Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Woods for All

To hear some talk you might think woods are threatening places where unknown horrors lurk in dark corners. But the woods have so much character, each tree growing in its own way. The result is a richness of forms and a complexity of patterns. Diversity of form even in one species is increased when the development has been unimpeded by outside pressures which usually come from man. In this favourite corner every season produces its own atmosphere and its own sensory pleasure. On the wood floor here ferns and young trees thrive among the dead leaves and dry twigs. And the odd rock provides a comfortable seat from which to listen to the stream below.

Give Him The Bird?

Blacka’s chief cuckoo this year is not fully compliant with trading standards. However effective he is in his other duties his singing is lamentable. Singing lessons will have to be arranged. It’s not as if he has a difficult task. Two notes, in tune and with clarity is all that’s called for. What we're hearing is one rather poor note followed by something little better than a croak. Compared to the virtuoso singing heard from much smaller birds this is poor stuff.

A suggestion has been made that he’s been doing too much spitting.

And that this could have led to him getting a froghopper in his throat.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Office Work

Quite often I find litter on Blacka. Irritating but not altogether surprising and if it's manageable I usually shove it in my pocket or rucksack and take it home. There is one kind of litter I find every so often that puts my usually tolerant nature under more strain: Lying among the bilberry and heather looking the worse for wear as if it's been there for some months you may see an old A4 laminated sheet - the remains of yet another of SWT's notices. What does this tell us about SWT and its staff?

SWT are predominantly an office outfit. It's in their office that most of their time is spent and when they try to manage things they do so as they would in an office. So just as you communicate to colleagues in an office - pinning up or bluetacking notices reminding colleagues about the latest First Aid course or to wash up their own cups after coffee - that's the way they go about managing Blacka. And they know that after a while someone else will take down a notice when it's no longer relevant or is getting tatty. The idea that different approaches might be relevant out here does not seem to have occurred, but then there are a lot of things that don't occur to the minds and mindsets of some groups. Of course when you only come to a place fairly infrequently you may not notice the fact that notices have fallen down or are looking grotty or are no longer relevant, but then no opportunity is missed for pinning up more and more of these A4 sheets.

So should rumours prove true that the job of a new Nature Reserve Manager will be advertised soon, expect to see a job description circulating prioritising familiarity with the photocopier and staple-gun.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Distant Green Pastures

Tastes are subjective. What pleases one may not please another. So it is in landscape. But it's not such a wide divergence as you might think. In general most people respond in a similar way. The convergence can be seen when you look at popular subjects for landscape painting and photography. And when an advertiser or magazine editor wishes to choose a picture that exemplifies some sort of countryside idyll it's not hard to predict what the ingredients will be. We like high mountains with dramatic rocky summits, but we also like green pastures bounded by hedges and mature trees.

The case in point here is the views from on high of distant panoramas of traditional farmland. The close-up perspective is another thing. But many get great comfort from looking down on the spread of green fields each with its own differently angled boundary and the occasional farmstead with groups of trees all seeming on a modest and human scale and reminiscent of an age when land was managed in a manner characterised by a balance between nature and man. That has now been swept aside by industrialised farming with just a few pockets left to please the eye. One of these lies to the east of Blacka and each May I fear that it could have succumbed to the trend for growing oil seed rape. The rape flowers only for a few weeks but it is just that time in spring when the distant green pastures should be at their most beguiling.

It's a reminder of just how vulnerable our countryside is and how unrelenting is the march of the economic drive for industrialising of the land. Many of the most picturesque and valued parts of our countryside are now degraded leaving less and less for us just to stare at. Mega-sized fields stripped of their hedges are now the norm in some areas that were once noted for landscape beauty. It leaves us wondering about the treeless moors up here, kept as they are by remotely controlled industrial management. Advocates for keeping them treeless cite the openness and the ease with which distant views can be seen. If much of the previous appeal in those views vanishes, what then? Will we be left with views of quarries and cement works, plastic covered bales, wind turbines, farmyards full of decaying machinery and huge fields given over to a monoculture? All the more reason to de-industrialise and set free the uplands.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011


All without a visit to the High Street. Remembering the scruffiness of a mere few weeks ago the makeover seems dramatic. The coat looks sleek and the new antlers well advanced. It's been noticeable in previous years how two of the stags most likely to be rivals in October spend a lot of time together in spring.

