Saturday, 30 April 2011

Steady On!

The season threatens to race through to its climax too early without sufficiently savouring each moment emulating the over-enthusiasm of a novice lover. This could be partly illusory as each year, to an ageing observer, is more compressed than the equivalent a year ago. But it's certainly the perception that the blooms that mark the separate phases of spring have been persuaded by long periods of dry and bright weather to compete for attention. "Hold on" you want to say, "you'll soon have nothing left."
Bluebells were out early as were others. Now rowan is showing and the bracken already making an impression. Meanwhile,in the pasture enclosure, lady's smock is running amock during the absence of the sheep. Cotton grass is always a welcome foil to heather and grass, its whiteness being just what's needed to lift a routine view as effectively as bunting at a street party.

Why would anyone want to walk on Burbage?

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Houndkirk Road

I heard no cuckoos as I walked along Houndkirk Road on Tuesday. Nor did I hear any willow warblers, garden warblers, blackcaps, thrushes or blackbirds. And I didn't hear a skylark either nor did I see a deer. No bees in the few bilberry flowers that were visible. All the wildlife I've mentioned have been routinely enjoyable on Blacka in recent weeks but not on Houndkirk Road.

Houndkirk Road is a public byway and I find it frankly astonishing. To the north is Burbage Moor and to the south Houndkirk Moor. I visit it rarely and then only to remind myself that it exists and check that my opinion hasn’t changed. It has always so far been confirmed.

Occupying an enviably isolated position these moors should be a place where Sheffield people can celebrate natural beauty. Some people do claim to like the place. I do find that surprising but there is something understandable in that view. In a crowded country many crave remoteness and despite weekend use by 4X4 vehicles and motor bikes thereare many times when you can get away from other people and their motors.

But despite its lack of traffic and people I can’t walk here for long without feeling revulsion at the desolation caused by some of the worst excesses of man’s interference in the landscape. The eye is constantly drawn to distant views of woods and green fields lower down where man’s influence has been somewhat more benign. Having to live there himself man has at least tried to keep some attractiveness in his surroundings. Not so up here. What’s blighted these moors is twofold. Nature has been repressed and man has been excluded. The grouse moor model relies on the wasteland being kept free from natural regeneration and also largely free from people who are not good for the game birds and the kind of wildlife that might find use for remoteness. This double whammy delivers a soulless atmosphere. However many times I’ve walked across the empty stretches of this moorland I’ve always felt uncomfortable and out of place. That’s because it’s an artificial landscape designed for an absence of people. The ultimate insult comes when you approach the eastern end and at last find trees: a conifer plantation with such tight spacing that a sparrow could hardly spread its wings within the rows.

It's no surprise that many people want to escape the crowds and all they bring with them. But when that desire takes you to into scenery that’s been systematically denied its natural inheritance – every tree ruthlessly strangled at birth and alien beasts imported to exercise a military style discipline lest the wrong thing grows – then you would surely be a little eccentric to have no reservations. I think those for whom this landscape is of hallowed significance should go back to ‘Start’ and think again.

To me walking in this area is about as interesting as walking in a prairie-sized field of cabbages. It's fascinating that many people have worked hard to try to persuade us to see these dire places as somehow ‘iconic’ or ‘inspiring’ or ‘unique’. Who are these apologists for the ugly straining for the cliche? There will usually be an ulterior motive lurking behind the propaganda. They could be landscape managers in one way or another, farmers or wildlife trust workers or similar who need to demonstrate that the land needs their input to survive and will therefore decline without them.

There’s been some discussion of Houndkirk Road in latter times, much of it revolving around the question of off-road vehicles and their impact. Voices have been heard claiming that the vehicles have ruined the byway and that they were threatening the integrity of the landscape by going off the track (where they are legally entitled to be) onto the paths. Large sums of public money have been committed to a project to resurface parts of Houndkirk Road and to fence a large section where incursions were happening. I find all this a bit perverse. I don’t like coming across the off roaders but then this project is not stopping them. But what exactly does this landscape offer but a venue to ‘do your own thing’ in a sparsely peopled environment? When I go from Blacka Moor, whose greenery owes everything to years without management meddling, and come up to Houndkirk Road I simply despair that the publicly funded professionals of the conservation sector have presided over this scene of controlled desolation.

Good Lord deliver it, and us from them.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

With or Without

In early childhood many things used to puzzle me. But when Easter came around and the Easter story was told, one particular question mystified me. Not the miracles so much. After all, like most children, I was capable of believing many odd things. The real puzzle was - How come I never was able to find hills with walls going round them?

