Thursday, 30 September 2010

In Place

One of those special mornings.

About right, cattle in the farm field in the distance and wilder beasts up in the wilder land. Free spirits and unrepressed.
He's the current dominant beast on the moor impressive in his fine headgear.

His entourage are near at hand.

A younger stag looks on from near the top of the hill.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Desire and Possession in the Gloom

Not easy to see anything at 7 am when the mist and drizzle occupy the moor. But the advantage is that you get some idea of what's been going on during the hours of darkness. Seven stags were moving to the south, but in the other direction one larger beast was on guard. The camera makes it look lighter than it was. He had possession of five hinds and any attempts from the rivals to infiltrate had obviously been seen off in the night. No bellows but some heavy breathing.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010


It seems that SWT are planning to put the cattle, now in the pasture land, onto the moor shortly along with nine others making 15 in all. Now this is entirely contrary to what we've been told -those of us who have attended their RAG meetings, making a mockery of the consultation, yet again. It is however consistent with what we have come to expect from SWT. Those who have taken the trouble in their own time to engage themselves with the process of contributing to the alleged consultation are largely ignored when it comes to the decisions which matter most. Cattle on the moor at this time of year are likely to cause even more damage to the network of soft paths as was acknowledged when the original decision was taken to graze cattle from April/May to September. It is also contrary to the clear commitment in the management plan. It’s hard to escape the obvious conclusion that this is being done now to suit the convenience of the grazier rather than for what is good for the land and for the site. The links between the conservation economy and the farming economy are strong. It’s worth wondering what the situation would be regarding subsidy payments from the Rural Payments Agency if there had been no cattle grazing on the moor this year. Do inspectors from the RPA check these things? And if public money, however misguidedly, is being put to this purpose how is the situation justified when cutbacks in other areas are hurting? This blog now understands that the same farmer who puts his sheep and cattle on Blacka is being used for grazing the whole of Burbage and Houndkirk and the Hathersage Moors (owned by SCC) and also the North Lees Estate (owned by PDNPA). That is a huge swathe of public land and it would be interesting to know the subsidy he is receiving from the public purse for getting his sheep to stop trees growing on the moors. This is farming that makes no real value profit but simply puts a few sheep on the moor ostensibly for some conservation benefit – a benefit some of us strongly dispute. Historically these old shooting estates were burned and grazed to create a lawn of low heather liked by grouse so that there would be a plentiful supply of game birds for the wealthy who came up for the shooting. No shooting now takes place so there’s no reason that the land should continue to be grazed in this way unless conservationists think that the boring heather monoculture is better for wildlife than a richer mix of vegetation (which it isn’t). So what is the point of all this grazing? Certainly it can’t be explained as being good for the rural economy if only one farmer, living in Bradfield, remote from the site, is benefiting.
This grazing arrangement has been described to me recently as ‘agricultural tenancies’ by a council officer, the words suggesting somehow that several farmers are living on farms with the council as their landlord. This is clearly not the case. There is something defensive about the reaction when one asks about this of the conservationists, council officers and other land management professionals. It was at the end of March this year that the previous ‘tenant’ was ejected. He did not live on the site either. He had an Environmental Stewardship Grant giving him some £400,000 plus for putting a few sheep on the Sheffield Moors and getting prosecuted twice for mistreating his sheep – animals that were often to be seen wandering in and out of the speeding commuter traffic on the main road. Perhaps he avoided prison because he had money to pay his fine by courtesy of Unnatural England.
Now that ‘tenancy’ has been taken up by the National Trust to help out SCC who were then without a ‘tenant’ - as we were told when attending the consultations in August. But now we learn that the new tenant is not the NT itself but a sublet arrangement and the farmer is the same one who puts animals on Blacka. Regular readers may remember me asking questions about the sheep and cattle on Blacka last winter. Incidentally this morning there were sheep again on the main road.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Foggy Thoughts

Walking in poor visibility focuses us on the near at hand. The part-wooded landscape comes into its own. Advocates of grouse moors talk about openness as if it's a great virtue. What it tends to mean is that people may be not noticing their immediate surroundings so much as what is far away (the power stations along the A1?). Blacka's mix does not preclude that but the presence of trees singly and in groups is even more welcome in mist.
The thought of walking in mist on Burbage Moor is not at all appetising. Even today new things are seen - another unknown fungus with intimidating Latin name, a small yew tree in the copse and a young oak thrusting through the now decaying bracken.

