Friday, 28 May 2010

More White from Blacka

Essential English countryside is a good topic for late night conversation before the fire in winter. What should the ideal ingredients be? Some of them are here to be enjoyed today near the end of May. For the record my choice would include a good mix of wildness with 'overgrown' vegetation typified by the swelling of the huge bilberry beds here. Also woodland newly clothed in late May foliage giving the perfect acoustic for elegant birdsong from the blackbird and assorted warblers. I'm rather fond of traditional good-looking farmland (without plastic bales, polytunnels and decaying farm machinery please). And I remain a fan of the patchwork of fields bounded by hawthorn hedges in flower. Odd bits of wildness should be scattered around.
It's on the uplands that I want to see more wild and romantic scenery. Let the trees grow and take the sheep into the lowland, they'll be much happier there. Today the hedge fringed fields are visible to the south with white blosssom. And other spaces have more random effects. All looked rather good. And when yellow appeared it was gorse, not the ghastly oil seed rape.


Some years rowan blossom has the edge over mayblossom. This year the two seem to have arrived closer together. So there's more white around with hawthorn's the most vivid. Rowan of course is more creamy and you can see why when you look into the individual flowers. And cow parsley lines the tracks as the finest border flower anywhere.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010


Flying round parts of Blacka in recent years have been several birds of prey. Buzzards are commonly seen in the west country but less so in these parts before now. That may be because of a history of persecution by farmers and gamekeepers. A hundred years ago the resident gamekeeper living at the house on Bole Hill would not have allowed any birds of prey to establish themselves in the area. Only this year buzzards were killed in the southern part of Derbyshire between Matlock and Ashbourne, testament to the largest predator being intolerant of smaller predators.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Which Warbler ?

It's difficult to distinguish a blackcap from a garden warbler by its song. The differences are small. Both are superb songbirds and on Blacka Moor you can hear both at the moment in excellent voice. But which is which?

And which warbler is this?

(Incidentally the heavy breathing accompaniment is provided by a tired and very hot labrador.)

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Another Grazer

Following on from my previous posts about conservation grazing, another piece of evidence supporting my view that nature provides its own response to situations. I've wondered for some time whether other deer species were present on Blacka apart from the now well known and loved red deer. This morning we were suddenly confronted with a buck - the male of the roe deer. This is the smallest native deer and tends to be territorial so more likely to be seen on its own unlike the red. The heart shaped white mark on its rear is one of the keys to identification. While the red deer are known as stags, hinds and calves, roe deer are bucks, does and fawns. So with all these natural grazers why compromise the romance of wild land by importing more farm animals?

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

A Candidate for Cuts ?

Following yesterday's post about grazing policy on Blacka Moor I need to point out the relevance to current political issues, in particular the threat of cuts to public spending. We all know that an axe is about to fall and the media is full of speculation about just where. Blacka has a unique perspective on this. During all the years here when minimal management or none at all was carried out the place actually improved. Nature had its say and that cost nothing. The management approach would have been to keep it as a boring grouse moor. Nature thought different and now we have character and a dynamic change showing the seasons, song birds in the trees of the young woodland and deer roamimg the whole site. It is wild and romantic and has mystery and fascination unlike many moorland areas not far away.

SWT took over shortly after Natural England, one of our most notorious quangos, had described it as 'in unfavourable condition' (quite astonishing). This set the course for large sums of public money to be spent in defiance of what local people had asked for when surveyed in 2001 - "we like it as it is and we don't want you to change it". Most of the money went on the grazing project , bringing in livestock to 'improve' the land, which meant a major fencing and walling operation. All this was looked on with scepticism at the very least by many local people and genuine astonishment from regular users who wondered how it was possible to obtain such large quantities of public money to do a job that was not just unnecessary but something that ran counter to all that was so valuable about the site, its natural beauty and its reappeared wildlife. The increased appearance of red deer on the land, that natural grazer and browser made the decision to go in for intrusive conservation grazing even more bewildering. The truth of the matter is that the unimaginative managers and conservation professionals had mindsets hooked on preset target guidelines determined at several removes from direct experience of the character and value of these land areas. This is one reason why they refused almost in panic to countenance suggestions from us to install a site worker who would himself get to know, understand and cherish Blacka for what it is. They felt more at home in their deskjobs applying criteria which originated elsewhere but had no relevance to this bit of countryside. These were the criteria that allowed boxes to be ticked and management plans to be written which drew down grants from public funds and which kept them in their office jobs.

