Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Sheep Are Maddening!

Having worked with cows on a dairy farm in my dim and distant past I may have a slight prejudice against sheep and sheep farming. But really they are such awkward creatures!

Having posted recently about the two ewes on the pastures who have produced lambs unaided, I walked along this morning to find four ewes and three lambs. None of these are supposed to be there at all. Perhaps my assumptions have been wrong. Are they after all invaders from the lot which graze on Wimble Holme Hill rather than clever evaders who managed to avoid being taken off Blacka with the others? Who knows?

A few minutes later we saw two sheep in a quite different part of the site. they must be from the herd on Houndkirk Moor who regularly jump the fence and create hazards on the Hathersage Road, A625.

Consulting the Public

Impenetrable public bodies such as local councils sometimes have to justify their decisions and prove their accountability by going through a tiresome process called consulting the public. Already wearied by contacts with aggressive outside interests anxious to get their hands on prime assets, this further demand on the time of our honest public servants is never relished. Hence the temptation to cut corners. Consultations in general were discussed at the recent meeting of the Scrutiny Board of S.C.C. (Culture, Economy and Sustainability). Blacka Blogger's take on this is below:

Froth on the Blacka Dyke

There are, occasionally, very good consultations which start with a blank sheet. These are all too few. Most consultations are still overwhelmingly top down and the authorities have made their minds up before they start: there’s no other option on the table and the powers that be are simply setting about persuading the public they’re right. Then there are the worst of the lot, consultations which try to appear to start with a blank sheet but have been skewed beforehand by various strategies. There are many devious ways this can be done, such as withholding key information or providing false information. The Blacka Moor consultation was one of these, a case of barefaced deception.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Going It Alone

I was staying on a North Yorkshire farm last week. On Friday the farmer was attending a funeral further down the valley when he had to leave to deal with a ewe that was lambing. Earlier in the week he had been dealing with another one at 3 a.m.

There is some difference of attitude to what has been going on in the pastures at the top of Blacka Moor. Some weeks ago the grazier took the sheep away presumably to be closer to his farm. Two sheep were left behind to fend for themselves. Whether he knew about them, or never bothers to count, I don't know. If the wildlife trust, who arrange the grazing, saw them they must have realised.

On Sunday morning, when I returned, there were two lambs (one just visible in the picture); either both ewes had lambed or one had had twins. There's something of a history in recent years of sheep being taken up onto this land and just being left to get on with things. A few years ago many sheep were sickly and several dead and dying were to be seen littering the pastures, part of the bequest of Alderman Graves for the enjoyable recreation of the people of Sheffield. Only when a walker complained to the RSPCA did anything get done about it.

Maybe it's a South Yorkshire thing, or just the way some hill farmers go about their work. I've always been surprised at the number of dead sheep seen lying about on local moors. I once complained to SWT about a dead sheep: the response suggested they considered it nothing to do with them. After all they are hardly there and when they are show little idea about what should be done.

A False Picture

Bilberry in Flower

SWT's Chief Executive claims it was unfair of me on this blog to single out another member of the Reserve Advisory Group critically in this post. Leaving aside for one moment the appalling abuses his staff have committed and he has supported, what on earth can he be thinking of?

The point I had been making was a valid one that people should declare exactly who they are and who they represent. This individual did not. He sometimes shows up in the minutes as representing CPRE, sometimes Ramblers and sometimes Peak and Northern Footpaths Society. Those minutes are used by SWT to illustrate (falsely) the wide level of consultation and support they get from local organisations when applying for grants. That individual is actually a trustee of SWT and this is never declared in the minutes. Maybe this would not matter so much if it had not been in the context of SWT undertaking a sustained campaign to discredit those people who genuinely speak for the majority of users of Blacka Moor - those who walk there weekly and even daily.