Saturday, 25 September 2010


White on the grass this morning, and on the sleeper bridge. The cold-scorched bracken on the hillside looked ginger in the morning sunlight.
Around the trees more and more fungi appear as if at a festival. This creamy one is well shaded by the low plants.
Meanwhile, outlined against the morning sky, up on the grassy top of Thistle Hill, a characteristic of the seasonal local fauna was browsing at 6.45 am. This is the Magic Mushroom searcher, usually seen bent double. He would have shown no interest in the magically bright colours of the red waxcaps pushing through the grass, not far away from where he was inspecting the ground.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Opposing Visions

A further blast of domestication has returned to Blacka with a group of six cows plonked in the pasture land. It is interesting that the cows were first seen this week on a morning that also brought us a beautiful, early-morning view of real wildness the sort of thing that gets one out of bed in the morning.

Sheffield Wildlife Trust has contributed a short piece for the local Dore to Door publication, part of their commitment to getting that message across in the face of the alternative vision put forward by others including this blog. From it I extract this paragraph:

"The heathland of Backa Moor has a wonderful mosaic of dwarf shrubs (heather bilberry and cowberry), birch and rowan copses scattered trees, mires and grassland. The development of the heathland is due to human intervention - mainly forest clearance and livestock grazing. To conserve the valuable habitats and the landscape, management is needed to prevent the encroachment of bracken and birch scrub that would displace the heather bilberry and other heathland plants. Cattle grazing is a traditional form of management that ensures that the heathland mosaic is conserved for future generations of wildlife and people to enjoy.”

It has taken SWT quite a number of years to come up with a coherent defence of their management plans for Blacka Moor. It’s possible that they have only now done so because they have been challenged by local people including this blog and been found wanting. The passage quoted above was submitted for the Autumn edition of Dore to Door and is carefully worded, testament to some hours of heartsearching to justify their own role.

The first thing to say about this is that they are intent on making a connection based on management. They have correctly identified that the coherent view of their critics is based on the simplicity of our vision – that this is not any longer land that has an economic purpose so it should be allowed to go whatever way nature wishes. Our position is a little more nuanced than that but I’m happy for it to stand for the moment. The problem for SWT is that once they concede our view that nature’s choice should be respected, then their own role becomes redundant. What do you do (outside the tasks associated with access maintenance) when all the key decisions are out of your hands? So their propaganda tactic revolves around denying the validity of our position by claiming that the land has ‘always’ been managed therefore they are simply continuing in that age-old and highly respectable tradition of land management that has made the countryside what it is today. So they say that “The development of the heathland is due to human intervention”. The trouble here is that the human intervention did not make Blacka what it is today. It contributed of course because it’s undoubtedly true, as they say, that forests were cleared and livestock was grazed. But much of the condition of Blacka today that people so value owes little to that process and a great deal to the random unplanned wilding that has occurred over much of the last century. Anyone who walks here with eyes open can see that. It also needs to be pointed out that the land management of the past certainly was not setting out to be benign, simply to exploit what the land had to offer, with no concern for wildlife or natural beauty and it rarely left the land in an attractive state. A grouse moor is probably the dullest and most monotonous landscape known to many people a purely utilitarian affair designed to exclude anything that worked against the production of birds for shooting. So, when you actually start to look at it, using the management of the past to justify management today hardly seems wise.
We should also query the assumption implicit in their position that because something has always (or continuously for a time) been managed in a certain way then that must necessarily continue. Once you are into artificial landscapes like grouse moors then you would need stronger reasons than they can muster for simply doing something because it’s been done before. That other artificial landscape - the industrial and desolate area of eastern Sheffield - was wiped away with few regrets over the later part of the last century. In relation to the industrial past and its pollution I look upon the desolate, over -exploited moorland of the grouse moors as the reverse side of the coin. The early ramblers enjoyed the moors for a complex group of reasons, maybe principally for the remoteness and because they represented an escape from the smoky industrial city. But the chance for these moors to regenerate as genuinely wild natural and romantic landscapes was not taken as it should have been when the urban regeneration happened. Now these areas are targeted by conservation groups who see their potential for everlasting management and job opportunities for the expanding numbers of graduates coming from land management courses. In the passage above I love the use (twice) of that favoured word of the wildlife trusts – ‘mosaic’. They use it at moments of stress when desperate for a weapon to counter the arguments of others - as a magic word, a talisman before which all bow down and all critical judgement is suspended.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Climbing Corydalis

