Friday, 30 April 2010

Management Plans

Much time is spent by the present brood of conservation office workers on compiling and updating management plans, writing reports and conducting surveys all of questionable value. Yet management plans can achieve a biblical status. If you question what is being done you may be referred to these documents and told that you should have raised any concerns when they were being compiled.

Well, much good it would have done you. And anyway there is a strong sense that nobody is going to scrutinise the implementation of the plans despite much time and public money having gone into their production. An example presents itself at the far north west end of Blacka near the small Stony Ridge car park. Here there is a fascinating piece of woodland with some excellent wildly characterful trees, the woodland known in maps as Strawberry Lee Plantation. Here you will find pine and birch and alder all uniquely attractive to groups of mammals and birds and humans because it is surrounded by the dreaded rhododendron. For once this shrub does a valuable job sheltering the woodland from cruel and persistent winds. In SWT's current management plan this is acknowledged partly perhaps as a response to some of us reminding them of this. The plan says that any removal of rhododendron will be limited in order to maintain this value and will be on the inside of the wood, as visitors do quite like the flowers when they come in May. But a few weeks ago SWT came along, presumably with some time to spare and not much idea of how to spend it, and hacked away at the outside of the rhododendron belt leaving a much reduced opportunity for the flowers to be viewed, but, even worse, a generally scarred appearance that is at odds with the balanced words written in the management plan

As the management plans says:

For the period of this plan therefore, efforts should concentrate on the control of spreading rhododendron on the heathland from the woodland; the removal, and clearance adjacent to the footpath running parallel to Hathersage Road, so as to retain good sightlines and a wide route; the control of rhododendron in Strawberry Lee Plantation by removing from the inside of the woodland to prevent further encroachment; and the removal of isolated patches of rhododendron (present in Blacka Plantation and within the heathland compartment)

No wonder our fingers are crossed when they turn up with their trucks and volunteers in the mornings.

In the Woods

Spring this year has brought a profusion of wood sorrel. It's everywhere, in carpets on the wood floor, and in little niches in among stones and fallen branches. But along by the stream through the woodland there are other delights . Some of these are at their best when not quite fully open.

In-Between Times

Spring is the most dynamic in-between time. Blink and a phase has passed. There is no point when you can look at the landscape and say this is what spring is like. Two days on and there's a difference.
New leaves at certain stages allow just enough light through to persuade you that it's neither one thing nor another. Early morning light is best when birch leaves and catkins are transformed into natural jewellery.
The new hawthorn leaves don't quite conceal the lichens which were the feature of the previous month.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Lining Up

I know they don't last long but by the time they spread into the general milkiness of the sky some more come along. The sky is a priceless asset for those who look at natural beauty. But the sky belongs to no one owner. Would I be allowed to paint all over the outside of St Paul's Cathedral if the paint wore off in a couple of hours?


You treat a place with respect for those who live there. Some days you may see them and some days not. It's not just the animals themselves. They are so large that they leave obvious marks of their presence. Deer tracks through bracken and through the woods and across streams are particularly clear at this time of year. Being shy creatures they prefer their own routes to those made by us.
In this they are a complete contrast to the cattle that SWT are again bringing on site soon. That's a great pity and utterly indefensible when so many deer are present. The operation is a tasteless reduction of one of the few places with a sense of wildness into another farmed and managed property. What an opportunity here to let wild animals and wild landscapes have their head. Bringing farm animals and farm regimes onto this land compromises the true value of Blacka represented by deer and other wild mammals in the interest of centrally provided grants usually aimed at satisfying the extreme and prescriptive wing of the bird lobby. What a disappointing and unimaginative grazing project implemented by timid people who can't look beyond the off-the-peg 'solution'. Here today the place is uniquely home to animals that would have been here a thousand years ago making their own impact on the landscape and its vegetation, but because they are not part of their sterile management plan the conservation bureaucracy are stuck with their inflexible policy. So much for wildlife trusts. Perhaps they should be called tamelife trusts.

On another subject relating to the deer, the hinds seen today look in really good condition with smart red coats while the stags in two other places have still a scruffy air about them. I assume the moult is now well ahead but much energy is going into new antler growth. Meanwhile some at least of the hinds will be feeding two, though hormones contribute to the healthy appearance..

Monday, 26 April 2010


There's something special about the white blossom of Blackthorn. It would be less noticeable when the Rowan and Hawthorn dominate but it's bold enough to get in early when rough winds and colder nights are still the rule. And the shapeliness of the individual flowers is no less impressive than the overall magic of large spreads of blossom in the hedgerow. Truly a class act.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Woodland Opportunists

The white flowers of spring on the floor of the woods take their chance before deep shade takes over. Soon the heavy foliage will dominate but this is one of those special in between times when some species come into their own. Near the stream by Shorts Lane you can see both the Wood Anemone (above) with its more feathery leaves and the Wood Sorrel with its habit of folding wings.