See No Evil

Wood Sorrel in Strawberry Lee Plantation

A senior manager with Parks and Woodland at the recent Scrutiny Meeting told councillors that SWT had been good for Blacka Moor because they had been able to access more money to manage the site in a way that the council could not. This is simply tosh. His own director knows it to be nonsense. The funds he referred to could have been available to the council as confirmed by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Officers say things in meetings with councillors and the public which they know are simply wrong because nobody has the guts to challenge. Privately they tell a different story. And has this officer actually looked at the mess that SWT makes of every task it performs on Blacka? How do they get away with this? Is the whole council and all its officers also part of an overwhelming culture of deception? And does nobody fight against this because they are all equally culpable?

More on Scrutiny

Power Station Plumes on a Still Morning.

My attendance at the last Scrutiny Meeting (Culture, Economy and Sustainability) was because of Blacka Moor. An item on the agenda dealt with the Disposal of Land and Leases to non council organisations, directly relevant to the controversial and shocking handing over of Blacka to SWT.

My previous post mourned the fact that councillors seemed unable to make a significant impact on council policy. An example of how the system works to disempower councillors and by extension ordinary citizens is found in the documents presented to board members before the meeting. Allowing for one or two blanks the latest amounted to some 94 pages of reports to be scrutinised. I think it can be more than this. The report I was interested in was not available until the Monday before the Thursday of the meeting. How can this be enough time? And how on earth do they arrive at the combining of these three elements of the council’s work, Culture Economy and Sustainability into the concern of one committee?

Monday, 28 April 2008


As already said, below, this week various council seats are being contested. My observations of the council at work are not based on a lot of experience so I'll confine remarks to where they directly relate to Blacka Moor and the disposal of council land and assets.

I've no doubt that the real wielders of power are the government agencies and Westminster. Somewhere in there as a malign presence is the party machine keeping discipline in one way or another and at local level this top down control is exploited by professional officers all to a degree self serving. Increasingly in recent years private companies such as developers and service industries are getting their own way by knowing the system and having privileged access to information.

So all you can hope for from a local councillor is that when a serious injustice comes up (inevitably given the vested interests and arrogant approach of some of these groups and organisations) he/she will make a fuss and get the impact reduced at the margins. This limited role so emasculates the representatives themselves that there's little surprise that very few people of genuine talent and commitment put up for council seats.

In my ward the councillors are Lib/Dems are usually elected and probably do as good a job in the circumstances as anyone although you always feel there's a point beyond which they won't go even when the justice of a case is beyond dispute. And there's also a sense that policy is made up on the hoof by the local party leader opportunistically, and this ties the hands of individual councillors who are denied the chance of being as independent as they might want.

The Labour people I've seen on the council committees are a pretty hopeless shower. In Cabinet meetings they seem utterly cowed by the comparative cleverness of the officers and directorate. In Scrutiny Boards their performance often seems surly and defensive when serious questions are asked. Very depressing.

The one Tory in the city has used her independence (as her own local party leader) to good effect and therefore punches above her weight at a time when the balance of power is an issue.

But over and again my feeling is that there's just too much cosiness, too much cronyism and too little independent thinking around. The party that would get my vote is the one which insists that on major local concerns consultations start with a blank sheet, that local communities are genuinely empowered to make decisions even when they could get them wrong.

Scrutiny Board Meeting

Sheffield City Council (SCC), Sheffield Wildlife Trust (SWT), and Disposals and Leasing of Public Land

I've left more than a week for a response to my post of 18th April. Now that I’ve had no approach from SWT’s Director (he may now be styled Chief Executive?), I won’t hesitate any longer to describe the Sheffield Council Scrutiny Board meeting of 17th April. The background to this is as follows: In September last year I asked a question of the board having first let some board members know that serious incidents regarding SWT highlighted problems connected to the council’s disposal of publicly owned land to outside organisations. (links on this blog to here, and here).

My question (paraphrased) was this. It led to a discussion among members of the board and a resolution being passed asking three council directors to respond with proposals to deal with my concerns. Eventually (seven months later) a report was produced to be tabled at the April meeting. Having seen the report (a copy is here) I duly went along to comment on it at the meeting. My comments, only slightly paraphrased, are here. The point I wanted to emphasise was that problems between the public and the partner organisations who leased or managed council land were a serious and near inevitable consequence of the council's policies and practices.