Bodging and Botching

Two words often used interchangeably. Few ordinary folk know the difference which is not surprising as dictionaries don’t help much.
As a DIY botcher myself I recognise the work of my fellow botchers.
A bodger though can be a wood turner and particularly of chair legs therefore skilled. This is a fairly modern use of the word. In older times the word was used for one who mends or patches old clothes also a botcher.
In a Bible commentary of 1654 J Trapp uses the phrase “Ye are not onely forgers but botchers”, but the OED recognises the earliest use of the word botch in this sense as in c1440.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011


Small birds with some red or pink markings are among those most favoured by visiting birders. Not just whinchats and stonechats, but also linnets and redpolls may be found. In the last two days I've also seen goldfinches, chaffinches, bullfinches and woodpeckers, all having red markings. And the trusty friendly robin should not be left out. The robin is a genuine songbird but I would classify many of the others as twitterers, Even so to judge from recent events these twitterings show a certain purpose and intelligence not shared by humans who twitter. As for newspapers we once used to call 'serious', words fail me.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Just Perfect

There can be no short stroll in the district as lovely as that from the Blacka entrance at Shorts Lane to the stepping stones at this time of year. This should be a listed feature and given credit for much more value than many a SSSI. It's doubly fortunate that it starts as we go past the new plaque celebrating J G Graves' gift of the site to the people.

An early morning walk in May with the sun penetrating as and when it can past a noisy stream on the left and warblers singing to the right - and these are only the first ingredients. Cow parsley really should be bordering the road to paradise.
And the bluebells have a starring role not just for what they are but for the way they position themselves artistically at odd points on the banks.

Blacka has few ash trees but here there is a fine one by the stream next to many alders.
Down here this morning we were avoiding the SWT 'dawn chorus' walk up on the higher treeless parts - something of a misnomer usually and the stiff breeze up above would not have helped while we were sheltered and able to enjoy blackbirds, thrushes, robins and warblers all to ourselves.


Just for a change I went onto Baslow Edge. Occasional groups of walkers strolled across. They did not look inspired. And no wonder. There is an extensive view - rather too much dominated by quarries. But close by, back from the edge, the vegetation was about as interesting as a field of cabbages - less so because I like cabbage. The dull brown heather looks the same for most of the year so there's not much to look at and you wouldn't know that spring is breaking out in joyous abandon elsewhere. About as much fun as the plentiful deposits of dried up cow pats which just about sum it up.
This place is dire. It's as if those responsible are afraid that unconstrained nature might over-excite visitors and produce unpredictable behaviour. Surely this degradation of the landscape by livestock farming can't go on?

Friday, 20 May 2011

The MTB Mindset

First thing to say is that not all mountain bikers (MTBs) are like this. Just as not all Audi, BMW, Merc drivers think they own the road - just rather a lot of them, and, oddly, most of those I come across.
It's just that there's developed an MTB group culture and it's pretty pervasive. And any criticism brings them out in droves speaking the same self justifying tosh. And it all comes out when you talk about the serious impact they have on tracks and paths.

Why does it matter and is it worth bothering about? About eight years ago I was talking with a quite well-educated MTB man and he said I shouldn't worry because there were only a small number of bikers compared to walkers - his story was that though he agreed that bikes cause a greater impact on the ground there were only a few of them so...well, just relax man was his advice. Well if there's been a growth area in the economy anywhere in recent years it's been in sales of mountain bikes.

