Monday, 31 January 2011

Today, Starring the Sun

The sun was the star of this morning's walk. A range of colours was displayed within only ten minutes that made the latest Dulux line look in need of a lot more imagination.

A touch of temperature inversion mistiness added something to the scene, but the cold showed no pity for the camera finger.

Friday, 28 January 2011

A Good Read

One of my Christmas presents was the new Richard Mabey book. There's a pleasure in reading Mabey almost independent of the subject matter and you can sit down with his books just enjoying the wonderful English and the way he puts together a viewpoint which is never forced on you. But the title of his latest book captured my interest. He argues that we are too obsessed with eradicating undesirables in our landscapes. He also gives examples of places where aggressive species have eventually been overwhelmed by native plants and trees when left to their own devices. A beautiful and wise book.

Not much wisdom on Blacka where we get the usual self serving conservationist dogma about bracken and birch being undesirable, that nature is there to be controlled and managed and this can only be done by those fully qualified and licensed to chain saw - what else from those whose career depends on this aproach.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

R.A.G. Meeting

SWT's occasional Reserve Advisory Group meetings have very little value. The group has no set membership and is prone to be hi-jacked by any single interest clique such as horse riders, mountain bikers or twitchers who care little and understand less about the substantive issues. SWT are quite happy with this as it leaves them able to go their own way. Those with serious concerns may well feel that the meetings are a waste of time. But failure to attend leaves the field open for SWT to claim their own plans have support. Tomorrow's meeting is at 7 pm at Totley Methodist Church.

Next Target?

Still adjusting to the news that the power lines are soon to be gone and drunk with the wonder of it we might turn to thinking what next? Any ideas?

A drizzly day but not without interest. The colour of the bracken straw is now one of my favourite featuresof the winter months along with the lichens and the daily jackdaw spectacle.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Why Local Matters

Localism is in the news. There's even a Localism Bill going through parliament. As one MP said this must be the first official bill with an -ism as its title. All the political attention and fuss around this just now is due to a growing sense that people have very little power to affect and influence decisions in their own locality - and politicians eventually realise they have to respond somehow.
You have to feel a touch uneasy that a top down measure from central government is supposed to promote bottom up decision making.

Here on Blacka those who've fought to have a say and persisted despite negative feedback can take encouragement from the news that the high voltage power lines are to be removed. Many have grumbled in their beards over the years about this philistine encroachment marching across some of our best countryside but decided there was no chance of removing it. But some are more obstinate than others and don't accept defeat so easily. This is where local people count. Those who walk on Blacka day in day out develop a sense of custodianship akin to those who live in a beautiful village. Such people notice things and care deeply about what they see often. However much SWT would like to claim that they have the best interests of Blacka at heart, how much credibility does this have when the major focus of their work is at their office desks and they themselves live many miles from what they refer to as their 'reserve'.

Whatever we think about the present government's motives the ideas behind 'localism' as a movement are sound: those who have most say in what happens in a location should be those who genuinely know it, live in it and walk in it. Those who cry 'nimby' often have their own agenda: beware developers and big corporations used to getting their own way annoyed by local opposition. Should we really put the top down decisions of remote organisations and government itself before the detailed local knowledge and experience of those most affected?

Wednesday, 19 January 2011


The aim of SWT’s Walk on Sunday was to explain why they wish to cut trees in the woodland thereby qualifying for the English Woodland Birds grant from the Forestry Commission.

Bird watchers should come with a health warning.
Just to be clear, and for the record, I, Blacka Blogger, admit that I watch birds. Not serious bird watching by the standards of those I sometimes see for whom it takes precedence over food, family life and sex but I admire the wee things when I see them, recognise their charms and quite often manage to identify breed, species, make, year of manufacture and model number. I also confess to being seriously captivated by the musical prowess of songbirds in the Spring. But all of this stops well short of thinking the whole world should revolve around catering for their welfare. In fact one of the things I most admire about our feathered friends is their independence, opportunism and resilience.

I celebrate Blacka through its wholeness, an overall character which encompasses atmosphere, sense of place and visual natural beauty and where a balance has been achieved through evolution from the over managed stranglehold of the gamekeeper into a place unaffected by and inimical to those management ambitions existing in the urban jungle and the conservation market place.