The SWT Chief Exec was there as an observer, obviously alerted that Blacka Moor was mentioned in the report and likely to be discussed. He was asked by the chairman to respond to my comments which he did. He said, among other things, that he had already apologised to me for the offensive and defamatory comments in the email of July 13th. This was untrue; he had given me no apology. All were aware that I shook my head whereupon he had no alternative but to make that apology in public and on the spot. Unfortunately this kind of slipperiness about facts is typical of dealings with SWT and if nothing else was achieved this was exposed in public. How many of the councillors drew the right conclusions from this I don’t know. Perhaps it’s considered par for the course these days to misrepresent, peddle half-truths and even to defame those who have different views from your own.

Local Politics

A Favourite Tree
With elections coming up this week, it's appropriate to put in my oar, although I won't come down definitely on one side.

One of the motivations for starting this blog was to have an opportunity to discuss Sheffield Council’s policy towards its green spaces. To some at the top of the council these places have become a liability and this has led to decisions to hive them off to outside organisations and save the money on maintenance so it can be spent on trendy projects elsewhere. This puts it very simply and of course it’s more complex than that and each individual example has aspects of its own. But essentially it’s about saving money. I oppose these disposals for various reasons and have raised the issues with the council in a number of ways. I find that councillors as a group, even when they claim to share one’s concerns, are a pretty feeble check on the powers at the top exercised by the Chief Executive and the council’s Directorate.

Some of the coming posts deal with this issue more directly, but I will not stop posting about the pleasures of Blacka.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Spring Calls

The calls of cuckoo and curlew welcomed me back after a few days in North Yorkshire enjoying beautiful parkland, magnificent houses and romantic ruins.

Also in good voice were skylark, willow warbler, song thrush and blackbird. They relish the mildness and don't mind the drizzle.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Heart Searching

After the S.C.C. Scrutiny Board meeting yesterday I was talking with one of this site's most loyal readers, the Chief Executive of Sheffield Wildlife Trust. Among other things he expressed his disappointment at the occasional unflattering comments made here about his organisation. I sensed a feeling of hurt. Being a compassionate man with a Christian education behind me, I am touched. I'm therefore doing some serious heart searching as a result.

I could of course point to the offence caused to me by his refusal to apologise to myself and my friends for an act of gross defamation and a campaign to discredit us. But this tit for tat stuff, I see, can appear unedifying, even when those comments made here are mere scratches on the hide of an elephant compared to the institutional abuse from SWT. Still one must hold to one's values: opportunities to turn the other cheek do not come every day.


I have therefore decided on a gesture of self denial. For a week I will undertake to make no further comments which show SWT in an unfavourable light. While I expect nothing in return for this, I would be pleasantly surprised to hear from him that he has decided to reconsider his refusal to offer an unconditional public apology for the offence (click here to read) caused by SWT's statements made last July. Comments can of course be left on this blog or I can be contacted by email.



The last two mornings must have been hard to bear for the tiny visiting warblers just starting to arrive from warmer parts. Now the bitter east wind adds more punishment after their epic journey.


Yesterday two of our regular bird table great tits came out right into the centre of the moor to check I was on my way and hadn't forgotten the cheddar.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Wilder than Exmoor ?

Not Exmoor

Those who watch the BBC2 series about Johnny Kingdom will know that much of the programmes' content concerns the presenter photographing red deer on Exmoor. Having only seen brief excerpts it's hard to comment, but what has struck me forcibly is that the landscape on Blacka Moor inside the boundary of the industrial city of Sheffield appears to me much more wild than the pictures of Exmoor as seen on television. Red deer have been on Exmoor for many years but visually the experience of seeing wild stags roaming Blacka is more of a thrill. The combination of animals and landscape here is something quite exceptional.