Discovering new wild flowers that have escaped your attention for a lifetime is a source of delight. Mark kindly identified the delicate flower in yesterday's post as the Climbing Corydalis. Despite its small scale it is flowering in September so the lack of competition should have made it more noticeable. Looking at my books I see Rose has it as being locally common though there was but a small patch here. Corydalis claviculata, according to Phillips, is also called White Climbing Fumitory.
Like many delicate flowers it's not easy to photograph effectively and others have also struggled as evident in illustrations on the web. All the better in this respect that those dedicated artists in botanical illustration should have a chance to show that the camera is not everything. My photos today at least had the advantage of better light but the sunlight on the tiny white flowers is a minefield for contrast problems.
Searching the plant's name did bring up one item that (irrationally) depressed me. It seems there is a species of weevil associated with the Corydalis that has become a target for the biodiversity people. It now has its own Action Plan. Why do I suddenly feel rather tired?

Monday, 20 September 2010

Not Prescribed

I've said before, among the more valued qualities of wilder land is its capacity to surprise and intrigue. Today is not the same as yesterday.
Yesterday a small bright yellow fungus showed itself in weather and light conditions not meant for taking photos. Along we went this morning only to find it had changed shape and colour. They are the most variable of organisms as if bent on teasing the observer.

The Brown Roll Rim fungus is one of the commonest around and at this time of year you can't progress 2 metres without seeing one. But you would not expect to see two the same shape even though colour and texture are similar and each has its distinct cap with rolled in edge.
They are everywhere this year, out in the open, under birch, under bracken and all the low shrubbery. The largest yet, this morning, was bigger than a normal dinner plate.

Elderberries are now ripe on the trees, awaiting the harvester who has prepared himself with a long walking stick or shepherd's crook.
Nearby a flower is scrambling across the bracken.
I feel I should know the identity of this but will need to look it up. The surprise here is where it is. Bracken does not often get colonised by other plants especially small delicate ones like this. It seems to be of the pea family with trifoliate leaves, tendrils and small white flowers. Whatever it is I approve.

No deer on the morning walk for several days so today's last surprise was a large stag, a fourteen pointer, from a vantage also in the bracken.
"Prescriptive" was one of the first words I used when hearing of management plans for this countryside. None of the sights of the morning owed anything to managers.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Chinese Pandas and British Badgers

There's some similarity in the black and white markings and also that both are in the news. The Chinese look upon the panda as special to their culture and of great symbolism, and, if we are to believe news items, they are very upset over the death of one of their pandas loaned to Japan. The story is being told as one of great emotional significance.

So would you expect the same degree of indignation from wildlife trusts that the animal whose head is used as their emblem should be under threat of being killed by farmers in England? If you did expect that you would be disappointed. One or two scattered and muted comments but little else. Even they would be qualified by remarks to the effect that badgers of course are not an endangered species.

