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Devon's rivers: River Taw
Bridge over the Taw
The bridge over the Taw at Barnstaple

The River Taw really does have it all, when it comes to scenery.

Its trail begins at Taw Head in the Dartmoor National Park, and then flows through Tarka country before reaching the sea at Barnstaple.

Along its estuary is one of the most important nature reserves in England.

Braunton Burrows is a Unesco Biosphere Reserve and a Special Area of Conservation.

The amazing area of sand dunes, together with the Taw-Torridge Estuary - where the Taw and the Torridge reach the sea almost side by side - is also a site of special scientific interest (SSSI).

It is one of just two places in Britain where you can find the sandbowl snail, and it has 75% of the British population of water germander - a rare plant.

Braunton Burrows
Braunton Burrows - internationally important dunes

In fact, almost the entire stretch of the river is important for one reason or another.

At the source of the river, on Dartmoor, the area is of archaeological importance. There is evidence of prehistoric human activity, with stone circles at Taw Marsh.

And when we think of the River Taw, we think of Henry Williamson's Tarka the Otter. The Tarka Trail is a walking and cycling route alongside the Taw-Torridge estuary.

The river quality isn't as pure as it was in the days of Tarka, but it's still home to many species.

There are wading birds, wildfowl, salmon - although these days in depleted numbers - and an internationally important population of otters.

You used to be able to find the freshwater pearl mussel in the Taw, but the species was last seen in 1994.

Fishing on the Taw estuary
Fishing on the Taw estuary

The river's catchment area, and that of its three main tributaries, is almost entirely moorland and rural.

Farming dominates the surroundings from South Tawton, up through Chulmleigh and north Dartmoor, and on to the river's main town, Barnstaple.

Barnstaple was a key port centuries ago, for the navy and for commerce. Ships sailed out of Barnstaple and the Taw-Torridge estuary to join Drake's fleet to take on the Spanish Armada.

A major wool industry was built up around the town as well, and much of it was transported via the estuary.

However, the textile trade switched to northern towns during the industrial revolution, and Barnstaple's port could no longer compete with bigger ports which were developed elsewhere in England.

So these days, the river is important for environmental and tourism reasons, rather than for industrial ones.

Like the Torridge in neighbouring Bideford, the Taw regularly bursts its banks, causing flooding on several occasions in recent decades.

A flood defence scheme was built after the floods in 1984, but parts of the town can still be at risk because of a combination of the the Taw; one of the river's tributaries, the Yeo; and the rising tide at the estuary.

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Devon's rivers: The River Otter
01 Feb 10 |  Nature & Outdoors
Devon's rivers: The Tamar
04 Jan 10 |  Nature & Outdoors
Devon's rivers: The River Teign
28 Jan 10 |  Nature & Outdoors
Devon's Rivers: The Torridge
27 Jan 10 |  Nature & Outdoors
Webcam: River Taw at Barnstaple
02 Dec 09 |  People & Places
Audio slideshow: Tarka Symphony
07 Sep 09 |  Arts & Culture


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