Anyone coming to Blacka will have the advantage over visitors to Exmoor that they will not be in danger of coming across a character wearing ill-fitting camouflaged clothing creeping along the ground carrying vast quantities of expensive camera equipment. Blacka Blogger is a retiring person whose camera is a simple inexpensive Fuji that fits easily in a jacket pocket.

Not Blacka Blogger

On the BBC website for the programmes there is a link to "Breathing Places" in 'your own area'. Following this and entering a postcode you can get to Blacka Moor. Yet oddly enough despite the fact that it is found on the Johnny Kingdom pages there is absolutely no mention of deer. Instead it draws attention to the upland breeding birds which are not as strong a feature on Blacka as on numerous other local moors!! All odd but not altogether unexpected. The information came from SWT.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

From Lenny Hill to Bole Hill

The footpath running from the main bridleway across to Bole Hill is the most badly signed and difficult to locate on Blacka. You start from the main bridleway junction by Lenny Hill, now rivalling junction 33 on the M1 following the latest repairs, you make your way up to the third railway sleeper crosspiece. A path is visible going through the bracken to the left. After picking your way down a slopeyou arrive at a clearing and then the stream - the Lea Stream. It's necessary to cross this and then climb steeply initially through a muddy gully and then straight up whether you discern a path or not.

Eventually a path of sorts can be seen near the top. Soon a small cairn comes in view.

The area all around is a scheduled Ancient Monument, site of an old lead smelter. Archaeologists claim to be able to see the components of this site but apart from an amount of slag and a depression or two in the ground I've never found anything that looked remotely in need of protection. Indeed in the last survey the words 'possible' and 'may be' are so frequent that doubts are confirmed. It seems odd that in Italy, say, there is so much wonderful classical and renaissance remains that they cannot afford to maintain them, yet here some people write lengthy reports about things that can barely be seen.

Only for the Adventurous

This part of Blacka is inaccessible for the tenderfooted, the trainer wearers, those who draw the line at getting their feet wet and their clothes scratched. It is also one of the most rewarding parts. You simply do not know what you are going to find here. The sad, prescriptive, desk bound set of conservationists will hate this for its rampant growth of all that they don't like and can't control. I just pray that they never get their dreadful vehicles and machines down here and try to tame it.

For some time at the top of the slope above a fox had been looking down on us, his colouring showing vivid in the morning sun. He was camera shy however.

The wilding of this little valley is one of the greatest assets of Blacka Moor and serves to highlight the benefits of leaving nature to go its own way. Red deer are at home here and various other mammals put in an occasional appearance. The fallen trees and the untamed streams and falls overhung by thorn and holly make progress difficult. But often rewards and difficulty go together.

The worst thing that has happened here is that SWT's ghastly cows got into the valley last year and spent a lot of their time around the stream. Their huge overlarge hooves and heavy frames created swampiness where the ground had previously been walkable. Yet these beasts, supposedly there to 'manage' the vegetation (utter nonsense), can have no purpose in this area.

Single Parent

But in this case the youngster is more likely to be calling "Daddy!" as the accompanying adult is not the hind but the stag. I've not seen the hind for a while.

The top of the head and the ears are characteristic of the male. The 'burr' is the......

........"thickened base of the horn (or beam) where it joins the head. It is there enlarged and rough like the base of an oak tree at the ground. 'Burr' as a term expressive of bulging is still in use by blacksmiths, who speak of raising a burr on a rivet by hammering it - the 'burr' is the bulging caused by the blows." (Jefferies 1871)

Monday, 14 April 2008

The Very Least

It seems to be the practice of the local Highways Department to do the very least possible and to take as long as they can over doing it. This sign has finally been installed on Hathersage Road approaching the dangerous Piper House bend. Let's think of some of the other things they could have done. There could have been a speed limit of 50 mph enforced (I would prefer 40). They could have put up a recommended speed limit around the bend. They could have put up a sign drawing attention to the dangerous bend. They could have enforced a speed limit with a speed camera (oh, horror!). There could have been white marked SLOW signs on the road surface.