The truth is that wildlife trusts have questionable commitment to wild animals and certainly not a good record in promoting wildness. Of course these comments may be unduly influenced by our experience of one wildlife trust, Sheffield Wildlife Trust, whose commitment seems more to farming, land management and bird gardening than to genuine wildness. Birds are of course the acceptable wildlife for those who find wildlife troublesome. Lest that appear unfair, take into account these experiences:

1 A lengthy stretch of barbed wire fencing was installed on Blacka and remains there. One of the features of this is that it has four strands, the bottom one of which is only inches from the ground just in place to potentially harm wild animals such as badgers. They later (after criticism) replaced a section of this with plain wire, but only the part most likely to be seen by the public and arouse comment. Most remains as originally.

2 The most impressive and inspiring sight on Blacka in recent years has been wild red deer stags. Several years ago SWT submitted an article to the Totley Independent about Blacka Moor, the first time they had done so. This article did not even mention the wild animals. Its title was Beautiful Beasts of Blacka Moor but this did not refer to the deer but to the farmer's cattle they were intending to put on the moor - though they had not yet appeared. The article went on to enthuse with dubious sincerity about certain farming practices, going on to rhapsodise about a future when livestock farming once again dominated the area - whether or not with all the industrial mechanisation that is the face of modern farming was not revealed.

There has been a constant agenda of talking up farm style management as if this is part of the culture and tradition of Blacka that must continue in perpetuity. That this is a well rehearsed response is clear from the way it surfaces each time that the benefits of wilder approaches are demonstrated and beauties are seen which arise from the actions of nature alone.

Observing these trends one becomes aware once again that institutions create their own conformity originating in a shared self interest and fearing the perspective of independent thought.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Dancing Woods

Few countryside experiences can match the pleasures felt when walking through woods on a bright afternoon at this time of year with a narrow winding path ahead of you.

The patches of sun and shade seem almost to be part of a well rehearsed dance.
And at the end of the path emerging from the woods with the wind behind and warm sun firmly in place a comma butterfly poses grammatically on the fence.

He remained open and refused to reveal his punctuation.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

How to Learn People

SWT are now advertising courses for the public. We can learn from this, but caution should be exercised before shelling out £99 for a SWT course in Habitat Management.

Locals have often remarked that SWT was a prime example of a group of people who were 'learning on the job', the advantage to the place being questionable. Perhaps that's in the ungrammatical sense of learning people what to do.

The Colour of Morning

At times the greys are the colour of mourning, but a blustery, showery September morning gives more variety than most months, sometimes changing so fast that it's hard to keep up.
The greens are hanging on despite the thrust towards autumn and a shaft or two of sun helps their cause a lot.

Bracken in the woods is still a strong force and the fronds survive longer than out in the open. But it's never able to dominate to the same extent where shade and root competion are factors, and you can always walk through it to explore the pathless areas.

The wood floor displays many signs of autumn, more under the beeches than anywhere. Fungi are abundant and the redder ones quite easily spotted, from the Russulas, bleached white underneath and where the slugs have nibbled the caps to the more suspect ones not found elsewhere.

This is the Beechwood Sickener and the name is enough to warn off anyone looking for a free meal. The related one called simply the Sickener is more associated with pines.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Bracken: Friend or Phobia?

The more you get to know these parts of the moors the more you get to understand the bracken and its role in the landscape. A woman at Saturday's meeting was sure something needed to be done about it, reflecting the general view put out by managers that our countryside always has to be managed and cannot be allowed to go its own way. She was an orienteer and the bracken apparently severely limited her group from pursuing its activities. Interesting that they want nature to conform to human needs rather than the other way round. I've never done orienteering so had always thought that the idea was to combine vigorous activity with navigating wilder areas, but then I suppose they want things just so wild and no more. More surprising was the view expressed that this problem for them continued in winter months as well. My observation is that bracken is no longer a 'difficulty' in September through to June and I had always thought we could allow the 'flat-track-bully' of the plant world a couple of months pushiness before it settled down to contribute colourfully to the autumn and winter views.

