paul's job, inevitably, carries challenges.

"Keeping on top of everything is quite a task," he says. "It involves maintaining and improving the sanctuaries for wildlife, whilst protecting them from trespass and making sure that all the legal aspects of land ownership are covered." For Paul the hard grind is balanced by the pleasure of writing about and photographing the wildlife, spreading the word about the work carried out here.

On my most recent visit to Baronsdown I discovered the newly-refurbed education centre, housed, somewhat ironically, in a building that, in the early 19th century, was the kennels of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds. Spacious and well-equipped, its walls are covered in photographs and articles; displayed on a table is an array of 'discarded' antlers, found after the stags have shed them each year. Paul explains the building's new role:

"Education is a key aspect of the League's sanctuaries. At a local level the sanctuaries show an alternative way of looking at nature, but more than that they provide an opportunity for people to engage with wildlife and to instil an appreciation of wildlife.

Red deer keep a watchful eye on visitorsRed deer keep a watchful eye on visitors

"Now that we have renovated the old kennels building on Baronsdown to create a meeting room, we plan to develop the educational side and encourage more groups to visit. We are also working with an educational partner on the production of an education programme to run in schools."

This all sounds very encouraging: teaching younger generations about the importance of wildlife as part of the ecosystems on which we all depend, as well as respecting the natural world for its own intrinsic worth, has to be a good thing. But the task is often far from easy.

I ask Paul if there is local support for what he and the sanctuaries team work so hard to achieve.

"We do get a lot of support," he replies, "but it's often 'on the quiet' as it's very difficult for people living in rural communities to openly support us." Living in a rural community myself, I can understand this; it's a well-aired and oft-divisive debate.

And the debate continues. But so do Paul and the team, tirelessly working in these wild and wonderful places to redress the balance and to conserve these oases for the legion wild creatures that call them home.

A fox cub looks inquisitively at the cameramanA fox cub looks inquisitively at the cameraman

Local groups wishing to visit can e-mail: supportercare@league.org.uk.

The wildlife of Baronsdown Wildlife Sanctuary:

Baronsdown has a wealth of well-managed habitats and Paul's enthusiasm for the wildlife with which he works is palpable.

"Red deer are the well-known stars of Baronsdown," he tells me, "but we also get roe deer and occasionally fallow deer. Other mammals include foxes, badgers, hedgehogs, rabbits, hazel dormice, mice, voles, shrews, moles, squirrels...and on one occasion a wild boar."

I confess that's one I haven't personally encountered.

"Breeding birds range from big predatory species, like buzzards, ravens, peregrines and tawny owls, to summer visitors like pied flycatchers, spotted flycatchers, redstarts and swallows."

Being Exmoor, there are many damp and aqueous areas, good habitats and breeding sites for frogs, newts and toads, as well as common lizards and slow-worms. Spring flowers are abundant and include swathes of primroses and bluebells plus patches of snowdrops and daffodils.

In the sun-splashed spaces butterfly species are vibrant, Paul tells me: "We get a lot of butterflies from the big, showy species like silver-washed fritillaries, painted ladies and red admirals, through meadow species like marbled whites, meadow browns and ringlets, to rarities such as small pearl-bordered fritillaries."

It is a diverse list. With ever-increasing pressure on natural habitats it is heart-warming to know that havens like this are set aside and managed ad perpetuum solely for the purpose of removing man-made pressures, allowing wild lives to be conducted without adverse interference.

It is a story of team dedication and determination, driven by an unswerving belief that, with no vested interest, caring for these places, these creatures, is, is, quite simply, the right thing to do.

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