Some have called for the bend to be redesigned by cutting off a piece of the land on the north side. I am against this as its result would be faster driving when we should be encouraging slower driving. I am puzzled about the sluggish response from the authorities. There are many parts of the country where councils are much more pro-active in dealing with safety issues.

Motorised Vandals

Sunday seems to be the day of choice for renegade motor cyclists to flout the regulations and gouge muddy tracks everywhere they can.

These characters can only be dealt with if they're caught. When they are they should be punished by the only way that would have any effect: the confiscation of the machine.

It only needs one or two of them to turn a narrow or moderate track into a wide scar across the landscape. They obviously prefer the mud at the side to the firm ground in the middle.

Another April Morning

No two are the same at this time of year. Last week's snow (on Tuesday 8th )was gone in hours and, cold though it is this morning, the views at 6.30 were quite different.

The walk tends to take us into the light most days depending where we start. There is plenty of choice on Blacka with five major and several minor access points.
There was some uncertainty whether this was a hind or a stag accompanying the very young deer. Its stockiness and strong neck suggests a stag that has shed antlers, perhaps including the one I found yesterday.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Beams and Points

I have been reading Jefferies on Red Deer (1871) again to try to educate myself about the mysteries of antlers. There is quite a lot of history to the terminology and not always agreement as to the correct terms. You begin to feel like a novice student of heraldry.

This one, weighing two and a half pounds, found this morning in a favourite 'secret' spot, seems to have four obvious points plus what I would call a spur between the top two. If the spur qualifies as a point then the beast is a ten pointer (five on each side) but I'm being cautious and calling him an eight pointer until I find more authority. I think the spur could be what Jefferies calls an 'offer'. The main stem of the antler is called the beam.

The lowest point is the brow point. Then comes the bay point and above this the tray. Older beasts have a further level of points. Things become further complicated by the fact that unusual formations can happen. Those writing about these things are not always consistent, leaving one sometimes in doubt even whether they are talking about the total number of points or referring to just one side!!

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Letterbox Views

With threatening clouds coming from behind we're left to study places to the east. Some places are better the less you see of them and much of Sheffield could be described so, but that's not usually true of parts west and south west.

Friday, 11 April 2008

An On-Site Worker

A key recommendation from the Icarus consultation in 2006 was vetoed by SWT and the Natural England representative. This was for the moor to have an on-site worker who could be there for a minimum number of days, hopefully several each week. He could deal with ongoing repairs and various issues which inevitably crop up on a recreation site of this size. He could keep an eye on the success or otherwise of any work or strategy being implemented. More important he would be there to develop a relationship with the place and understand its character. He could liaise with visitors and get early warning of any problems. The conservation tendency did not like this idea. They believed that cattle would be better.

Just to examine this in a bit of detail in respect of one matter. About 18 months ago SWT sent a team down to put barriers across a popular path to stop people using it.

The idea was that the eroded bare peaty track would get chance to recover. Very soon afterwards SWT's cattle were introduced to the site and spent a lot of time churning up this path because their reading standard was not up to the level required to interpret SWT's notice. Nothing was done about this, tracks were created at the side of the barriers more definite than anything there before and the area became worse than before. Nobody from SWT came along to do anything about it so people decided to ignore the instruction to walk elsewhere. Now a site worker would have been able to make a decision about removing the barrier very soon when it was obvious it wasn't working. As it is the barriers are still there 18 months later and now nobody takes any notice of anything SWT says.


The herd were nine strong and feeding on the western side of Blacka Hill at 7. 30 this morning. About an hour later they were dashing over the pastures back and forth at some speed. It wasn't possible to see just what had caused this very frisky behaviour.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Morning Singers

Still awaiting the first summer songbirds. Around here it's usually willow warblers I hear before anything else. But these mornings are cold and not so welcome to the less hardy species although warblers have been spotted for some time in southern England. Resident birds are well into their stride and the area in the picture is already a good place to enjoy song thrush, mistle thrush, robin, wren, dunnock and blackbird.


