Saturday, 31 May 2008

Hawthorn Oddity

I've always thought hawthorn to be a very individual tree. This one is cultivating its own fruit garden. In a fork half way up is a flowering bilberry shrub.

Pines with new cones forming get less attention because so many other trees and shrubs are in flower at the same time.

Getting Away

If you want to get away from things this could be the spot. The only paths are those created by wild animals and infrequently used by man. I've never met anyone down here. The sound of natural water is always present as is a constant accompaniment of birdsong at this time of year. If you strain hard you can hear occasional road noise on certain days. Some people like the continuous sound of moving water to mask less attractive sounds. I think this is cheating a bit and is not a true alternative for genuine tranquillity. But here there's a lot to enjoy.

Friday, 30 May 2008

Thriving and Ailing

Whitebeam is another white flowering tree to add to hawthorn and rowan already in blossom. Elder comes a little later. The rain has left its mark on them, browning some petals but there's still plenty to enjoy. And the leaves of whitebeam have their own distinction, a shine above and greyish matt underneath.

Each year the group of sycamores outside the walls of the Strawberry Lee plantation make a bold start to Spring then sicken at this time with leaves curling and then browning.

The small beech seedlings don't seem destined to get this far having been badly affected by frost, unlike the bracken which just sends out another shoot to replace the early casualties.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Bird Decibels

After the rain a warm start provoked a competition to see which bird could sing loudest. The blackcap won this one with no trouble, making sure of success by getting in the tree nearest my hearing aid.

I'm still having difficulty uploading a good sound file of bird song into the blog. Google are happy with videos but there's no obvious advice for a simple sound file which should be easier as it is smaller.

The cuckoo is still working hard but the warblers are the stars of Blacka. No red grouse breed here although there are many on neighbouring and slightly higher moorland. And the wildness and increased tree cover attracts scores of singing warblers. But, oddly, S.S.S.I. designations claim its importance for upland breeding birds! Once again the local conservation lobby have got things wrong.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Rain and Forest

A forest in the rain is not the same as a rain forest, but the rain was coming down as if it wanted to convince us. If I was 9 years old again I would call this my jungle. It's one of the wilder areas of Blacka and nobody else was brave enough (or daft enough) to be out in it.

The wildlife trust is threatening to come along and tidy it up. Let's hope they don't find the money. The last thing this place wants is collections of logs placed along the tracks with chain sawed cuts exposed to view. It's gone wild and is all the better for it.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

End of Phase

Yesterday's question is answered. When rain comes after a lengthy span of dry weather (by English standards) there's a feeling that you've moved into a different season. At the end of May with strong winds to help it and blossom scattered onto roads and paths, this can mean a less vibrant look to the woods. So far the rowan is holding up pretty well.

But some trees look (and sound) more contented despite recent buffetings. My birch seat was not creakily complaining as it was yesterday. Springy or not it wasn't the place to sit around today.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Still No Rain ?

I had been sure that a bank holiday would produce rain, but not yet. This is becoming a very long period of dry weather for May. Some streams are dry and the even more drying east wind is affecting hay fever sufferers. My half way round tree seat this morning creaked as if it needed a drink and the bird table tree had blown over the wall.

So to some holiday reading about national parks and wild land on Mark Fisher's excellent site.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Children and Trees

I may be influenced by personal associations but I think trees should be part of everyone's childhood. Looking back on my own, much of it seems to have been spent in trees of one kind or another and this helped to cement a respect for the natural world. Actually being in a tree meant you were part of something outside the merely human world, and seeing things as a bird or other creature sees things. So my view that every child should have a chance to climb trees stems from this.

Yet somehow there's a corner of the public consciousness that sees this as unacceptably risky. Isolated incidents of boys fatally falling out of trees while getting conkers have given rise to scare headlines in local newspapers and of course nobody should dream of walking beneath a tree without looking up to see if a thunderstorm is imminent.

The easiest trees for climbing are those which send out horizontal boughs when fairly young. Oak is a good example. Another tree that can sometimes be rewarding for children is hawthorn. Obviously thorns have to be contended with but there's often a quirky world inside a hawthorn not found elsewhere.

Setback for Bracken

Bracken in open ground can come to dominate the vegetation. Under trees it will still grow but not so vigorously; the shade of trees denies it full sunlight on which it thrives. But in the last week the new bracken shoots in parts of the open ground have been badly scorched by frost and killed. So for once those ferns close to trees have actually done better - protected from the worst of the cold air.

