The 55 square miles of unique ecosystem on both land and at sea in North Devonshire that make up the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve are some of the most astoundingly beautiful anywhere in England. It varies from Lundy Island 12 miles off the coast, to sand dunes at Braunton Burrows, and broadleaf woodland further inland.
UNESCO – Who, What and Why?
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is effectively the world’s authority on the preservation of unique, interesting, and important habitats and heritage. The Pyramids at Giza are UNESCO protected, as is the Vatican, Venice and the Great Barrier Reef. A small slice of North Devon is included in this august company, which suggests its importance.
What is a Biosphere Reserve?
Literally, a biosphere is somewhere between the ground and the sky that life can exist in. A biosphere reserve like North Devon’s is an area that is preserved as a way of conserving biodiversity while allowing people to live there and maintain its traditional roles instead of being turned back to nature. According to the UN, a biosphere reserve has three roles: to conserve, to promote learning and research, and to discover ways of developing sustainably.
What’s so Special about North Devon?
The landscape of North Devon is an artificial one. It has been settled by humans since at least the Mesolithic period, which began after the last ice age 11,600 years ago and ended about 4000 BC. The woodlands that covered the moors were burned or chopped down for farm lands, sheep have been grazing for at least 3,000 years across the area, and humans have hunted and fished the area extensively.
It is not a pristine environment like parts of the Amazon jungle or the Galapagos were 200 years ago. To turn it back to its “original state” would be foolish, there was never an “original” to go back to. What has emerged in North Devon is an ecosystem that is rich in biodiversity while still being a “productive” landscape for humans. It has 63 Sites of Special Scientific Interest and is simply stunning to experience.
The ecology of the Biosphere Reserve has some rare culm grasslands, which harbour many species important to the ecology of the entire coast. Huge numbers of rare plants are found here. The dunes in the Biosphere are the biggest in the UK and are the habitat of many different birds, plants, and insects.
By studying the relationships between these creatures and their environment, it is possible to see how to conserve them in a way that does not harm the ecosystem at large.
What does being a Biosphere Reserve do?
Running a biosphere reserve is a more involved form of land and sea management. It takes the interests of the people living there, sustainability, and research into new methods and balances them all. People still live there normally but they are encouraged to do things differently. Experiments with management methods and techniques are carried out to see if there are lessons the British environments could learn from. Clean ups, like the recent attempts to prevent runoff into the River Taw, encourage more sustainable techniques in farming and measure their results to see if it worked.
One of the main roles of the Biosphere is to educate people. Local children are very involved in the Biosphere Reserve and get to take part in the research and conservation efforts. You can join in too, just look for the North Devon Biosphere Team.
Farming in the Biosphere Reserve
Farming is still common in the Biosphere. Devon produces a lot of dairy and sheep products and the relationship between the land and industry have to be carefully managed. The economic needs of the farmers are very important and the way it is run reflects this. More sustainable methods of farming have been developed and the benefits to the farmers are clear. With everyone onside, the Biosphere promotes the integration of environmental and economic development in a sustainable way.
Visiting the Biosphere Reserve
A biosphere is not like a national park, it is accessible as much as any other land in the UK is. The towns around the area are normal towns and open for visiting. They are just taking part in a big experiment. You can visit any of the areas in the Biosphere (with a few small exceptions) and enjoy them.
However, be aware that you are in a protected and important ecosystem. Try to leave no trace. Pick up any litter you find and do not leave your rubbish behind. The dunes are a delicate ecosystem that are the homes to many different creatures, you should not run around in them or you might destroy nests and disturb animals. Stick to the paths, take some binoculars and a good camera, and enjoy!