Thursday, 30 June 2011


Bedstraw on Blacka is Heath Bedstraw a relative of Ladies Bedstraw which is yellow. Explanations of the name are somewhat speculative and lost in history, but one of them mentions a supposed link with the mother of Christ and another a link with the norse Goddess of married women who used it as a sedative. Around Blacka this year there seems more of the white Heath Bedstraw than ever and it's a very welcome element in the mix of species on the edges of paths.

But one more extensive patch of it shows evidence that a large animal, perhaps a stag, has been lying on it. So is there something about its scent that encourages relaxation in wilder animals?

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

What's your 'ology?

We see occasional groups of twitchers in spring and we see magic mushroom gatherers in autumn. But I'm disappointed not to see dung-lovers or perhaps they should be called ordurologists. After all Blacka should by now have become a mecca for hobbyists for whom this is their passion. Where are these people? Defenders of the indefensible sometimes throw away any pretence at honesty and go overboard for insincerity. One such was the warden at North Lees whose self-image was of the bluff no-nonsense sort. 'Lovely muck' he said, the implication being that it was good for the land - yet he was defending the management of heathland with its nutrient-poor soils. I wonder if he ever persuaded anybody of anything?

The area near the top gate should now become a tourist attraction for aficionados of the brown stuff. Blacka as is well known is part of a SSSI which stands for Site of Special S*** Interest.

Further across to the north around Cowsick bog the cattle have been performing more heroic deeds: They have been doing their best to eliminate that vile weed Bog Asphodel which misguided visitors come to photograph in July. It will be interesting to see how successful they have been over the next weeks. Anyway I'm sure SWT will consider this.........

.. to be an improvement on last year (the identical spot).

Sunday, 26 June 2011

M of L

In the woods is a fine place to be, surrounded by the silent but companionable presence of trees. Even better when the heat of the day starts to become uncomfortable. Seated on a mossy boulder amid the contrast between deep shade and penetrating shafts of sunlight, this is just the setting to while away time pretentiously contemplating the Meaning of Life. Midges, though, have other ideas and I've not got far in this important project when a retreat is necessary. "Little bu**ers!.. and just when I'm about to hit on an elemental truth".

No great effort to work out that is the elemental truth: Just as a passable level of contentment seems only round the corner an irritant spoils the moment. One neighbour's power mower or another's barking dog. Or Sheffield Wildlife Trust's defecating livestock project. Yes, even they play their part in defining the M of L.

Friday, 24 June 2011


Certain places have been favoured by deer in the early mornings earlier this spring and in previous years. Often quite large numbers have been present and one got the impression they could have been there occupying that patch for much of the night. Their body language and general relaxation spoke of it being their territory. Now that same part of Blacka is regularly occupied by the imported farm cattle. Since the cattle appeared in early June the deer seem to have retired from view with only the occasional sighting of one or two in the more secret parts. The larger groups are just not there. I’ve noticed this before when cattle have been brought onto the land. Larger groups of deer which anyway are not always on Blacka, seem even less likely to be found when cattle are in occupation. The deer seem to cede dominance and territorial possession and vacate their spot to the intruders, themselves retiring to fringes or less easily accessible areas. I don’t think I could be dogmatic about this at this stage and I’m looking back over my photos and notes to check whether this might be more than a coincidence. My feeling is that there is something in it and that only very small groups and individuals stay around when the cattle are here.

Today’s deer were well hidden by bracken, a single hind plus a young stag whose velvets were a bit odd. They watched us very carefully while some distance away the part most favoured by larger groups of deer was in the possession of the cattle. Having watched for some time I was rewarded with a sight of the hind walking away head-in-air showing a beautiful red coat.


I'm aware that SWT have put it about that blog posts here are 'one-sided'. While not for one moment admitting this I am dealing with the perception by introducing a new feature below.

One of a new series of guest contributions from Sheffield Wildlife Trust members:

" All right minded people know that Sheffield Wildlife Trust are doing a great job here on Blacka Moor. Now there's welcome evidence to justify their decision to graze with cattle on this precious landscape. And it’s there for everyone to see and enjoy this weekend. Don’t miss the opportunity to see it. We don’t even have to wait for SWT’s staff to report the results of their evaluation - which will be done rigorously and scrupulously as with everything else they do. And I'm sure it will tell us when it comes that scores of rare and threatened species have been safeguarded by this creative project on, as I said, this truly precious site. But why wait for that? The evidence is clearly to be seen at the gate onto the moor and this will be great relief to all those who have backed the wildlife trust against the wishes of their ill-informed detractors. In years when there has been no cattle grazing all of this area has been dominated by unsightly flowering plants and grasses making this part of the site so untidy.