We should all know that there's a distinction between footpaths (public rights of way) and bridleways. Cycling is officially permitted on bridleways but not on lesser paths. So that should be fine. Blacka alone has over 5,000 metres of bridleways where the MTBer can legitimately ride his (it's mostly a he) vehicle. Even on bridleways they cause problems and sometimes very serious erosion. But increasingly over the last two years some MTBers have not been satisfied with this and they have been riding bikes on narrow winding footpaths only suitable for walking. The results are already clear and they will become greater. Paths get wider and more rutted. Water fills the ruts when it rains and the erosion worsens. Narrow ruts make bikers and walkers divert to the side and a pleasant narrow path becomes a wide and increasingly muddy track.

When you meet an MTBer on a footpath you should always ask him why. The chances are that you'll get engaged in some sort of altercation as I did this morning enabling you to get a taste of the MTB mindset. Some of the characteristics of this are listed below:
1 If you can walk why can't we ride our bikes?
2 It's been proven that bikes cause no more (or less) erosion than walkers' boots!
3 Everybody should be allowed to do what they like. You're just a miserable git wot wants the place to yourself.

The man this morning claimed precedence from the Kinder Trespass in the 1930s!! He saw himself as a pioneer blazing a trail for freedom. If you're determined to selfishly do your own thing whatever the consequences for others you can persuade yourself to believe anything.

It's now commomplace for MTBers to claim that serious academic studies 'from Oxford University' 'prove' that MTBers cause no more impact than walkers. Similar claims have been sent to me at this blog with links: they are utter rubbish and anyway you only have to use your eyes to refute them. It's a matter of judgement whether you try to argue with these people. It's like when years ago I was accosted by a fresh-faced young American scientologist on a train. After two minutes I knew it was not worth arguing. The self-belief was truly frightening.
One of my favourite quiet walking paths is now being regularly invaded by some of these bikers. This route winds delightfully through natural vegetation above a gorge, one of the very best places to be.
There will come a day when its character will have been transformed into a wide and rutted affair with broad deltas at the end where other paths are joined; and you can see this beginning to happen now. The impact on one bridleway now makes it very difficult to walk on due to narrow ruts even in dry weather.

When wet, or merely damp, it's treacherous and I know walkers who now refuse to go there despite its giving access to some of the best views in the district.

The fault here, as usual, lies with the utter uselessness of the bureaucracies which bear responsibility for administering countryside access. Failing to grapple with the issues at the right time has meant it has become as serious as it has - and now with a momentum that's hard to stop.

Meanwhile the simple minded MTBer calls out: "You can go there, why can't we?"
And the answer has to be "You can. Just leave your bike behind - and take your ****** sports drink litter home".

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Two Faces

You sometimes wonder what they think about you.

Grazing Animals in the Landscape

I have a different perspective on grazing animals from that of the conservation industry. The wholly natural deer browsing the birch and rowan this morning are natural and they looked natural in a landscape that I have watched over many years becoming more and more natural, which feels natural and brings immeasurable benefits to the spirits of those who lazily enjoy its charms.

But I'm not resistant to the possibility that farm animals can also look good in an artificial landscape that has been caringly maintained by someone with a pride in the land and who values that which pleases the eye. You very rarely see this around Blacka but this morning most unusually I caught a hint of what could have been.

In the pasture land on Blacka a bluebell covered knoll* was bathed in spring sunlight and a small group of sheep and lambs were enjoying the warmth. These, in contrast to many of the animals were not covered with dyed-on numerals and I dont know how they escaped the system.

So it was like a scene from previous times before conservation struck a grubby deal with industrial farming. (further down the pasture land the smell of the livestock was a stark contrast with the freshness of the air on the natural landscape adjoining.)
In a distant field cattle were grazing spread across the grass in that intriguing assymetrical way that I've always found more satisfying to view than cattle on the hills.

When another hind walked by in the foreground the beautiful naturalness of the one seemed compatible with the satisfying artificiality of the other - in its place.

* Bluebells on the grassland suggest that it may not have been that long ago that trees covered much of this land. I would like to know if anyone is able to confirm that. The sheep of course have only just returned. Had they been around for longer the bluebell display might have been not so good. Last year the harebells (known in Scotland as bluebells) were also splendid here later in the summer, but that was an obvious result of an extended and welcome absence of sheep and cattle for several months. The presence of sheep now will put paid to any repetition of the attractive flower meadow feature seen last year.