Public money that has been spent includes many thousands from the Heritage Lottery Fund, more from English Nature/Natural England, more from Sheffield City Council and also Single Farm Payment from the Rural Payments Agency that comes to anyone who puts farm animals on land. There is also Higher Level Stewardship another form filling and box ticking exercise.

Now the point is this. There is nothing for these people to gain from natural changes. So the beautiful wild and natural grazing animals bring absolutely no money into the coffers and actually save money for the public purse. Whereas putting farm animals on the moor costs the public but helps the conservation industry to keep going and all the jobs (mostly in offices) for people coming out of the plethora of university courses in cuddly subjects like wildlife management. So I'm in no doubt that public money going into conservation grazing projects like that here should cease completely and I would argue this even if there were no economic crisis. In the present situation I can't see how there can be any argument when so many people are struggling.

I'm someone who has always taken the side of public spending as against the huge sums accumulated by many in private employment. But this situation is one that could not be invented. In fact what I resent most of all is the way people continue with this irresponsible project seemingly oblivious to the way it fuels the prejudices of the media against public spending. It is as if they themselves have a vested interest in driving down public spending by allowing it to be so easily caricatured.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010


The first really fine and mild evening brought many people out. It brings home just how many people rely on specific activities to engage with these days when once people's enjoyment of countryside was a more relaxed affair. The roads can become race tracks for howling motor bikers. Overhead helicopters roar and microlight aircraft buzz. No walkers on Blacka but midges would put many off. Mountain bikers were well represented though and the main event was a fell run organised by Totley AC over Totley Moor and down through the Blacka pasture land back to the Cricket Inn. There must have been hundreds perhaps attracted by the good weather. But it all looked so strenuous!

No wonder some of the deer had found a quieter section of the pasture land for refuge.

Cattle, Sheep and Deer

Sheep and cattle have not been on Blacka Moor for more than two months now. This time has been so welcome and such a refreshing change from SWT's dogmatic and obsessive farming regime that I feel almost well disposed towards them. Unfortunately the message seems to be that this is not intentional but instead due to the grazier having problems. According to the manager soon the cattle will be back on the central section and I assume sheep will be back in the pasture as well. I have always opposed using this very special wild and romantic naturalising site for livestock farming. To me it dimishes its appeal in so many ways. Here was a rare opportunity to allow a piece of land to do what nature decided, come what may. And come they did: the deer grazing in a way this land was grazed hundreds of years ago with wild animals, free spirits. Again one has to say, what an opportunity - one that would just have to be grasped by anyone with a tiny measure of imagination and sense of a place, and of a landscape and of the unimpeded interraction between wild nature and the land. Deer have returned to Blacka, red deer, our largest native mammal; and day after day they are doing the job that SWT kept telling us had to be done to halt the growth of woodland which they and their target-fixated masters at Natural England said must be stopped at all costs. The deer are here all night and are frequently seen in the morning intensely grazing the land and doing so in a totally unintrusive way. They are beautiful animals and light-footed causing scarcely any impact on paths unlike the cattle. The sight of them is heart warming and of great appeal to visitors. I have seen some mornings as many as 21 deer and regularly 10 and more. This morning there were 13, close together although the smaller group of hinds kept partly separate from the stags. It surely must be acknowledged (by anyone who is not trying to prove a theory that they unwisely adopted years ago) that this is the way forward. But even now from talking with SWT I get the impression that they are preparing to turn the most outrageous mental and bureaucratic somersaults to find ways of justifying a continuation of cattle grazing. This is desperate stuff.
Why? Only one reason suggests itself: They have staked so much, both in public money and in reputational capital on this in the face of opposition - an opposition that they have an institutional tendency to discredit- that they just can't bear to climb down.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Wharncliffe Heath

SWT arranged a visit to Deepcar for members of the RAG to be shown round Wharncliffe Heath. The reason for the visit was to show what a splendid thing 'conservation grazing' is. This is because only a small number of the RAG has been persuaded that a farming regime on Blacka has any merit. Deepcar is quite a journey, so the hope was that we would learn something especially as we had to go across the worst of the city traffic for 7 pm.