But bracken is a plant I've grown to enjoy after observing it over the years. There may be some justice in calling it invasive, but that is a result of its resourceful colonisation through its root spread. The truth is that we only get the bracken we deserve. If we had not been guilty of artificially denuding the landscape of trees in order to exploit it for intensive food and wool production and as shooting estates for the privileged then the trees would have controlled bracken spread - and will again if we give them the chance. Like most successful plants bracken is opportunist. Those who 'bash the birch' and try to keep heathlnad free from trees are making it more likely that bracken will spread, after which managers and farmers want to spray the bracken and create a certain kind of artificial grassland. That in its turn suggests that cattle and sheep come in to crop the grass. One thing leads to another. and we finish up with a totally artificial prospect that looks the same for 11 months of the year.

But bracken can be beautiful when combined with bilberry and heather and the wildlife that thrive when these plants run wild. Autumn is a good time to observe them all contributing to the effect. (But please just don't mention that word 'mosaic' one of the overworked cliches of the conservation world.) And wildlife needs cover - in very short supply on grazed and burned grouse moors. It's bracken that steps in to provide it, most obviously for the largest native mammal we have who can all but disappear among the fronds.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

More of the Same

It's a sad reflection on the lack of ambition and failure of imagination within the land management industries that the management plan from the Eastern Moors Partnership will be built on farming and the role of farmers rather than a genuinely new approach that allows the land to express itself. Even in saying this the danger is in understating the calamity this is for landscape, and the failure to grasp opportunities that do not crop up often in a lifetime. On Blacka that opportunity came in 1933 and it was taken by nobody consciously; the opportunity was grasped by nature itself which created a wilder and more natural feel to an area that had been utterly repressed and shackled by the exploitation of farmers and gamekeepers. And the result should be an inspiration to those who can influence the course taken by neighbouring moors. But sadly you cannot make those see who wish to remain blind.
It was farmers to the fore at the workshop organised by the Partnership and the PDNPA following up from the five 'consultation sessions'. The farmers and their wives were not to be outnumbered by any other group or combination. Some of us had accepted meekly the polite request that

"due to the limited spaces, organisations limit the number of representatives attending to a maximum of two people."

Of the five groups our group discussion contained at least four farmers (for some reason they were not keen to wear the tags identifying themselves) and altogether there were probably at least ten - the estimate of one farmer; it was not easy for others to judge. These were graziers who live at some distance from the moors but provide animals to repress the landscape in case it decides to go its own way and produce trees. Of course the interests of the RSPB managers will not coincide exactly with that of the graziers but my impression is that there will be little difference between them. This will anyway be down to the way that farm subsidies are now calculated and the way that NE hands down its requirements on tablets of stone.

Perhaps the lesson of Blacka is that revolutions happen only by accident when management is asleep or ignorant or otherwise occupied. That's certainly happened here this year when lengthy periods of no implementation of grazing management improved the place in many ways.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Domesticated Wildlife

No pictures today, having been away from Blacka for a week. But everywhere puts a perspective on Blacka. In South West London, near Hampton Court lies Bushy Park, one of the royal parks. Here you will find Red Deer and Fallow Deer kept in a large enclosure as they were in Henry VIII's time. The character of the Bushy Park animals is quite different to that of the deer on Blacka where they are genuinely wild and the behaviour of the park herds for that reason fails to capture the imagination in the same way.
The other striking thing about Bushy Park was the parakeets. I remembered hearing about these escapes from captivity and the way they were spreading across the London area but had no idea they had become this common. There's some argument about whether they should be culled. Some are very much in favour of this, others say that, non-native though they are we should just accept them.
Back on Blacka and surrounding land even native species are constantly being culled largely unquestioned. In this case it is native trees that are being culled not birds, nor (yet) deer.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Sense of Place