There is less of a dispute it seems (not now anyway) that Blacka itself is just fine. That could be a sign that we are winning that argument over some at least of those who were at one time shouting that it was in UNFAVOURABLE condition. The argument in favour of intervention has shifted. It now comes down to the claim that other places aren’t as good as Blacka so certain bird species are underperforming in many other parts of the countryside. Therefore we have to accept Blacka as becoming primarily a sanctuary where every convenience is provided for these pre identified key species: in other words a through designed emporium where living quarters food outlets and all mod cons should be just so. Trees for example must be of the correct height and spacing. Swards and dwarf shrub distribution should be bespoke designed to attract the discriminating avian customer. That can be summed up in two words: MORE MANAGEMENT, or alternatively more intervention and more projects funded by grants from anyone who can be persuaded to part with the money preferably without asking too many questions.

Several things are wrong with this:
1 Here at Blacka we have so much just right that has happened because management was absent. The idea that bringing more management back will improve things is to fail to learn the lesson of the recent past.
2 The extended consultation exercise carried out a few years ago came up with a number of conclusions. One that had unanimous support was that there should be minimum intervention
3 There is a special quality to land which has been allowed to develop naturally over many years. It has an integrity not experienced where constant interference happens. But there’s so little land free from managers that the few places where nature is unshackled by managers comprise an endangered phenomenon just as scarce, perhaps even more so, than the Black Grouse or the Dartford Warbler.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

End is Nigh for One Eyesore

Excellent and unexpected news from CPRE. Against all predictions and what we thought was a vain hope the High Voltage power line cutting across Blacka could be gone very soon. Apparently the finance for the undergrounding and routing along the roadside is all sorted and it is a question of the contractors fitting it in with their plans. I can hardly believe this because when we first decided to make tentative enquiries not long ago, the idea was that we might as well raise the matter even if it took 20 years. At that time YEDL were the one electricity company in the country who were wanting nothing to do with any of this landscaping work.
This is such a welcome surprise (and in the present 'climate' too) that we'll probably have to keep fingers crossed until it's all done.

Also it's a reminder of the power of our vision that Blacka's great strength is the sense of wildness that it still retains, something compromised by the power lines and soon to be enhanced when they go, enabling Blacka to capture the imagination of those who yearn for landscapes free from intervention and exploitation.
Dare we open a bottle?

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Family Silver

I've had no reply from Nick Clegg nor yet acknowledgement to my letter of 1st January. That's the one expressing concern about the selling off of NNRs. I shall remind him about that when I write with concern about another proposed sale of more of our countryside's family silver. This is the sale of 150,000 hectares of national forest currently managed by the Forestry Commission. These are important public assets and selling them off to private buyers risks our never again having a chance to influence the way they are managed.

There is also the little matter of taxation.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Tussocks and Dung

The pasture land, or inbye land, which is given over to farm livestock is in the top part of Blacka. All of Blacka should be predominantly for the enjoyment of visitors but as it is managed nobody could say that about the pasture land. Unless, that is, your hobby is photographing or recording the distribution of farm animal excrement.
I’ve not yet met such a person but we live in funny times and odd things do happen. Not much though as odd as this place being designated part of a SSSI with requirements that it’s managed by conservationists in the way that it is, making it unnatural and about as uninspiring as a 5 year management plan. I’ve sometimes tried to think of a way to make this place entertaining within the terms of its present conservation management. One idea was to blindfold a walker, turn him round, and lay bets on how many seconds before his boot came down in a cowpat; or, alternatively, sheep faeces.
Stakes and rewards for the two would be differential.
But the presence of the cattle is a great example of the scam of conservation grazing. Because the livestock are not there primarily for the benefit of the grazier who owns the animals. They are there to fulfil the grand scheme of managing for wildlife - allegedly for upland breeding birds. This is about as thorough a piece of nonsense as you can get. The officers who decide these things make it up as they go according to what grants are available. A couple of years ago a Natural England officer suggested keeping the cattle on the inbye land over winter ‘to deal with the tussocks’. This immediately became policy and lovers of cow pats have thanked her ever since. Yet where is the evidence that tussocks are bad or a lack of tussocks is good? A friend whose tolerance is greater than mine saw another conservationist on BBC television’s Countryfile programme saying that tussocks are grand things for ground nesting birds. Now my attention has been drawn by one of Mark’s recent articles that “rough tussocky grassland” is just what barn owls need because it is ideal for field voles much valued food supply for the owls. See this page on the website of the Barn Owl Trust. But then we always knew that conservationists were making things up as they went along and that the confidence with which they implied they know best is assumed and phoney.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Dim View

Not a promising day with morning drizzle and persistent gloom. The bare fact that today has two and a quarter minutes more daylight than yesterday hardly registers on the senses. A stag quietly browsed among heather birch and flattened bracken. Badgers are supposed to come out at dusk to feed but the fellow today had decided that the whole day qualified as dusk.