Planted daffodils are becoming more common and must not be allowed to dominate. Wild daffodils are one thing but it's becoming more of a thing for those with a few spare bulbs to put them in any patch of land. This changes the character of our wilder places so that when you do see genuine wild plants it's no longer a special sight.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

No More Clear Blue Skies......But "Cuckoo!"

After some stunningly clear blue skies in recent days, aircraft vapour is now back as is the sound of their engines overhead. We're not the worst place for either but some of us can remember wistfully the days when nothing intruded into the tranquillity of much of our countryside apart from natural sounds. One returning natural sound today was the cuckoo, just a speculative call this time but welcome.

Cold Start

Some recent days have felt pleasantly warm even higher up when you manage to find a spot sheltered from the northern winds. But early mornings are not a time to stand still, one reason I find bird watchers to be a strange species themselves. On the ground the frost looks more striking when seen on fresh greenery than on dead bracken.
Deer must enjoy the sun coming up after nightime grazing. My scepticism about the conservation people's promotion of cattle grazing grows greater by the day. I've requested details of how they plan to evaluate the success or otherwise of the cattle and so far seen no evidence that they have the least idea how to differentiate between what the cows do and what the deer do. So what story will they tell? I'm sure they are working on it but I'm just as sure it will be an effort devoted to producing more paperwork than genuine evidence. Their hope will be that this weight of words will be impressive and anyway how many will read and scrutinise?

Wednesday, 21 April 2010


How many deer are on Blacka? They are wild and go where they wish. As free spirits they do not recognise boundaries and cross land and roads at will. Weeks pass by with no sign of them although we know there's much night time activity. Recently many tracks have become clear over the whole of the site. Stags have been seen in headlights on main roads and yet still no road signs warn of their presence (as with the sheep on Hathersage Road).

Most of my experience of deer has been in seeing small groups either of stags or hinds and occasionally a mixed group. Early mornings in spring can be a good time to see them but as usual getting close is not easy. This morning there were many more than have been seen before. After a while one became restless sensing our presence even at a distance. He jumped the fence and was off, others followed, but the main group ran off in the opposite direction.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The Burr

The dreaded bracken is more often a positive asset to the site than otherwise. On mornings like this it sparkles in the sun and provides a specatuclar setting for any wildlife that happens along. This spot is now in direct sunlight at this time of year before 7 am so it's more appealing when the wind cuts through from the north. The young stag has a clear burr on his forehead from which the first sign of new antlers developing can be seen. Some who lost their old ones earlier are a bit more advanced.

Sunday, 18 April 2010


It's probably 25 years since the last time we had a Sunday morning like this. During the intervening years some things have improved and some have got worse. Peace and tranquillity, those necessary accompaniments to natural beauty, have definitely suffered and we are all the poorer for that. I can remember that in the mid eighties I would habitually walk to Common Lane Open Space on a Sunday and sit on the bench admiring the view over Mayfield Valley. At 9 am there would be no noise of traffic and I'm pretty sure there was no aircraft noise. Eventually church bells from Ranmoor would join the bird song and I would be refreshed for the coming week.

This morning on Blacka the national grounding of aircraft meant there was none of the usual background noise. But the other blessing was that there was no wind either which frequently brings traffic noise across from Hathersage Road. Tranquillity is not the same as silence and it benefits from natural sounds such as birdsong and flowing streams. Both the willow warbler and the chiff chaff are well named, the former suggesting, to me at least, the drooping of willow boughs not unlike the descending scale of the bird's liquid song.

My favourite places on Blacka are well to the side of the main tracks and best kept unidentified - though easy enough for a natural explorer to find. The blackbird was silent perhaps overawed by the silence, but the little warblers were on good form. Small groups of stags posed individually and in groups.
A blessed start to the day. Only at 9 am did the spell get broken as we approached the main road to be deafened by a sports car rally/event with drivers competing to make the greatest noise. Ah well.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Pale Stag

I once saw a stag on the hillside looking quite black compared to the others and later came to the conclusion that he had been rolling in the mud which in these peaty parts can be black. It's a comforting sensation for deer at the time of the moult.

But my eye was caught today by one who seemed from a distance to be almost white. No other explanation than that once again winter coats are starting to be shed and some are very scruffy indeed.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Bold and Timid

Stags on Blacka can be at times remarkably bold but are more often timid and jumpy, hating to be approached by humans who can be identified as potential predators. It's not easy to understand why the reaction to our presence varies so much. And it does not seem to be dependent on whether one is accompanied by a dog, an explanation suggested by some. I've seen dogs go quite close to stags (often attracted by the droppings!) and the stags will initially move on then stop as if to say why should I? And Bert and I have sometimes got very close indeed to a stag moving inch by inch to get a good photograph.

