Sketch of Exmouth Foxes by Anne-Marie Culhane

Over the last 12 months Wild Exmouth has been working with Anne-Marie Culhane to develop a project with the community based around trees and orchards. Here is her latest blog.


I started my work with Wild Exmouth meeting some of the people who know much more than I do about the life in green spaces in Exmouth. One of these people is Jan Gannaway, a dedicated wildlife activist who is actively involved with the Exmouth Wildlife Group and many other voluntary and lobby groups. She has created a fantastic map of back lanes and footpath trails across Exmouth and has a great knowledge of local wildlife and is very active in promoting swift boxes, hedgehog care, with a particular passion for small mammals. We spent a morning walking through the Exmouth Valley parks ending up at the seafront after a coming down the lesser known Littleham Valley. We quickly realised we had a shared passion for foxes and after our first meeting and Jan sent me some video cam. footage of the resident male fox which I couldn’t help but try and capture in drawings. 

I’ve also met with Environment Agency to try and find out more about flooding and water courses in the Valley Parks and with Simon Pardoe the volunteer tree warden for Exmouth took me on a bike ride to see a number of the striking specimen trees growing across Exmouth in gardens and public land. Like Sidmouth we have a public arboretum right here on our streets if we take the time to look up and around. Simon has created the Facebook site: Exmouth Tree Project and with the support of others is building up community connections around trees across the town.  Heath Nickels is another passionate wildlife enthusiast who specialises in plants, flowers and insect life and is a great photographer. I was fortunate enough to visit the Millennium Wood with these three and other local experts back in June on a rare and special visit to monitor the wildlife along with the wood’s initiator Councillor Brenda Taylor. This site, has been managed in a minimal way since it was planted in 2000 on the site of an old refuse dump. This means that there are an abundance of interesting plants and wildlife inhabiting this site, largely undisturbed by humans. It is a refuge. Liz and Roger Hambling (Exmouth Branch Wildlife Trust) added their encyclopaedic knowledge of local flora and fauna to what was a fascinating walk. It was heartening to see wildlife bouncing back when given space to breathe. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many bees feeding on so many bramble flowers! I’m very curious about what happens when humans are taken out of the equation – all the more interesting on a site which is a reclaimed rubbish dump, made inaccessible because of the methane that is still belching from last century’s waste. This site then becomes a case study for what native flora and fauna really want to be here in Exmouth given half the chance. This site opens up a whole conversation about access and whether now more than ever there should be wildlife spaces which are left to their own devices with minimal human disturbance. Do we owe it to the other co-inhabitants of our planet whose populations we have so decimated to leave them alone for a while? We are in the sixth mass extinction – how do we enable wild populations of flora and fauna to thrive again?  Although I’m having to concentrate on other aspects of my residency my thoughts often flow to Millennium Wood as a kind of breathing space for my imagination as well as the wildlife.  

I’m also inspired by the park oaks in Phear Park which I am fortunate enough to cycle past on my way back many days on the school run. More often than not I get off my bike and stop for a moment – breathing in their magnificence through the seasons. The canopies are huge, its estimated that an oak tree can put on 700,000 leaves per year. I imagine the oxygen coming from these trees as they photosynthesise and the root systems tangling their way under the park, perhaps connecting these trees to one another through the microscopic mycelium threads which pass nutrients from the earth to the roots to the trees. I am trying to find out more about their history and heritage with the help of Simon from Exmouth Tree Project. These are huge cultural assets for Exmouth that should be celebrated! I am sure I’m not the only one that is nourished from spending time with these giants and the different perspective that their age and scale offer.

So what am I doing now?

I have identified a need from the local community to bring people together around trees and using Wild Exmouth’s links and connections to convene a space to co-create a vision for trees and tree planting across the town. Working with Exmouth Tree Project I’ve been contacting landowners and inviting them to come to a visioning event on 23 November along with the local community so we can see what might be possible in the future in Exmouth.  The day will start with short series of talks introducing different perspectives on trees and what we learn from them. I’ve designed a whole day of celebratory events alongside this which will appeal to people of all ages. I’m working with others to create a self-guided tree trail for the Park and invited an outdoor educator and artist to facilitate activities in the park. I’m setting up a Tree Library in the Scout Hut which will include fact and fiction books about trees for people to browse. I have invited schools to participate in the project by writing tree stories to be displayed and later in the day will be a story sharing session for people and their own stories or their favourite stories about trees. The day aims to provide lots of different ways for people to get involved and includes a focus on trees as part of our culture in literature and stories. If we look we see that trees are a vivid part of our imaginary and real worlds.

I have settled into exploring the possibility of Orchard Trails in and around Exmouth. I have created a number of orchard-based projects (see Fruit Routes at Loughborough University and FLOW in Exeter) and so hope to bring some of my experience and learning from these projects to the place that I live.  Orchards and fruit trees sit very happily in the urban environment (see Orchard City Manifesto for a vision for cities as orchards with houses in between) . We import 95% of the fruit that we eat. Despite efforts in the last 5 years or so to increase the variety of home-grown fruit in shops we still have access to very few varieties of UK grown apples and this is often for only part of the year. With the 4000 or so apple varieties that are growing it is possible to have apples on trees from July through to February at least. With careful storage you can eat UK apples virtually all year round.  And there are all sorts of other fruit and nuts that can be grown too! As our climate changes we can now grow things outdoors in our warmer climate such as apricots, almonds and other varieties from further south in Europe and as we don’t know quite how local, heritage varieties will adapt to the rapid climate changes fruit tree experts recommended hedging our bets and expanding the diversity of what we grow. (see the work of Martin Crawford)

I work with fruit trees because I love orchards, their blossom, their characterful shapes and the way they so clearly indicate the seasons and also …free food! I like knowing where my food has come from and that it has grown without chemicals. Fruit trees support an abundance of wildlife and can teach us how the weather and seasons are changing – the time of fruiting, the blossom time, the number of bees all give us information about the health of our ecosystems and weather patterns. We have strong cultural traditions associated with orchards (see Common Ground) and these give us good reasons to come together as a community and share cider or apple juice and celebrate the turning of the year.

The first possible Orchard Trail is on the North side of Exmouth. I’ve been speaking to the National Trust, the custodians of Point In View Chapel and East Devon Council.  We are creating a trail from Point in View (new orchard) A La Ronde (existing orchard) Lower Halsdon Farm bike trail (new planting) and Carter Avenue park (new planting) with planting taking place with the community in early 2020.  I am hoping to supplement this orchard cluster with a scheme to increase fruit trees in people’s gardens by creating a constellation orchard in North Exmouth. Thirty trees will be available for people to have for free to plant in their gardens in the Rivermead and Littlemead area and each person will be invited to come and plant the next tree with me as a way of linking across the community.  Alongside this we are hoping there will be a grafting workshop early in 2020 so we can start growing our own fruit trees here in Exmouth.  It will be a busy Winter!

Please do get in touch if you want to get involved in any of these activities and to find out more or to help out.  I look forward to meeting and planting with you!

Anne-Marie Culhane:

Head to our Wild Exmouth website pages for more information on how you can get involved.