Badgers can be fairly easy to get close to if you are down wind as we were. Their sense of smell is very powerful but sight and hearing are compensatingly poor. Which is why the dog's barking had no effect on him.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Developing Through Natural Processes

The response of Mark Fisher to news that SWT is planning to cut more trees this time in the woodland can be accessed in full under the previous post. There are important strategic and philosophical issues in what is happening here and I had touched on some of them in the post itself. Mark's perspective is from a greater knowledge than mine of the way the conservation industry works and the ecology of these areas. The very best aspects of Blacka are what has developed naturally in the years since grouse moor style management ceased.
This has left us with a refreshingly wild character that increasing interventions can only damage. The return of red deer has been the reward we've had for all those years of allowing nature to develop naturally.

Some of what Mark says about the woodland plans is reproduced below:

Isn’t this just another example of funding availability driving wildlife trust management? Perhaps SWT have been talking to the other SWT – Staffordshire WT – as they also “discovered” the Woodland Birds Grants in their determination to justify to objectors what is primarily a deforestation to open habitat at Gib Torr to create even MORE moorland!!

This is another example of SWT (Sheffield WT that is) making out that they walk on water – everything they do is marvellous, and that they are but the saviours of our natural heritage. Their focus on Blacka has very much been about the dogma of moorland management and the persecution of trees. That Blacka is designated as “Dwarf shrub heath – upland” pretty much relegates the woodland to obscurity in their approach. Worse still, that designation could be used as a pretext to further persecute the woodland, as a requirement of that designation is that there should be no more than 20% of scattered trees on Blacka. The word scattered is underlined in the Common Standards Monitoring.

As you know, the Forestry Commission is well aware of the value of the woodlands on Blacka, and the RSPB person that they brought in to look at the woodland said there already was a lot of woodland bird interest, indicating that there is NO NEED to interfere. I hesitate to use anything from English Nature in support of my point, but SWT needs to take notice of the objectives that were set by EN for the woodland on Blacka:
“The woodlands will be allowed to develop through natural processes wherever possible”
“Some limited supplementary planting may be required to increase the stocking of native species”
“..we would expect the area of semi-natural woodland to be maintained, with established targets for both canopy and understorey cover. A proportion of standing dead trees and lying dead wood should be retained on site and there should be signs of natural regeneration of native species. Species composition is important, and the long-term target should be at least 90% of cover in any one layer of site native or acceptable naturalized species, with 80% of ground flora cover referable to the relevant NVC community”

I just wonder what SWT really know about the woodland on Blacka. Can they ever get over themselves and allow the woodland to develop through natural processes.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Bird Gardening?

SWT has not given up on its plans to further interfere with the woodland by chain saw warfare. More felling. They would like to be able to show they have local people on their side probably because they need to show that there is support for their plans in order to qualify for the grants available. The grants come via the Forestry Commission and RSPB collaboration and the idea is that they re-design the woodland to provide just the kind of habitat - trees spaced out just so- in the way that the wee birdies are supposed to prefer. SWT has been trying to persuade me that this in the interests of everyone, of the woodland itself and of the woodland birdlife but I remain sceptical. This is public money being provided for this project and the plan is to improve on nature. As with the heathland management the presumption is that nature cannot be trusted to go its own way. It might do the wrong thing. And targets are what we are about these days, not just in the NHS but also it seems in our wild woods. I'm not sure whether the managers get a bonus for each time a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker visits but it's a bit like that.
My reservations are several:
1 An artificial habitat will be created where the situation at the moment is that natural vegetation, natural woodland cannot be said to have failed. The whole of Blacka is becoming increasingly artificial with artificial heathland and artificial pasture land. Now the one part of Blacka where nature has been allowed to be largely free from intrusive agendas would be managed.
2 It is conceded that birdlife on Blacka is doing well without the need for this kind of management. It is odd to have money spent where there is success now. Other places in the country are not doing well. Spend the money there instead.
3 The process is usually very disruptive. The way that SWT is organised it's often not the people who tell you about these things that actually do the work.
4 The story that these birds depend on a certain pattern of woodland seems to be a theory. How well has it been tested and has it been peer reviewed?
5 Once this has been done what next? We seem to have a never ending series of interventions and tinkerings in a site where we decided there should be minimum intervention.