When Sheffield Wildlife Trust first decided to put cattle on Blacka they tried to persuade doubtful users that the main reason was to enable the cows to control bracken. This was very disingenuous if not downright misleading. Their actual motive was quite different but they used the bracken argument because they thought local people, some of whom had expressed a dislike of bracken, would be convinced. In this they were partly correct. A few people were persuaded. But the more sceptical ones, who independently looked into the research and more authoritative advice, did not accept SWT's simplistic story ...... and thereby hangs another tale.

Dry Underfoot

Before the expected Bank Holiday rain comes a post to celebrate the variety of natural surfaces created by those unsung size 10 heroes . Remember it's walking that creates good walkers' paths, not bikes, and it can take years. And the heavy machinery used by SWT on bridleways is more suitable for motorways. Sheep are not really good path makers having a different agenda and cattle can wreck a path as happened last year. Deer do their own thing entirely often creating new routes through awkward vegetation, and in doing so helping to open out ways into thick bracken.

Typical of local walking paths is the grey cracked soil (above) so firm that a satisfying thump can be heard as each boot strikes the ground.

Then the wonderfully soft carpet like effect created by years of dead bracken crumbling into a dust and then blended with rainwater into a thin crust

Sand of course results from the decay of stones and rocks by weathering as well as boot pressure......

There are lots of places where you can see an early stage in process......

Peat produces its own surface comparable to bracken...................

And good grass paths can develop when the tougher grasses gradually accustom themselves to foot traffic.......

Alders and Imagination

Old trees with character feed the imagination. The alders in the Strawberry Lee Plantation are as close as we get here to those in old fairy tale books usually illustrated by Arthur Rackham.

What a pity children today rarely get the chance to explore the natural world on their own. Rackham's illustrations related vividly with the mind of a child who had experienced a lonely walk through the woods. Learning to manage fears and to smile at surprising effects was part of relating to a world outside oneself, much more rich an experience than coping with someone else's overblown fantasies as in the second hand imagery of computerised games. Rackham's pictures took you back to the world you knew and could touch enabling you to invent other characters similarly rooted in direct observation.


Often found abandoned after being killed, usually by cats, shrews release a foul smelling liquid from glands in their skin. What killed this one is unknown but predators include owls, weasels, foxes, stoats and kestrels.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

SWT and Blacka Moor

Sheffield Wildlife Trust was a small organisation before the council decided to hand over to them several sites across the city of which the biggest is Blacka Moor. There were questionable issues about how the handover was carried out, and these and other questions have continued to be asked ever since. Being a wildlife trust, and of course a charity, many people are disposed to think well of them and to support them. They devote significant resources to public relations but the content of their publicity often doesn’t bear looking into. Some of us who have had experience of their consultation process over 7 years are unlikely to take on trust anything that they say.

If one was only allowed to say one thing about SWT it would be this. That they are an organisation committed before everything else to expanding their business and protecting their jobs. I suppose it’s not unexpected after all. Most businesses are doing much the same thing, and even public sector institutions feel the need to put their own interests and survival pretty high up the priority list.

It’s just that with SWT they carry on this role both blatantly and with such a measure of incompetence on the ground that one shakes one’s head with disbelief. “Before everything else” is crucial. It’s certainly well before the duty to behave honestly and decently because there have been examples of deviousness that should shame an organisation receiving public funds and with charitable status.

May Blossom

Everywhere at the moment and common, but rarely celebrated as it deserves. Our jaded palates tend always to seek out the novel or exotic, the latest rhododendron or newly imported perennials at the garden centre. But nothing is finer than the natural, unmanaged hawthorn spectacle all across the country now. White is at its best when it emphasises the subtle variety of the new greens and adds perspective to a distant view.

Globe shaped and separate at first, the individual flowers open into clusters revealing pink stamens.

The contrast with rowan is part of the visual treat available to walkers on Blacka today.

While the petals of rowan are no lesss white than hawthorn's the pale yellow stamens give the blossom from a distance a creamier appearance.

The hawthorn below looked oddly red, perhaps one of those hybrid red ones, but no, from close up it's clear the colouring was actually caused by frost scorching the tender leaves.

Floral Agreement

The deal is simply to keep to yellow on the left side of the track and blue and white on the right. The parties are buttercups to the left, cow parsley and bluebell to the right. One or two on the left have 'crossed the floor'. How political this is I don't know.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Tranquillity (continued 2)

It is this blog's contention that everyone needs to have easy access to places which have genuine tranquillity. How this is achieved I just don't know because we are nowhere near giving people that access at the moment. Recent reports from CPRE give very bad news on this and I think my criteria for tranquillity probably go further than theirs. Many will probably say I'm dreaming and should make an effort to climb out of the 18th century. But I stand firm on this just as I believe children should have outdoor places to explore freely, and if we cannot organise ourselves to arrange this then we deserve all the ills that stem from twisted priorities.