Blog Retrospective

The original idea was to set up a blog that would be just about one place itself and nothing at all about the writer. In that it aimed to be contary to nearly all blogs so was inevitably going to fail. A tour around the blogging world will confirm that most people write about themselves first and their subject(s) next. In fact many write just about themselves and not much more. The idea here was that Blacka Moor should be the subject, the whole subject and ‘nowt but’. The first title chosen was Blacka Moor – A Sense of Place. After a bit that started to look clich├ęd and even pretentious so the last four words were quietly dropped. But there had been some point in that original title. And it did bring in the human element by implication. The personal subtext says that knowing one place well makes a difference to people. It gives a person a feeling of having roots - even if those roots have been transplanted from a different beginning. And keeping in touch with the ground in which those roots grow gives a certain perspective on the world. It would be absurdly fanciful to believe it makes you a better person but at least plausible that it makes you a different kind of person to those who drift from one novel experience to another without reflecting. A sense of place is about the character and atmosphere of a place and about the way the senses respond to the experience of it day by day. People may be untutored in ecology and inexpert in the identification of flora and fauna but still be authoritative to a degree on the character and sense of a place; and that is an aspiration not a claim.

Friday, 3 September 2010


Once the antlers are free of velvet and in final form you can see stags using them for shows of strength. This may involve a sideswipe at a tree on passing or a short practice tussle with a fellow in the herd. It is not far from the rutting period and hormones are beginning to affect behaviour in the groups of stags who may have browsed together amicably enough during the year so far. The youngest tends to get short shrift with his simplified headgear and quickly learns that the heavier beasts are at another level of seriousness in asserting their position.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Supermarkets of the Countryside

The government's thinking about ownership and management of National Nature Reserves is intriguing; all part of their approach to dealing with the budget deficit. The text of the Guardian's article suggests that some of these places "could one day theoretically be owned and managed by a big supermarket like Sainsbury's or Tesco, an oil company or a local community."

Well some of the parallels could already be with us in increasing parts of the countryside. Is it going too far to see the top down management and uniformity of approach emanating from a centralised structure and leading to Tesco towns being the model for some of the ways that our countryside is currently being managed by bureaucracies and charities like Natural England and the Wildlife Trust movement? I'm thinking of the display boards that went up around Blacka when SWT took over with symbols and logos from the trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund and English Nature (as then was) and reminders of the SSSI status. And the way that every countryside site has to be managed as an artificial site with farming and livestock to the fore. The management structures are another similarity and the approach to public relations. I'm sure that all wildlife trusts attend the same seminars and away days and standardise their approach. And can we really say that has no discernible effect on what we see on the ground? That does not necessarily mean they use the same supplier of barbed wire, but if it is not so now the time may come; and there will be someone in the establishment who believes not enough barbed wire is to be seen in our countryside, nor enough cow pats either.

Self Expression

Each day brings more examples of the pleasures that wilder land can bring when an area of landscape is allowed to express itself without the exploitation of subsidised farming.
The appeal of trees is such that spaces are created and each space like each tree is different as natural sculptures in a more natural landscape. The morning sun low in the sky penetrates through each these spaces in a unique way. All must be done to nail the lie that allowing trees onto a grouse moor would be a disaster. (The disaster might be that managers roles would come to be questioned.)

Last year cattle were on Blacka and the paths like the one in the picture were defiled by cow pats. Today one could almost enjoyably crawl along the path. What is it about cow crap? I feel sure a dissertation could be written comparing the form and appearance of this alien phenomenon with the excrement of deer and other wilder beasts!

Another of the many reasons for our being grateful for the absence of cows is that many plants have been allowed to express themselves fully. Grasses alongside paths are much more fun reaching full height laden with seeds. Though it must be mentioned that SWT sent out someone at a loose end with the office strimmer last week. This is one path they missed.