Mark Fisher's recent fascinating article discusses, towards the end, 'prospect refuge theory' in relation to humans but this is also relevant to wildlife. The presence of trees and water and a chance to see potential predators while allowing a chance to withdraw into sheltered territory enables animals to feel comparatively secure.

Today I saw deer in one of the fields adjoining Blacka and walked round to get a better view. We were, as I thought, well hidden by woods while they were more or less in the open. It didn't seem possible that they could see us but they quickly became very jumpy and staring in our direction. My ideas about getting a good view from the 'hide' of the trees was a non starter. They were quickly off over the wire and the wall and into the woods with a loud twang of hoof on wire.

I later walked down the rarely visited eastern slopes where there was a lot of evidence of deer including areas of dead bracken much trampled obviously by deer. From this and the large number of deer trails they must be having a considerable impact on the landscape.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010


Early spring and leaves are few but birds sing. Last year thrushes were dominant at this time, but today it was a blackbird who chose to occupy the stage.

A group of timid hinds ran across the moor towards cover, then up the side of the hill. They were accompanied by one young stag who preferred their company to that of the older males.

Later we were in their favoured secret valley and they watched from the slope.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Spring Pursuits

In the first hour after sunrise those who have been out all night make the best of the time to get some nourishment. This pair kept their heads down. Those on Blacka Hill were seen from half a mile off on Bole Hill ......
...and the calm mild air and early sun relaxed them enough to induce some friskiness.
After an hour skies clouded over and a return to seriousness.

Thursday, 8 April 2010


A solitary swallow swerved elegantly over the moor this morning and shortly afterwards a newly arrived willow warbler gave us his familiar song. Easter week has also brought back the coltsfoot to the grassy spot near the car park. Despite the years getting shorter for us oldies this spring seems to have taken a longer time coming.

Meanwhile controversy refuses to go away from Blacka. An article in the Sheffield Telegraph raises again the status* of the land in the context of the prohibition on hang gliding in the interest of ground nesting birds; or rather in the interests of the conservation industry and their targets and jobs. It's too much to expect the media to get things right or even to do enough homework to challenge the stock answers of vested interests.

I have no particular love for the sight of hang gliders nor any wish to join them in their chosen pursuit. Blacka to me is a place that I wish to see as a haven for tranquillity and natural beauty. But I believe in fairness and straight dealing and there's been little enough of that from the land grabbing conservationists. Management of this land should reflect the principles of the Graves Covenant which states that recreation should take precedence over conservation where a conflict arises. And when we say 'conservation' we must remember that we are talking not of some happy clappy concept symbolised by cuddly wild animals but an industry whose first priority is the preservation of their own institutions. If we've learned anything from the last nine years it's that. The arrogance of (Un)Natural England is once again behind it all. This (the Blacka pasture land) is an artificial man made and unnatural landscape and they want to keep it as artificial, yet when man wants to use a small segment of it as he has fairly inoffensively for 20 years they suddenly say that he can't because it's interfering with nature!! Intellectually, how can they live with themselves and not be repelled?
* The article refers to 'the nature reserve'. As a nature lover I insist that Blacka is not a nature reserve. It has never been put up for being such and is not on the official list of Local Nature Reserves in the area which have specific and controlled designation.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Damaged View

This is probably the most unfortunate view from Blacka. The tainted edifice of Fairthorn needs no more interpretation; it speaks for itself. The unfinished mansion standing behind Fairthorn has been a sore sight for a long time now. This is the way things are done now: large areas of roof are encased in materials highly visible for miles around and seem to stay that way for ages. Add to that the ghastly power line and you're just glad that so much of Blacka does not have to put up with these ill-judged blights

A dull drizzly morning did not deter a party of hinds from exploring the area towards the Lee Stream.
They are much more shy than the stags, a party of whom was some half mile away. Later in the afternoon one still remained near the northern woods.

Sunday, 4 April 2010


Many will remember Easter Day mornings like this. Beguiling sunshine but with a penetrating cold wind tempering the enthusiasm of all but the best equipped. Old hands will know just where you can enjoy the best of the one while avoiding the worst of the other. Even if that winter coat is beginning to look somewhat well worn.

Saturday, 3 April 2010


Lichens are the ghosts of Blacka, haunting the woods at this time of year, the days before the green optimism of spring foliage bursts through. Character and interest may seem in short supply during March and early April when day after day can be grey and mist shrouded.
But lichens and mosses can now show off their eerie charms and when distant views are not on offer it's good to focus on smaller details.

Friday, 2 April 2010

The Other Fall

Each of the two streams running eastwards through Blacka has its own water feature. The one on Blacka Dyke is now easily visible. The two are quite different in their rate of fall. That on the Lee Stream drops suddenly and vertically while that at Blacka Dyke comes down in a long series of steps. Connoisseurs of minor falls will want to see both. Much more determination is needed to visit the one above as it's not on an established track or path and for much of the summer leafy vegetation makes the approach problematic.