Tranquillity is not about silence. It is about a natural ambience, the sort of experience in which there are no mechanical noises only natural ones. Typically you would get birdsong wild animal sounds, water moving in streams, the sound of wind in trees. There should be no road or aircraft noise and no machinery of the kind often found in otherwise attractive settings (such as power tools).

Once you experience this you know why it is valuable. It is a stronger influence on wellbeing than any drug, medicinal or recreational.

I think parts of Blacka are as close as you can get to this inside Sheffield's city boundaries, perhaps any British city. But much depends on things over which we have no control. The wind is one of these. A gentle South East breeze such as we've had quite often this month is one of the better quarters, taking away the sound of morning trucks on the A625 heading for the motorway, loaded with some of the last remaining fabric of the Peak District. A warm South wind, welcome though it is, can bring up noise from the A621 climbing towards Owler Bar.

Currently my favourite peaceful spot is one of the most difficult areas to access overlooking the Lee Stream. It's best approached by following deer tracks through the trees, ducking and weaving amid low branches and taking care of moss covered boulders underfoot. The last week it's been easy to find dry dead bracken to sit on while scoring the birdsong out of ten for quality., tone etc, like one of those judging panels in TV programmes. But mainly you just listen and empty your mind.

The blank 'video' soundfile below is as good as we got this morning. It gives a small indication of the atmosphere.

Unfortunately there was a continuous drone of aircraft overhead but it did subside from time to time and we were not always free from distant road noise.

And it's all free..............!


This marvellous time of year is too special to spend more than a minute or two in a car. Blacka is always interesting but it's at its best just now. So here's what you will be missing if you drive past to some Peak District car park along with thousands of others.

1 Rowan and Hawthorn are in flower setting off the fresh new greenery with a beautiful range of creams and whites.

2 The lush almost outrageous growth of Bilberry is stunningly covered with thousands of tiny red lantern-like flowers prettily complemented with Crowberry, also in flower. Nowhere in Derbyshire matches this display.

3 The informal walkers' paths are superb underfoot meandering through young trees and opening out new views constantly. Go slowly and stay quiet; a young deer may be browsing ahead. And no fears of SWT's cattle polluting the paths. They're not here yet, at least not by 8.30 this morning.

4 Listen to the gorgeous singing of the warblers turning each group of trees into a concert hall. Willow Warblers are deliciously sweet and Blackcaps are virtuosi of tone and improvisation. And this is a musical feast only available for a few short weeks.

5 Look for Britain's largest wild mammal the red deer, some of them in new velvet antlers. See the tracks they make in the dead last year's growth of bracken and occasionally their small black droppings giving away their presence.

6 Hear the cuckoo - singing and often to be seen. (Every morning this week.)

7 Save your money when fuel prices are rocketing. Blacka is accessible on foot and by bus. And save your personal energy by walking slowly - you see more that way.

8 Hares in the pasture, an area not so often visited. Also skylarks singing. And if you like young lambs..........

9 More flowers: bluebells still around and cotton grass adding its odd character to the mix of scenic effects.

10 Stonechats clicking at you like the sound of two pebbles when you approach

Circus Act

It could be that it makes it easier to see over the trees, but he's actually one half of a boxing match.

Bertie used to do this as a puppy when he believed there was tempting food on the kitchen table.

The other more interesting deer in the group this morning has a red mark on his right ear. At first we were thinking this could be some form of tag and that he could be an escapee from a park herd who's found his way to join the others. But I'm now wondering if it's an injury that hasn't properly healed.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

A Way Forward

The alternative to top-down managerialism (see previous post) is its opposite. Think simple and don't make straightforward jobs into bureaucratic nightmares.

Blacka would benefit from a hands-on site worker doing seasonal and occasional jobs. This is an immensely fulfilling role in a beautiful setting to be performed by someone who values the place at first hand. The work would be maintaining tracks when necessary clearing water channels to help drainage, keeping paths free and usable, and helping to keep the open areas free by cutting excess incursion of trees into the low shrubs. Instead of spending money on dessicating desk jobs this hands on role should be well remunerated and part funded from the money saved by getting rid of managers. Better still give the job to the manager and take away the need to produce all that paperwork. And if the manager hasn't enough brawn to dig and haul, arrange a job share.