Traffic Holdups - Good News!

For some people traffic disruption can never be good news. But a subversive streak in me sometimes thinks that anything slowing down the hectic pace of human life must have something to be said for it.

In this case I have an interest. Hathersage Road will be subject to delays for some weeks to come at least. And this is the really good news: they are installing underground pipes for the power cables that currently (sic) straddle and uglify parts of Blacka. Some time in the winter months the old lines will be removed. And Blacka will be the better for it.

(anyone wishing to contribute to a fund to be used for bribing the contractors to remove SWT's barbed wire should contact me via the email address at the side).

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Peak District Car Parking

Reservations about the handing over of public land to private organisations have been expressed here. Another one I had not thought of has cropped up. Visitors to various different parts of the Peak District buy an annual parking permit costing £30. If you have one of these you may find that it's no longer any use for Curbar Gap car park. Instead you will have to pay a charge to the National Trust. NT and RSPB run the new Eastern Moors Partnership. What was I saying about these organisations being expansionist?


As someone once said, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you!" You might transpose this into a statement about conspiracy theories. You might scoff, as I do, about some of these, but who would swear that nobody schemes or plots? Only someone who never observes our political parties and what they get up to. In fact intrigue and cover-up are the lifeblood of many organisations. You get a whiff of this if you try to get information from our rulers in government and locally in the council.

When I heard that Sheffield's Council was considering leasing Burbage and the other Sheffield moors to the RSPB/NT partnership I tried to find out all I could about it. It has not been easy. I discovered that a presentation was going to be made to the local Community Assembly by the partnership. But at some time before that a similar presentation was planned in a private "Briefing Meeting" to councillors only.

Not knowing just when this would be, I asked under the Freedom of Information rules for agendas, reports and minutes of all these private meetings over several months. Was any covert decision being taken, my suspicious mind wondered. Information came in several instalments. I had to report that I was not getting all the information. More then came. Still not the information I was looking for. Eventually I received what appeared to be everything - except, guess what? The one meeting which they did not send minutes for was the very one, the only one that I was interested in! So I asked again and was told that no minutes were taken of that meeting!! This despite the fact that the agenda suggested that it was very much of the same pattern as other meetings for which minutes had been taken. After persistence I reached the point two weeks ago where the assembly officer was going to retrospectively put together some notes about the meeting for me. They've not arrived yet. Ye Gods!

The story can be followed here.


Hinds having been in groups of ten or so it may or may not be significant that this one was solitary, looking thoughtful between mouthfuls of rowan leaves.

So Common...

Not enough hours in the day to enjoy even the common wildlife in May.

And it's the common things that keep coming to mind in the dark days of December and January when you look forward to seeing cow parsley and plantain in perfect flower and dandelion clocks.

Now there's so much to absorb that time itself is scarce.

Sunday, 15 May 2011


Cow parsley is not the only way that nature chooses to fringe the paths. That flower is more often found in less shady parts. In the woods ferns are appropriate combined with dead leaves swept to the sides.
Lush grasses with bluebells do the job pretty well too.
Bilberry is a feature of the birch woods on Blacka, providing a rich and thriving underlayer though less well endowed with flowers and fruit than when out in the open. It can be a challenge to the adventurous off-track walker and his ankles when it covers boulders.


Not the way we like to see wild animals.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Cow Parsley Experience

I have no doubt that cow parsley is the finest of nature's May gifts to the idle stroller. No path or track should be without its fringe of delicate white flowers often mixed with buttercup.

The Shorts Lane track at this time of year is a delight. The stream gurgles away to the left, honeysuckle climbs over the wall, bluebells colour the banks and sun penetrates even as we're sheltered from the strength of the wind.

Single File

In the suntrap, sheltered from the North West wind and soaking up the early morning warmth.

Further over is another well-marshalled group illustrating the diversity of wildlife to be found on Blacka.

