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Into the wild on an Exmoor safari

As part of our project ‘Discover England’s South West Coast Path’ we invited journalists and tour operators from Germany and the Netherlands to come and explore the Path. In May, we met up with journalists from Germany’s most widely-read women’s magazine Brigitte who were walking from Minehead to Combe Martin to get to know our ‘Wilderness Coast’ itinerary better. We met them in Exford to take them on an Exmoor Wildlife Safari and show them that a walking holiday in the UK can offer a great deal more than just world-class walks.

Despite questionable weather reports, we arrived at Exmoor National Park welcomed by glorious sunshine. Met by Daphne Brace, who was born and bred on Exmoor, we clambered into our ride for the day – a robust Land Rover Defender. We’d barely made introductions before the infamous Exmoor Beast was mentioned. Convinced it was a thing of legends like the Loch Ness monster, I was surprised when Daphne said she’d seen it on three separate occasions! So, ‘What is it?!’ I hear you cry. Well, it’s as black as the night with bright orange eyes, a long tail and roughly the size of a large German Shepherd. Experts believe it is likely to be a panther, leopard, puma or mixture of all these large cats. Daphne explained that the beast roams up to a 50-mile radius of territory each day, making it notoriously hard to track, but as we set off our eyes were peeled just in case!

Talk of myths and legends quickly led to tales of Exmoor pixies and their mischievous ways of tricking unassuming folk roaming the moors. Daphne’s great grandmother many times removed had been the landlady of a pub on the moors and the story goes she would transform into a hare and lead the hunt back to the pub. Just one of the many tales told on this mysterious moorland. As we made our way to the famous Tarr Steps we learnt more about how Exmoor Wildlife Safaris came about.

The business was originally set up by a couple called Alison and Duncan in 1998. Alison had organised safaris in Dubai and when they moved to the South West had the wonderful idea of running safaris in the National Park so people could explore the rugged surroundings and see the unique wildlife it has to offer. Daphne started as a driver and guide for Alison and Duncan but as they grew older and were unable to continue running the business, she bought the Land Rover and carried on their good work. Born and bred on the moorland, Daphne has a strong farming background. There must be something in the water because her 84-year-old father still works full time running their family farm where they keep cattle and sheep.

As we bound along the winding roads, climbing up and down the deep cut valleys the lush green surroundings are bathed in sunlight. In the distance we spot a blue haze covering an entire field and as we get closer we see it is a thick carpet of spring bluebells. Arriving at the Tarr Steps we learn yet another ‘tall story’ about how it came to be. Legend has it that the devil was angry with a man and was chasing him across the moor. The man ran across the river but the devil couldn’t follow as he couldn’t touch water or would surely perish. He summoned the surrounding rocks and threw them across the river and the perfectly formed bridge (which dates somewhere between pre-historic and medieval times and is mentioned in the Doomsday book) is what we see today. Whether you believe it or not, there’s a wonderful storybook-like feeling on Exmoor where anything could happen. It’s no wonder it’s been the inspiration of many a great literary novel. Visit our website to find out more.

You need only to look at the trees to see just how clean the moist coastal air of the moors is. Lichens and mosses, which simply do not survive in polluted air, cloak the branches as if placed there by mother nature herself. Daphne recalls a group who came on a safari from Hong Kong and explains how they spent the entire trip happily gulping down lungful’s of the clean air. The fast running rivers are home to brown trout and salmon, which travel here all the way from Greenland to spawn.

On an Exmoor safari, you don’t have the traditional ‘big 5’ to spot, but there are a few creatures you’ll definitely want to set your eyes on. The first being Red Deer. There are about three thousand deer on Exmoor and have survived here since pre-historic times. We spotted a group in the distance (they spotted us too!) and had just enough time to get the cameras out before they dashed off hidden by the long grasses. Although the group looked like females, Daphne explained that between April and May the stags shed their antlers so there could well have been some males too. We were glad to have some distance between us and the deer when we heard that the stags grow their antlers back a rapid rate of 2cm a day!

And so from antlers we went to horns. I know what you’re thinking, we’re on a safari so we must be looking for rhinos. Not quite. Despite sharing these pointed projections from their head the Highland cow has little in common with the rhino. Highland cattle were first introduced to Exmoor as far back as 1826 when they were brought from Scotland for commercial purposes. Following food shortages, they were only kept for 20 years before being sold at market. However, in recent years they have been reintroduced in an effort to support the breed which is at risk.  

Next on our list was to find the wild ponies of Exmoor. Although we’d spotted some far away in the distance, we remained hopeful to see some up close. It wasn’t long until our prayers were answered! A family of three were grazing up ahead and by approaching slowly and turning off the engine we were able to jump out and observe these stunningly wild creatures. And amongst the group was a spirited young foal who seemed delightfully unaware that its mother had wandered off! Aside from being the oldest of the British native ponies, it also happens to be the most primitive but at the same time the purest breed. The Exmoor not only has great physical strength, but it is resistant to most of the common equine diseases. During the winter months, the Exmoor grows two completely different sets of coats, an inner layer which is oily and smooth and outer coat which is a bit longer but also oily. Their tales also somewhat sticks outward, which is called "ice tail" and helps to direct water away. You can find out more about this ancient breed on the Visit Exmoor website.

The day was coming to an end but conversation was still flowing as we chatted about iron age burial sites, ‘Wicked Wolf’ Exmoor gin and the birds of prey that call Exmoor home. As we reached the brow of the hill ready to descend to the drop off point, we were stunned by views out towards the coast. The panoramic sight spanned from the beginning of the Coast Path in Minehead right round to Porlock and reminding us just how close this mystical landscape is from the dramatic coastal walks we know and love.

Our ‘Wilderness Coast’ itinerary is a great place to start if you want to plan a visit to this area. Why not take a look at our suggested walks between Minehead and Combe Martin & explore the Coast before venturing off on a safari. You can find out more about Exmoor Wildlife Safaris and how to book here

Published on: July 25, 2017