The first thing to say is that those who made the effort to go were not the regular and longer established RAG members who know the issues at Blacka but a couple of people who have volunteered to butcher some trees in the past plus the CPRE man who may have attended the RAG three or four times. Plus myself of course, not really wanting to go but intent on making sure they did not come back with some spurious message about the case for conservation grazing being 'proved'. I'm sure this was the intention. But as it happens the reverse seems to be the case for the following reasons.

  • The Wharncliffe Heath site is utterly different to Blacka because it is surrounded by woodland. All the high land around Blacka is treeless grouse moor.* (see below)

  • Wharncliffe is well drained and dry underfoot, Blacka is wet much of the time. So the impact of farm animals is quite different - mud on Blacka, none on Wharncliffe.

  • Lack of grazing on Blacka has allowed luxuriant bilberry to grow plus bell heather and cowberry. The grazing on Wharncliffe means none of those are present.

  • Until SWT came along Blacka was a magnificently wild and unspoiled and unfenced romantic landscape and they've not yet totally wrecked it. Wharncliffe is utterly artificial and man made, crossed by fences.

  • There are no red deer on Wharncliffe to do the job of keeping areas open. We all know that deer on Blacka make the presence of publicly funded grant aided bureaucratically managed conservation grazing completely unnecessary.
  • At Wharncliffe they still struggle to control birch because the cattle and sheep are not to be relied on. They would love to have red deer. Blacka has wild red deer browsing all night and much of the day.

The lesson to be drawn from this visit is actually the very opposite of that Sheffield Wildlife Trust would have preferred: Organised and managed conservation grazing on Blacka Moor is best abandoned because a natural alternative is much better and has the advantage of continuing the success of many years when Blacka improved when no management was carried out.

* The point about openness is that when people complain about trees being cut down and fences erected to keep sheep and cattle on the land, apologists for conservation grazing, heathland management etc. are constantly telling us that people prefer open landscapes. This is to justify the grants they get for cutting down trees which keep them in management jobs when nature would rather allow trees to grow. For a good analysis of this visit Mark Fisher's site.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Pursuing Tranquillity

A fine morning in mid-May is your best chance to find good old-fashioned tranquillity allied to natural beauty. Combine it with a trip to a green space with plenty of trees at 5 am and you may hear the dawn chorus at something like its best. A cold night meant the flowering bilberry was covered with frost. Hinds were out on the moor but didn't run off this time.
They were closer to trees than we were so they could keep an eye on us as we walked past. The stags on the edge of woodland two hours later were more nervous. They hated the idea that we were coming from the dark woodland when they were in the open. Deer much prefer things the other way round.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Some of everything

May. Hmm.

Parts of the country were reporting hard frosts, but not here. Instead it was gloomy cloud. But the light was odd and bits of soft hail fell. A small group of deer stood in the gloom under some trees. Then quite heavy snow for a bit before stopping suddenly. Bright sunshine followed.

Monday, 10 May 2010


Another brief musical selection from performers on the east side of Blacka. This time it's a duet between a willow warbler and a blackbird.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Are Humans Mammals?

According to this article from the BBC brown rats are 'among the most invasive mammals in Europe". This is the result of research coming from Switzerland. It goes on to mention other species such as Muskrat and Sika Deer. In order to produce the study the researchers developed a scoring system - a " general system of impact categories was needed, which allowed scoring and comparison of all potentially relevant types of environmental and economic impacts".

I'm left puzzling why the mammal with the most significant impact is not mentioned. Or are farmers, landscape managers road builders etc. in a different category?

Friday, 7 May 2010

Strawberry Lee Lane

The views approaching Blacka as you walk along Strawberry Lee Lane are something special. The sweep of the land and the spread of the woodland are as good to look at as anything in the region. Many now avoid turning to the right for fear that the sight of Fairthorn breaks the spell. Hallfield Farm is another story. There’s been a lot of work going on there and much of it has been of high quality. But there’s a lot of money being spent and when resources are so great one worries that those responsible may go too far and produce something intrusive and out of scale. We can keep ourselves informed by visiting the PDNPA’s planning pages. The link is here for the main building plans. One thing that’s caused some concern is the security lighting and another is the gateway structure at the top of the drive. I believe these should have planning permission but may not have it so far.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Barbed Barrier