These could be SWT's 'dawn chorus' walk. If so they should have been out nearer to 5 a.m. as I was. One of the least appealing aspects of these outings is that the person leading tends to keep you standing still for such a time often gassing away with you barely catching much of the message. This lot seen from a distance seemed to be in much the same position for more than 5 minutes. Well I hope for their sakes it was worth it. Rather than a musical spectacular of a dawn chorus as I had enjoyed an hour previously among the trees they were being guided to the heathland species, doubtless of interest but to my mind of limited musical value.

Survival for Songbirds

The best things in life are free so they say. And many of them are. One of the best is the true experience of spring in a setting as close to wild and natural as can be found. In the morning with the sun low in the sky and no evidence around of man’s activities the energy being released by natural seasonal change can fairly be called spring fever.

Simple pleasures! How much better if life were simpler and we could trust things to be what they seem to be. Or if people actually said what we think they said. Most people love songbirds and would do a lot to ensure that they are protected and able to give us pleasure in a world where the forces of exploitation are hard to resist. All that intensive farming with all those chemicals and grubbing up the hedgerows. They must be responsible we think for the decline in numbers that we keep hearing about.

So what about contributing to a charity that seeks to protect our wonderful songbirds? Such a one might be the charity Songbird Survival. But we should be wary. It's now commonplace for those that go in for things that the public don't really like to associate themselves with more innocent things. Songbird Survival is trying to tune in to people's love for singing blackbirds and skylarks while promoting shooting. Their major focus is on trapping and killing birds of prey and members of the crow family while at the same time raising game birds so they can be shot. The people behind Songbird Survival are nearly all landed gentry and shooting estate owners. What they really want to do is maximise their production of game birds for shooting by eliminating predators. Their interest in songbirds is minimal. What is it about our countryside that it produces such duplicitous behaviour?

Monday, 9 May 2011

Transitional and Transitory

I like these ecology terms so precious to conservationists. 'Transitional' is one of them. It’s about the zone where one landscape type meets another. It could be lowland against upland or woodland against heathland. Mostly ordinary folk have little use for specialised jargon but it must be assumed to have its uses in meetings and other contexts when everyone knows what you mean.
The Sheffield City ecology officer used it when we were putting together a statement or vision of what we valued about Blacka at the Icarus consultation. It then went the rounds from group to group along with other phrases. After a session or two she announced that she wanted to withdraw it ‘because people were misinterpreting it’. In other words some of us who knew nothing of the ecological context thought she had meant ‘a landscape that was evolving, becoming ‘something different’ i.e. heathland to woodland. We of course thought that fine. The changing process was getting rid of uniform boring heather and replacing it with tall shrubs and trees. But she couldn’t have that – it went entirely contrary to the conservationists’ agenda. That has not always been exactly their story; they had started off with it being “in unfavourable condition” but when we spoke up for enjoying it as it was, they side- stepped into: “ Yes we know it’s fine now but it will eventually turn into woodland and nobody wants that”. Our response came back that natural change from the grouse moor had done magnificently so far without managers and we were on balance more inclined to trust nature than the managers we had seen up to now.
And transient or not what pleasure to watch natural change surprise us after man had made such a mess of it before.

The Garden of Eden itself did not last. Paradise was and is transitory, fleeting, not meant to carry on ad infinitum. Simply, we’re not good enough for it. And that’s how it felt this morning. The young trees have an extraordinary appeal at this time vibrant and full of energy all enhanced by the overwhelming swell of birdsong. At the eastern perimeter path next to a wall and wire fence we can look over into another area that has gone totally wild where flowering hawthorn scrub predominates in extravagant style.
Here the warblers sing with a volume and a life force rarely found. Each year it astonishes bringing intense perceptions and a quality of transcendence. One feels privileged. No white powders or dubious substances are needed and within the miracle you still remain in touch with reality. Was there a time in history when we all had easy access to this kind of experience?

And when it was taken away from us and we were expelled from this paradise did they move in with their management plans, apply for grants from the Forestry Commission et al, before bringing along their chain saws barbed wire and grazing plans? Were we then exiled to Burbage?