Photos from 2010 a year without the benefit of cattle on site

Now thanks to Mr Robinson’s enchanting cows all that unnecessary growth has been efficiently converted into an attractive substance with great benefits to the planet – by the simple expedient of passing through each cow! Isn’t life wonderful? And there is now a lovely farm smell to go with it and complementing the characterful farm equipment leaning beguilingly nearby. This is what the countryside should be like, and that’s what cows are for of course. As Annabelle says:

Nutrients are what this project is all about of course and I heartily reject the idea that it has anything to do with jobs and grants. That’s just a vile story put about by malcontents with an axe to grind. Just come and look. A preview below. "

B. Rainwash

Photos taken this week

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Early Appearance

Not seen here as early as this before and probably a result of a period of rain after a dry spell. The Birch Bolete has already been got at by slugs but the Tawny Grisette is an Amanita and wisely left alone even if reputedly not as poisonous as others in that family.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011


I watched the Channel 4 Dispatches on International Conservation thinking there might possibly be some feint parallels with the home-grown conservation industry. As it turned out there were more than I expected. The programme, presented by Oliver Steeds, was mostly about WWF and certain clichés common to similar TV exposés were not entirely absent. But it was hard to fault the conclusions below drawn from Steeds' commentary:

“conservation does not need fleets of 4X4s and big corporate offices....It works better when done locally and on a small scale................Get it right and the involvement of large conservation organisations may not be needed at all...............But then why would they want to do themselves out of a job?........bloated complacent and compromised by their relations with big business......Insatiable hunger for funds......Become arrogant and cut off from the local people they depend on for success..................appeal to the sentimentalist agendas of big corporate donors”

Not all statements are relevant to wildlife trusts in Britain but many come pretty close. Sheffield Wildlife Trust certainly has a fleet of vehicles emblazoned with its own insignia. It has an office culture centred remotely in its own headquarters while being largely absent on the ground. It operate weekdays 9 to 5 and is always looking to expand into new areas even while leaving much to be desired on the sites like Blacka which it's had for years. It avidly chases funding opportunities through grants and increasingly woos corporate donors employing PR and presentational approaches that would benefit from some scrutiny. And as implied by Steeds, central to their operation are their own jobs.

But any similar examination of the UK conservation industry would need to be more tenacious in dissecting the part played by that arch-quango (Un)Natural England, the use of environmental subsidies to the farming industry for managing artificial landscapes even on public land, and the way that a dubious biodiversity agenda is used to hoodwink fellow bureaucrats and the general public into coughing up even more public funds.

As for Conservation's Dirty Secrets, try walking on the paths on Blacka. See below.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Ordure, Ordure! Dung, dung and more dung

I spent the winter of 1963 shovelling and wheelbarrowing cow dung out of a dairy farm's milking parlour (a euphemism) where the animals were chained to the milking stalls all day. They stayed there for week after week of one of the longest icy spells on record. There was nowhere else for them to go and nobody else to do the work several times each day. I've also cleaned out a deep-litter chicken shed which was several feet thick of shit. I doubt if any of the young conservation workers around here can match that experience of livestock dung. That initiation means I'm not squeamish. I'm used to it. That not the same as saying I think it should be everywhere.

This morning I walked through Blacka which is becoming increasingly like a farm sewer. Cattle dung of every size, pattern and consistency is now a principal feature of paths on the central part of the moor.

But that is nothing compared to the sheep enclosure and it's on that land that however hard I try to understand I just don't get it - unless indeed some kind of point is being made.

I can think of no other reason why a conservation organisation should arrange to spread so much sheep dung over a green space that is intended to be a site for the recreation of the public; other than that a particular group of conservation workers are calculatedly sending a gesture to the public which says 'you think this is land for you but we know better, it is agricultural land and that means crap' They might go on to say ' it's time you people grew up and shook off sentimental, immature and misguided ideas of the countryside being there for you to enjoy - in your over-romantic townie idea of what's beautiful’.