Thursday, 6 January 2011


Two days ago the ground was rock hard, after cold nights and drying winds. Yesterday we had non-stop rain much of it heavy with flooded paths. Overnight clear skies brought plunging temperatures again and a sharp frost. Thin icy crusts everywhere make walking an activity requiring skill and judgement.

It's also noisy as ice cracks with each step.If the four large stags had not seen us they would certainly have heard us; but they agreed to stay around watching our progress for a short while.

Another morning when sunrise addicts were disappointed. The clouds around dawn only cleared later in the morning unfairly rewarding those who stay longer in bed.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

"Wild and Open"

The Eastern Moors Partnership (EMP) has sent in a report to Sheffield City Council that has not, so far, been discussed within the council - not by elected members anyway. This follows the public meetings held during August at which the Sheffield Moors (Houndkirk, Burbage and Hathersage Moors) were brought into the discussions. No decision had been take by the council at that time to hand this large area of land to EMP nor has yet been. The way the Sheffield Moors were brought into the consultation was not satisfactory as I've said before so it's been necessary to watch pretty carefully the way the issue goes from here. I've already asked the South West Community Assembly to be involved in any discussions about the eventual fate of the Sheffield Moors. It’s necessary to remember that EMP are not and cannot be totally detached and dispassionate about this. Like most organizations they wish to embed themselves in the fabric of society and the way conservation organizations do this is by acquiring land and making their management of it appear indispensable. Statements they make should always be read with this in mind and accompanied by a measure of scepticism.

The report sent to SCC from the EMP refers to the ‘guiding management principles’ that they have introduced for the Eastern Moors Estate (not the Sheffield Moors as yet) and the very first of these is:

1 The wild and open nature of the site should not be compromised

Immediately something has to be questioned. If you ask ten people what ‘wild and open’ means you’ll probably get 10 different answers. That’s lucky for the managers because they can interpret it any way they like. Does it mean anything or not? ‘Wild and Open’? Can land that has for generations been managed as a grouse moor be described as wild and open? It may be open but it’s certainly not wild and never will be as long as it continues to be look like an artificial grouse moor just perfectly designed for a shooting party. Neither will it even look wild if trees are actively discouraged by a grazing scheme. So ‘wild’ and ‘open’ are actually contradictory. It can be one thing or it can be the other.

The authors rely on the fact that very few people look critically at their statements and quite a fair proportion of the public will themselves refer to these moors as a wilderness. Ignorance is bliss. Usually these problems of perception are skated over by those who manage. Once you go into discussing the real nature of the land you risk encouraging calls for nature to be allowed to go its own way and the whole edifice of assumptions that have been fostered by present conservation policy is undermined. So with this in mind what should we make of "wild and open"? How calculated is this? The words "should not be compromised" attached to the phrase "wild and open" that is so meaningless is a typical tactic of the political managerial class. The second half of the sentence gives an impression of decisiveness but we don't know what they are being decisive about.

This is why any plans must be closely scrutinised and, partly, why the letter to Nick Clegg has been written.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Blacka Moor's Member of Parliament

On Wednesday, only slightly late, came my Christmas card from my MP, Nick Clegg. With it was a letter explaining various things he felt the need to explain and in which recipients were invited to write to him. As ever this blog is conscientious and seeing as Blacka Moor has never, to my knowledge, written to any Deputy PM before, this opportunity has been taken. The letter begins below:

Dear Nick Clegg,

Thank you for your Christmas card and letter to constituents received this week. In returning your greetings I would like to take up your invitation to contact you and therefore raise the following matter with you, regarding the government’s localism agenda.

I have read reports and articles about the localism plans and also seen Select Committee appearances by the Secretary of State and the Minister for Decentralisation and the Minister for Housing and Local Government but so far have not been aware that my particular concerns are being voiced. I have not as yet seen any similar appearances by the Secretary of State for the Environment nor those representing other departments also affected by localism.

I’m apprehensive that the government’s model of localism will in specific situations finish up by actually disempowering local communities in favour of organisations which may present themselves as community focused but which are in reality more centralised and less accountable than local government itself. I have some direct experience of a situation within your own Sheffield Hallam constituency which I believe is relevant to this. Similar anxieties could be linked in relation to National Nature Reserves (NNRs).

The letter continues and can be read in full here