It's time to make it clear that local people are not prepared to put up with this sort of vandalism any more. A repair to a bridleway that was admittedly tricky but nowhere near impossible, has been botched at least twice and is now well on the way to causing a third case of devastation.

Who wants to experience a motorway where we've always expected peace and quiet. Before any 'repairs' were considered this was a narrow, natural track with only minor and occasional problems. Now once again we are having to experience something akin to major road works.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Uses for Bracken

Poor old bracken is pretty well disliked by many people but it has its uses if you're a red deer. In the middle of summer when it's at its most vigorous it makes excellent cover for young deer calves. At other times it blends very well with the natural colour of red deer and often people just walk straight past a resting animal close by. The dead stems of last year's growth is as good as, or better than, wheat straw for bedding.

Piles of Stones

The story of two piles of stones situated at opposite ends of the Blacka Moor site.

This one is placed all ready for SWT to repair the wall of the car park. The damage was found one morning along with evidence of night time use of the space by occupants of cars. Also found were empty cans and bottles and wrappers and one or two signs of other activities. SWT's own staff (their 'Site Team') won't be expected to do this repair to the same level of competence as a designated stone-waller, but we hope to be surprised.

This broken wall appears to be the result of animals pushing it down. There is an assumption that this has been done by the deer, and tracks leading down the hill from this spot seem to confirm that. The wall was not in very good condition and doubtless farm animals such as cattle or horses could fairly easily have knocked it down as well. Reports that may or may not be true suggest that one or more local farmers are annoyed and are anti-deer. How serious the damage or interference caused by the deer is not known. Personally I'm sceptical about it being a real problem. Someone may well suggest that SWT would have done better installing a deer fence here rather than the costly barbed wire for cattle elsewhere!

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

An April Morning

Not all mornings have as much visual interest. The sun helped as did the mist and snow.

Even walls and fences can play their part when influenced by snow.

Lower down all was clear but the further reaches of the moors and the top pastures had several inches cover.
Nearer the top of Thistle Hill the view of Higger Tor was not quite as clear as it can be, but skies were a feature.

Coming down, the main bridleway was more lightly affected by snow. Several deer had come out to browse on the left of the track.

On the other side were more of them, less bold, hiding in the trees.

Returning through the Hollow and along the top reaches of the stream, the snow started again.

The thought of the breakfast porridge was a strong motivation for hurrying back.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

The Need for Wilder Places

Well run farms can be great places to visit. Beautiful parkland attached to a stately home is also wonderful. Both are artificial, the farm’s appearance dictated by its working purpose and the parkland, as with formal gardens, can be a joyful concoction assembled with true artistry. But I’ve always liked places that have become ‘overgrown’. Efficiency is a virtue in many contexts but there is more to life than order and precision. I’m not alone in valuing land which was once carefully tilled or managed for someone’s profit but has fallen into disuse and become ‘overrun’ with unplanned vegetation creating surprising and secret spaces and welcoming unexpected wild visitors. There are those who dismiss this ‘secondary’ wilding as near worthless because it is not true ancient woodland or ‘genuine’ wilderness of the kind which still exists (just) in some parts of the world. I have no time for the views of these purists. As a child I always loved the hedgerows which had been forgotten and neglected by adults, the expanses of tall wild growth like willow herb and bracken, even the bramble that compensated for our scratched legs (those short trousers!) by giving us the tastiest berries.

Every so often I meet someone walking on Blacka Moor who tells me how he used to love the place as a child. It’s a place made for children, somewhere to explore which will never give up all its secrets.

Looking Back

Funny how so many of the views from Blacka are looking back towards the outlying parts of the city. It's as if you're encouraged to consider what you're moving away from as well as what's under your feet or nearby. Fortunately there is a lot of green space down there much of it attractive.

Walking down into the trees this morning I wondered if there would be deer. Sure enough two were hiding very still, quite happy as long as we stayed on the path.