The dung itself must be a key management tool - or why else does it dominate as it does? Yet neither the word dung nor any of its synonyms features in any of their official documents about the place. Why not? Perhaps they just don't know about it? That’s possible - and they may have the excuse that they do not go there often enough for the impact of this to register in their minds when busy at their office work. But surely there should be more to it than simple blind ignorance even when they are known to be ignorant.

That’s the likeliest explanation for the complete failure of Sheffield Wildlife Trust to look anything like a credible outfit in their management of Blacka – a mix of stubbornness, ignorance and incompetence; followed by attempts to justify with implausible pseudo-explanations. I was recently reminded of the transformation that this land went through last year when the farmer was unable to graze any animals here. I simply cannot believe that the people responsible for this ridiculous and shameful nonsense deserve to be trusted to manage any land at all - a grass verge would be beyond their scope.

The other explanation is of course that they are not managing the land at all because they don’t know how to manage the farmer (or perhaps anyone). And that he just does what he likes.

More White

Elder is now out making maximum effect. To achieve this it wisely waits until rowan and hawthorn are no longer flowering.

With cow parsley past its peak, and cotton grass as well, the white effect is carried on by elder and, more mutedly, by bedstraw.

Bedstraw is everywhere and welcome on ground now increasingly greened over by bracken.

The climbing corydalis spotted clinging to bracken last September occupies a larger area than I had thought. It could be that I had not looked closely having assumed that anything small and white was bedstraw.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Stubborn and Selfish

More and more incidents of biking on Blacka – not bridleway biking which is allowed but on public footpaths and even informal routes. I’ve mentioned the mindset of some of these bikers before. The one I spoke to this morning (the second time) is not without an element of rationality but when all’s said and done you know there’s an attitude that can be summed up as ‘I want to do this so that’s just hard luck! I know there’s an impact on paths but I can live with that. Anyway everything has an impact.’
I can only assume he’s typical. The eventual result is not hard to predict. The dire destruction on tracks like the Devil’s Elbow route will be replicated on each of the narrow paths across Blacka, with wide, rutted surfaces spreading uncontrolled across the route, bad enough when dry but an utterly unpleasant mess when wet. One MTBer once told me as he stopped for me on a narrow footpath that he rode on these paths because he refused to go down the Devil’s Elbow bridleway – it was such a mess. He looked on it as the landowners job to arrange to have it improve, claiming he and fellow MTBers would help. Hmmm.

Those of us who have used these paths over many years, during which they remained unchanged, despair at the sheer bloody mindedness of these attitudes. The prospect is utterly dispiriting. Those actually responsible are in fact irresponsible - those who should be accountable but shrug their shoulders - the wildlife trust, who themselves create erosion on paths so are shy of criticising others, and the various officers in council departments and on committees reluctant to discuss the problem.

The way it starts - how long before this becomes just another sodden rutted bike track?

Getting Sweeter

Already we have purple bilberry in pickable numbers. I don't think they are yet as sweet as they could be so will not be harvesting for a while. The risk is that others can't wait and the favourite spot you thought you were keeping for yourself has been picked over by the time they're ready. Thrushes don't wait and may eat them before they are purple. Wood pigeons are also greedy; they ravaged my garden redcurrants when still green.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Odd Perspective

Instinctively I expect to see land becoming more wild as we go up. To see the valleys and slopes around them as well kept and domesticated and then as you get higher and more remote man's influence should become less pronounced. So this photo turns this round and I see it as odd. There's not much in it with the sheep at the top then the cattle and the deer slightly lower but it sort of touches on an issue about the remote exploitation of the hills.

Rarely Praised

Many of the most common wild plants don’t get a moment of glory. The early spring flowers like coltsfoot, wood sorrel and wood anemone have the stage largely to themselves in March and April and capture attention after winter months without flowers; even people who show little interest in wild plants are quick to enjoy them.
If bedstraw or sorrel appeared in March they might get similar appreciation. But then part of the appeal of these plants in June is the combination with other species in the unplanned arrangements of the wayside.
Sorrel and fern, tall grasses against an old wall and bedstraw mingling with bracken are all part of the mix in June but it’s more than likely that something more spectacular will come to mind in December when hankering for milder days.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Farmification and the Lookerers