It had to be true that they normally should have walls otherwise what was so special about a green hill without one?

Blacka's Thistle Hill does have a wall partly round it but it is green. Yet on a dull, mournful morning at Easter weekend it's possible to think that certain film directors would be drawn to enact that very story here, though they would have to acknowledge that the words in the hymn are what I eventually worked them out to mean - an archaic form of 'outside'.

It's hard to know how green and treeless these slopes were when the monks and canons of Beauchief Abbey had their farmstead here many centuries ago. Nor just how old is the stone wall long since knocked down.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Friskiness at Dawn

It's uncommon to get to see larger groups of deer when they haven't seen you first. If you do manage it you may see them behaving differently. On a perfectly still morning before the sun penetrates to the wrong side of the hill and when your eyes are still adjusting it's worth standing very still and just watching. Is that some sort of children's party going on? Or a practice session for country dancing?

In amongst the more staid hinds, some of the younger stags, who hang on in the group, jump and dash and mock charge like 6 year olds in the playground aware that the matronly schoolteacher is supervising. Some playful head to head combat rarely lasts more than a second or so. It just needs an awareness of alien presence to set the whole group on guard and quell the purer animal spirits. Then as the sun gets through it's time to look for a well sprung heather bed to indulge in its warmth.

Being Watched

It goes with the job. You can expect nothing less. If you announce your presence quite so obviously then it won't just be curtains twitching but also close up surveillance from the local small birds.

On Shakespeare's birthday a short quote from The Merchant of Venice:
"He knows me as the blind man knows the cuckoo, By the bad voice"

Last year I was surprised to see four cuckoos flying over Blacka, three in a line one behind the other and a fourth a few seconds later. This year's cuckoo season has started with this fellow anxious to find a mate on Blacka Hill. A warm and utterly still start to the day should have allowed his call to be heard over some distance. But the locals preferred to keep closer to his tail.

In fact there's something of a surveillance culture on Blacka Moor at the moment and it's hard for anyone to get far without being watched. Who needs CCTV with this lot about?

Wednesday, 20 April 2011


A time of year to celebrate the new. Not something that comes easily you would think to those long in the tooth. Amongst conservationists, many of whom are much younger, you might expect to find that the appeal of young woods is more appreciated. But my reading suggests they get little mention as against the focus on ancient woodland. I'm not wishing to knock that at all. Older trees are immensely fulfilling and fascinating and score heavily with the ecological number crunching which measures value through biomass.

But to exclude from consideration the vibrant joy of fresh growth when it has so much to offer seems close to dogma. Too often I've come across younger, well qualified conservation workers who seem not to sense the appeal of young growth and young trees. It as if at some time in the past they've been through a semi-painful conversion where their ignorance has been exposed by a knowall: "nothing worth looking at there! this is really what you should be looking at!" Once set on the right path there is no looking back. The tendency to underrate birch and other shorter-living trees fits this pattern.

But to be out at the new beginning of a new day in spring with newly arrived songbirds among the new foliage of younger trees is to be refreshed invigorated and moved. Strange coming from one whose tastes usually go the other way. But that's in man made artefacts. Nature is something else

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Not Much of a Welcome

Sometimes the looks you get from the residents suggest you're not welcome, even when you're merely sitting at the path side enjoying the morning sun.

"Well I don't like the look of him."

"So I'm off."

"Us too"

Getting stared at happens elsewhere.

But it's almost as bad when they ignore you. But we were far above him.

Monday, 18 April 2011

No-Fly Zone

There is a time each morning when the air is throbbing with aircraft noise. While periods of tranquillity come before and after, the atmosphere is impaired.

Dear Mr Cameron and Monsieur Sarkozy,

Having tried something similar elsewhere with admittedly mixed results could you please now consider instituting a series of Europe-wide ZOTs (Zones of Tranquillity)?

Yours, etc

Saturday, 16 April 2011


Should any of us arrive in Paradise Garden our delight would last a year or so before we looked around for something better. A chapter in Michael Foley's book "The Age of Absurdity" explains with wisdom and humour the fate of modern man and woman never to know satisfaction. Our attainment of each desirable leads only for us to wish for the next along the line. Another side to our angst is the nagging feeling among those who've won the jackpot that much as we've longed for it it's not as fulfilling as it would be if we had earned it. In short we're never satisfied.

