Dartmoor’s modern landscape owes much of its modern character to human activity, especially farming. As climate warmed following the end of the last Ice Age, trees spread across Dartmoor, but palaeo-environmental research tells us people were impacting this new environment within a few millennia. However it was not until the introduction of agriculture after c. 4,000BC that this intensified and the evidence suggests that the tree cover was steadily reduced.
By the start of the Bronze Age around 2,000BC Dartmoor’s landscape was largely open with blanket peat developing on higher ground. Abundant fungal spores from species which grow on animal dung at this time suggest the moor was used extensively for grazing and, by around 1,600 BC we see the first evidence of the farms themselves in the shape of the famous Dartmoor reaves. These are extensive landscapes containing the well-preserved remains of field systems mixed with settlements suggesting Dartmoor was home to a large farming population. We know little of farming practices after the reaves were abandoned around 1,200BC, but it is likely the moors continued to be used for grazing.
By the medieval period we have documentary evidence as well as archaeology which gives us a more detailed picture of farming at this time. Population expansion in the first part of this period drove expansion of farming onto the fringes of the moors with settlements of longhouses; rectangular buildings in which humans lived at one end and livestock at the other, being established among systems of fields which were used to grow oats and barley as well as graze livestock. The wider moorlands were important for the whole of Devon at this time as they were used as summer grazing with livestock being driven to the uplands in the summer from as far away as the south coast.
During the late 18th and early 19th century, as part of a general interest in agricultural innovation, a group of wealthy landowners acquired land on Dartmoor and began attempting to improve it using modern techniques. They established new farms and built huge enclosures, creating another layer in Dartmoor’s farming landscape. By the 1830s Dartmoor’s unsuitability for improvement of the kind envisaged was becoming apparent and activity reduced with many of the new farms becoming abandoned over the course of the next century.
Today, there are places on Dartmoor where the lines of Bronze Age field boundaries still define the modern fields while in others the enclosures are the product of 18th and 19th century surveyors. Elsewhere, modern moorland contains the traces of entire landscapes of fields, settlements and tracks where Bronze Age farmers or medieval peasants lived and worked for generations. It is no exaggeration to say that Dartmoor’s landscape is to a large degree the product of its farming past
Find out more about human history on Dartmoor
Find out more about Dartmoor's geology
Visit Dartmoor Archive for early images of Dartmoor