Escape to Cornwall’s nature reserves: Cabilla & Redrice Woods (A winter visit)

Heart leaf at Cabilla & Redrice Woods, Image by Rowena Millar

8 out of 10 people who shared their experiences of nature in lockdown last year planned to visit a nature reserve in the next 12 months. Whilst most of us are enjoying nature locally at the minute, Cornwall Wildlife Trust's currently non-roving Wildlife Reporter Rowena Millar is on hand to help you learn more about some of Cornwall's hidden beauty spots (ready for when we can all get out exploring again)! This week, Rowena takes us on a virtual tour of Cabilla & Redrice Woods and shares the wonderful winter wildlife that many of us might miss.

*Please Note: Rowena's trip to Cabilla & Redrice Woods took place before the national lockdown was introduced in early January 2021.*

As I drove to Cabilla & Redrice Woods at the edge of the Tamar Valley, all I knew was that my dog and I were visiting ‘one of the largest and possibly finest ancient woodlands in Cornwall’, with river and wetland belts.

It was quite a cold, dull winters day, and so I wasn’t expecting to see the butterflies, the wild flowers, nor the rare Blue Ground Beetle mentioned on Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s website, but there is always wildlife to see.

The satnav took us straight to the site. From the A38 you take a minor road towards Cardinham, cross the bridge over the River Fowey and take the first turning on the right before you get to a wide commercial forestry entrance. The parking area, reassuringly hosting a Cornwall Wildlife Trust van, was by a sawmill yard. The nature reserve’s name was on a gate, and beyond was a wide, muddy track and a grassy, leafy track forking left. As this was my first visit, I took the main track, glad of my wellies, with the dog close by as always.

Map of Cabilla & Redrice Woods reserve

Map of Cabilla & Redrice Woods reserve

Almost instantly, I felt the cares of the world being soothed away by the woodland scene. The croak of a crow and the rasp of a jay invited us deeper in, further from the A38’s traffic noise. Rising steeply to our left was old coppice, the moss-covered stools of trees sprouting a number of stems where they had regrown after past harvesting. In these woods, both hazel and oak had been coppiced. To our right was a landscape of tree-studded wet pastureland with dark boggy pools. Through the trees, I could now see the rapidly flowing river, from which a large-ish, slender bird with long, grey-brown wings shyly flew away. I wished I’d seen it more clearly.

We passed a cattle-feeding rack, with scattered hay remnants and heavy poaching of the ground, but no bovines. Substantial holly trees provided dense greenery, while curled-up, rust-coloured beech leaves and the last, prettily yellowing leaves of hazel clung to branches. Nests were silhouetted among bare twigs overlooking the valley bottom. Beside the path, dog roses bearing rich red hips tangled their way through hawthorn and blackthorn. To my left, coppiced trees stood amidst their fallen leaves, fringed with rust-coloured bracken. Dormouse boxes had been fixed to many of them – but I’d need a special license to look inside. Log and branch piles provided more signs of active management for wildlife.

Dormouse box binded to a tree

Dormouse box on a tree, Image by Rowena Millar

Now we were closer to the river, which rushed with cold urgency, its surface rough as it sped over a stony riverbed. More water took the form of a pond next to the path. I imagined the amphibians that would spawn there in a month or two, and brightly coloured dragonflies whirring above in summer. We came to an intriguing glade where mounded grassy terrain was dotted with trees and ancient mossy stumps – the sort of soft landscape that tempts you in, its grassy floor strewn with colourful leaves and berries. Here we found the cattle – I guess Red Ruby Devons – looking relaxed and at home.

A notice on the gate said: ‘Bull grazing’ and there was an electric fence either side of the path. Both grazing and trampling (once by wild large herbivores) benefit traditional pasturelands, because fine grasses and nutritious herbs can easily become outcompeted by strong-growing vegetation, including bracken. Livestock may also protect the venerable oaks – a whole ecosystem in themselves – from being encroached by woody undergrowth. 

Grazing animals at Cabilla & Redrice Woods

The landscape reminded me of recent rewilding schemes, where grazing animals roam around a landscape at their leisure as mammoths and bison must once have done. Image by Rowena Millar

I chose the trail to the left that led away from the cattle, in case they felt defensive about the dog. I saw familiar species – grey squirrels and wood pigeons – but there were intriguing tweets and twitters in the treetops that hinted at hidden birding delights. We were now walking on leaves, with low coppice on both sides. As we crossed a little bridge, I was delighted by the plethora of ferns here - their fronds forming ladders and whorls. Recumbent, moss-covered trunks painted the scene a lush green, despite the season.

As trains passed along the opposite valley (disturbing my nature heaven), I realised we must be near Bodmin Parkway. I sensed dusk approaching but wanted to explore further - enticing little paths tempting me on, but that was for another day. On the walk back, I noticed bilberry twigs emerging from mossy hedge banks, interesting grasses and old ditches. Vivid yellow and orange fungi caught my attention, while excavations and claw marks betrayed the presence of mammals that would appear after dark.

A meadow cranesbill flowered, defying the season, while liverworts and mosses luxuriated in their damp haven. There was an abundance of foxglove leaves, too – some even growing out of stumps. Then I saw a little shed offering shelter from the oncoming rain. It turned out to be the entrance to a mine adit that went deep into the hillside. At the end of a wooden tunnel was a strong metal gate preventing me from going further in, but this would be no obstacle to bats. My dog very sensibly stayed outside and left the bats in peace.

The skies were turning decidedly grey but I was in no hurry to leave, especially when a group of long-tailed tits flitted above me. When they flew away we carried on, past hazel catkins ready to burst with pollen when days were longer, past trees that were skeletons with life within, past low-growing plants still vibrant green amongst fallen leaves.

All too soon we were back at the car, which was just as well. As I drove home, bitter-cold raindrops smashed against the windscreen, but we were in the dry, and I was looking forward to my next visit to Cabilla & Redrice Woods, a nature reserve I already love.

Blog by Rowena Millar

Rowena's highlights to see on the next visit:

  • Charcoal burning platforms, possibly dating back as far as 1300 (charcoal is made from coppiced wood and was required in quantity before coal was imported into Cornwall),
  • Alder coppice and willows
  • Royal Fern near the far end of the reserve – should be even more impressive than all the ferns I saw this time!
  • A hide, to watch birds and other wildlife
  • A mature English oak plantation supporting invertebrates, fungi and lichens
  • Mine workings – always intriguing to see an industrial area recolonised by wildlife, and to imagine how it was before

… and a whole lot more wildlife as spring approaches!

Download our Cabilla and Redrice Woods Nature Reserve Leaflet...

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