Cow-lovers will be celebrating the return of cattle to Blacka. For these people no area of our landscape should escape the process of farmification.
What are the charactersistics that the farmification enthusiasts (sometimes known as 'Lookerers') look out for when appraising the landscape? A few to be going on with, each one spotted scores points. 'Farmification Lookerer' score sheets are available from your local wildlife trust:

1 Fences, long stretches and conspicuous, preferably of barbed wire but other styles are acceptable. (though not too many stiles.)
2 Access arrangements associated with the above - gates should not be too convenient or well sited and should always present some kind of challenge. This all gives the vital message that the countryside is no easy-going outing for idle townies and their wives, dogs and children.
3 Plenty of mud around gates and other access points to remind visitors that this is a place of work with all that goes with it.
4 The animals themselves usually with that delightfully gormless facial expression characteristic of farm livestock and utterly lacking the wariness and quick intelligence of wildlife. Bonuses for sheep and especially lambs with splashes of dye across their backs. Numerals in red yellow or blue have now become standard for the progressive and aesthetically-conscious livestock manager.

5 Er, shit - plenty of it - cow pats, splatters, soggy puddles of the stuff, plentifully inhabited by those charming yellow flies that live on it, all tastefully decorating the paths which are the cows' preferred dropping zones. Wildlife, such as deer for example, are such a disappointment in this respect and very rarely drop on paths.

6 As an addition to the previous point, the pervading smell of farm animals and the aroma of urine that wafts enticingly in the breeze, something that is quite absent on a boring natural site with its disquieting and unreal sense of freshness.
7 Vehicle tracks across the land showing good evidence that heavy machinery, much loved by the farming industry has been around. Without tracks like this people might get the idea that modern farmers can walk in the way they used to in days gone by.
8 Farm accessories such as aluminium hurdles placed in areas of high visibility again to remind visitors such as 'townies' that this is a working environment and farming is a serious industry.
9 Plenty of evidence of farm litter such as black plasic and cast-off bags of ruminant feed and plastic buckets of animal lick.
10 Extensive areas of well chewed grass with just the odd manky creeping thistle or a group of nettles still remaining illustrating the need to avoid sentimental appeal to lovers of wild flowers and other pansies.
11 As a concession to towny visitors who mostly work in offices, plentiful notices on A4 laminated sheets telling them what great job the livestock are doing in the landscape and an even better job by the local wildlife trust. Oh and also more similar sheets telling us not to go too near the animals for H&S reasons.

12 A really good farmification site will provide opportunities to see sheep and lambs enjoying the stresses that go with their difficult but essential role in helping to manage our countryside. Evidence that they have been lying in their own excrement is a good example of this. They may have scab or mite infestation identified by fleece peeling from their backs. Or they may be lame. Seeing these will score extra credit points for farmification lookerers. If you're fortunate you may even see the occasional dead animal. A few old bones and even a substantial skeleton are all possible. These give a unique perspective to the reality of a life on the land as it is today and will show that this is modern farming where there is no place for old fashioned sentimentality.
13 Finally there is one feature that will not be seen on the site, but is still important: all that behind the scenes paperwork that is the real serious business of farmification and, alongside it, its essential measure of worth: the cheques for Single Farm Payment or Environmental Stewardship or Higher Level Stewardship. Without these the ignorant public might get the idea that the farmification is not worth going in for.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Singing Lesson

The garden warbler is one of the most accomplished singers and he's been around a lot this spring making any visit worthwhile.
I had not previously known that he was giving lessons.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

On the Farm

No doubt that the presence of cattle (and sheep) completely changes the character of a place. The absence of any livestock for most of last year and some of this has given us a break during which we enjoyed the unreal expectation that this was how it might be for the future. And why should we not feel that -after all it's the natural thing. Incidentally I now remember that in 2009 cattle did come on the moor though it was not until July after we had been told April. The notices in 2009, mentioned in the post Being Bothered, were put up early and then many weeks went past with no cattle appearing. The same complaint applies for notices staying in place well beyond the time when livestock have been removed. Similar misleading notices have been left around on gates on the grazing enclosure relating to cattle staying there for months on end. The whole thing is a farce and comparable with the worst highway cone examples. But what can we expect from those who care for the place about as much as a highway maintenance firm does for a stretch of motorway?