If you try not to think about bad things you may hope they'll go away. That was always a childlike approach to problems. It never works and in the case of SWT's barbed wire the bad thing's still there and still a barrier to good relations as well as to progress on the ground. Some of the more secret and enjoyable places to explore on Blacka are ruined by difficulties in getting through or over this monstrosity. A dryish spell of weather, as we've been having in recent weeks, should make it easier than normal to get into parts of the woodland. Often the first months of the year are good for exploring and surprises are often the result. With Blacka Dyke down on your right the best plan is to follow deer tracks. This makes you understand the frustration that wildlife feels. Not all deer jump straight away and some worry about for quite a time as I've seen several times. When they do jump you can sometimes see the evidence. On each side of the barbed wire a track forms running alongside and parallel testament to the interference with wildlife.
Concerns were expressed years ago about the impact of this fence on walkers and Nigel Doar said that stiles would be installed at regular intervals. I seem to recall that he mentioned every 200m but it may have been less or a quite different figure. He wrote in a report to the City Council’s Scrutiny Board in 2005 that ‘along the vast majority of its length the fence is adjacent to impenetrable dense undergrowth that would prevent access by anyone but the most intrepid and physically fit adventurers’ Frankly this was simply untrue. And I have often walked along this and other stretches of the fence wishing for a stile where there was none.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Sounds of Spring

A few seconds of early morning music from behind Lenny Hill

Thorny Corner

The walk up to the Lenny Hill bench from Totley can seem a bit steep but on a spring morning like this it's worth it. Blackthorn decorates the hedgerow and all plants and trees show their most vivid shades of green. Except that is for the old hawthorn still hanging back from the general enthusiasm and keener to show off an angular profile than leap into fashionable colours.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

A Plastic Countryside ?

One of the bees in my second best bonnet was set buzzing this week on hearing that the RSPB had installed plastic ospreys at a site in Dorset. I discovered this by reading my copy of Plastics and Rubber Weekly. No joke - the link is here. The aim apparently is to lure back these birds to somewhere they've not visited for several hundred years. Well, it all fits well with the attempts to bring the nightjar and black grouse to Blacka and manage the northern moorlands as a thoroughly artificial landscape with no trees just a careful selction of favoured birds and miles of boring heather. I'm thinking of writing to the RSPB with a suggestion of my own. Why stop at plastic ospreys? Couldn't we have plastic darftord warblers, nightjars, and all the other species they so love at the expense of a more natural landscape ? Garden Gnomes have nothing on this. Why not a wholly plasticised landscape?

It's important to realise when you read and hear the uncritical coverage given to this kind of project in the media, that universities turn out thousands of graduates in soft courses connected with 'wildlife', ecology and landscape management and they've got to have something to do. It certainly would not do for the idea to get around that just leaving places to naturally change might be all that's needed. ( descends from soapbox)

Monday, 3 May 2010

Access Improvements

Two minor but welcome access improvements from SWT one of which is not quite as good as it appears. Walking across Cowsick bog last year it was frustrating that newly laid flagstones stopped just before one of the wettest parts meaning that some were tempted to go that way but then found themselves having to decide whether to go on or turn back. The rest of the route has now been completed so we can keep our boots out of the worst of the bog.

A stile was installed a couple of years ago on the west side of Bole Hill but the lack of a dog flap meant many people had to go round to an alternative access point entailing a trip up and down the eroded valleys on Moss Road - not an enjoyable experience. Now a new dog flap has been installed. I'm afraid I have to be grateful for the thought and for the intention but report that Bertie, one of Blacka's most loyal visitors, cannot use this flap.
Mainly it's because the ground on the Bole Hill side slopes up steeply, making a very awkward angle, bad enough for a younger dog but just not what a 12 year old labrador wants. Could a bit of excavating be done here, please?

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Wild and Cultivated

I don't expect everyone to agree with my being less than happy with the daffodils growing near the bench below Lenny Hill. Who could possibly be less than enchanted? The problem is - and it's a growing phenomenon- people are increasingly planting bulbs in wild areas that do not fit in with the character of the place. These flowers are anyway double bloomed daffodils, quite different to the wild daffodils that captured the imagination of Wordsworth.
I find I agree with Natural England's website on this. The cultivars can be magnificent in gardens and parks but, for me, not here. The thing is that there is so much beauty around here at the moment, quiet beauty and informal, that demands close attention; and we can miss it by being overwhelmed by large and showy introductions.
At this time of year the pushy more invasive native plants are slow at getting started while the more delicate species have their chance and these are responsible for superb cameo 'arrangements' where numbers of different plants achieve a temporary balance. You do sometimes have to bend down to appreciate them best.