The present notices tell us on the heading that 'Highland cattle are now grazing the heathland of Blacka'. This skates close to inaccuracy another of SWT's traits. There are 16 of the beasts, 3 are highlands, and the others are a mixed bunch including some crosses highland/shorthorn. The point about having highlands was certainly that they would have visual appeal for some visitors, especially those who had not had the fortune to see the red deer in the landscape. And they took the opportunity then to try to 'sell' the idea in this way to local people. I like the use of the word 'heathland' which I always take to be land covered with heather, although I know people define heathland in other ways. My observation in previous years has been that the cattle very rarely go into large stands of heather but spend lots of time a) on the paths, and b) anywhere that's grassy. In this they are quite different to deer who can often be found in heather and also in dense, tall bracken and have no particular preference for footpaths.
The mention of build up of nutrients always fascinates me not being an ecologist. It's as if we are being told that there is something almost polluting about grasses being left to grow uneaten by livestock. That's the kind of messy explanation you get into when you try to justify the perpetuation of an artificial landscape.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Grazing Argument

Much could be said about this. Should this land be grazed following a top-down prescriptive plan with clear targets or should we simply allow nature to go its own way enabling surprise and delight? In this post I'll allow the facts to speak for themselves.

The grazing enclosure at the top part of Blacka is grazed year in year out with sheep and more recently has also had cattle for part of the year. Last year both were absent for a lengthy period - not planned by Sheffield Wildlife Trust who want livestock there, but down to problems with the grazier. I have argued for many years that farm animals destroyed the appeal for visitors. The evidence is clear below, showing the land in 2010 after no grazing and in 2011 with grazing, but you can see a full slideshow at this link:

The first pictures showing this year with sheep on the land:

Below are pictures showing the same land after no grazing for several months:

The slideshow is available on clicking the picture below:

Gradgrind Lives On At Sheffield Wildlife Trust

Readers of Dickens will remember one of his characters, Mr Gradgrind, for whom material things were so important that they blinded him to qualities that called for imagination and vision such as appreciation of beauty, poetry and compassion. He appears in Dickens' Hard Times a quick guide to which is available here for those who are not widely read - I guess that includes most conservation workers.

Observation over many years suggests that to the workers and managers of SWT what matters is not the beauty or character of the countryside but the blind adherence to conservation dogma and targets. It is of course easier to follow this line if you don't actually know the place well. The policies that are being pursued are formulated remotely by committees of distant bureaucrats manipulating the current orthodoxy and then applied over the whole country with little reference to individual sites and their users.

Take grazing for instance. A line has been taken and stuck to whatever or wherever the circumstances. Our countryside must be farmed - that's what the countryside is for, and that means putting livestock on it. So, whether the farmers themselves are intelligent, thoughtful and sensitive - and one or two of them probably are, or narrow minded thickos, they are to be in charge of managing the landscape. When they own the land that's hard to oppose. On public land it's another matter. So why do we have to accept all this farmification and livestock grazing on Blacka? Blacka is public land and SWT may have been given a lease of 30 years on it by our utterly stupid council, but wasn't there a time when we might have expected people in charge of what they called a 'nature reserve' to care first about the natural beauty of the place and not blind dogma?

One of the unfortunate spin-offs of the current concentration on Biodiversity Action Plans (BAPS) is to dehumanise our interaction with the countryside. All becomes a matter of what can be measured or rather converted into statistics, however dubious those may be - and they can be very suspect indeed. And to quote statistics you don't need to actually know the site, understand its character or respond to nature and the elements at all. Philistines can do it very well.

I challenge anybody who is inclined to disbelieve me to visit Blacka and disagree with me if they can. Please use the comments facility.

Incidentally I've had some praise for the above picture which I now believe to be my most successful photo yet. Nevertheless the view it gives still fails to fully represent the pleasure of being present when the pattern itself was being created, something that sums up much of the experience we get from being in managed countryside and that for which wildlife trusts are responsible. In fact I'm thinking of asking the wildlife trusts whether they would wish to purchase the rights to this picture. It most certainly would be a much more suitable image than their present logo of a badger.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Harrassed by Strangers

Just for once I'll put in a word for a tolerant senior citizen never known to complain on his own behalf. When you're 91 years old (equivalent), arthritic, with declining powers of hearing and vision and you've walked a place all your life, it's a bit rich that you arrive one morning on what you've always taken to be your own patch only to be set upon and given the once over by a bunch of aliens with no understanding of how to behave. This is another unhappy result of failings by the UK Border Agency and its local office.