Those who stride out on Blacka this morning as I did (actually not true - I hobbled) may well enjoy an experience as close to perfection as it gets. But I earned mine, not just because I struggled on a sprained ankle but also because I walk here each day in all weathers. I couldn't swear that I therefore got more satisfaction than others. But I was here early enough to have it to myself. That also needs qualifying: the wildlife was plentiful from hares in the pasture land to geese honking overhead. Such was the stillness, the hazy dawn sunlight and the gentle warmth that we could have been sharing Paradise. Listing the ingredients seems a bit too mechanical. But even so it's worth the effort lest it fades from the memory. There really are not many mornings like this.

The light was that favourite of mine, early sun forcing through haze. Hares were racing through the grassland. Five geese were flying south. Stags had settled into the leggy heather and bulging bilberry. Hinds in a group further on were also enjoying the radiant heat on their backs after a cool night. Musical accompaniment was provided by many contributors. A larger bird flew low over the shrubs pursued for a bit by smaller ones: the first cuckoo. Arriving at a birch he briefly confirmed this.
Cue for some Delius?

Friday, 15 April 2011

Burbage Report

The report that was presented to the South West Community Assembly about Burbage Moor and the other Sheffield Moors can be read here. It merits further discussion so I'll be coming back to it later.

Old and New

This is just the time when we see the dead and newly alive side by side. Bracken straw covers much of the ground and the odd beech clings on to its favourite old leaves like you do with that comfortable and disreputable pullover your wife is threatening to chuck out. Meanwhile the energy of these weeks feels present in the air itself and visible in the new growth on birch and rowan. Most of all on bilberry. Even some early bishop's crooks of bracken can be spotted at the pathside.

In Perpetuity

We now have reminders of the generous gift of J G Graves at two entrance points to Blacka Moor.

A pity such a mess has been made of setting this into the wall.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011


Bilberry in spring symbolises the uninhibited progress of the best parts of Blacka Moor from dreary grouse moor, sheep-cropped and shackled, to a purer expression of nature's will. Thousands of tiny red bell-like flowers top the bulging greenery in the unplanned spaces between birch and rowan adding pictorial value to dreamy spring mornings in hazy sunlight. The occasional views of groups of hinds also hint of the nature's garden of the kind beloved of past generations of painters and tapestry designers, while promising something with more mystery

Sunday, 10 April 2011

In Bed Together

There’s been a scarcity of public discussion of the plan for Sheffield City Council to hand over a huge area of publicly owned land, Burbage etc., to those charitable behemoths RSPB and NT. It’s a bit hard having a public discussion if you know nothing about it. Sheffield City Council has responsibility for Burbage and should oversee it on behalf of the people of Sheffield and the wider public. Nobody can dispute that this land, by virtue of its size and position alone, must concern the public. Yet various officials paid by the public to manage and administer important assets are being allowed to decide for themselves what happens to it with the background of a lamentable lack of public debate. Eventually at some time in the future Sheffield’s Cabinet will make a final decision thus adding some thin veneer of accountable legitimacy but by then the case will have been effectively settled because no other option is being seriously put forward. Such is the nature of decision making in our city where Sheffield people are told they are ‘in the driving seat’. I’ve challenged this and await with interest to see if criticisms are taken to heart. My guess is that no notice will be taken or, probably worse, a half-hearted and corrupt consultation will be held with the same anticipated result at the cost of a few thousand pounds spent. Those pursuing this favoured course are pretty sure of themselves and all the signs are they do consider it a ‘done deal’. Documents obtained from a FOI request show clearly how they have prepared the ground. First whispers were heard five years ago and the lack of anything official since then speaks volumes about SCC’s commitment to transparency. It also tells much about the self confidence of the conservation lobby, sure of their access to public goodwill from an extensive and largely uncritical membership. (One councillor last week actually asked if he should declare an interest as a member of NT!) So NT RSPB and Wildlife Trusts are now able to share out the available public land in the country little worried that serious and concerted scrutiny will come their way nor any but a few eccentrics will talk about cartels and anti trust law. Deals are done well out of the way, ranks close in the face of problems and criticism, cosy relationships are struck and the phrase ‘in bed together’ at least in one case is literally true. In the last two years plans were being developed during which there was no publicity about what was being considered, no formal involvement of elected members and a reluctance to engage with the public of Sheffield. At the meeting of the SW Community Assembly on March 31st there was only a brief discussion and I’m now wondering if even that would have taken place had I not asked for a consultation in September last year after the Eastern Moors Consultation in August.


July 2009 NT and RSPB talked to officers and Parks and Countryside Director about ideas for taking over Sheffield Moors

October 2009 to Feb 2010 Plans worked out to deliver an interim letting of Sheffield Moors to NT while further discussion of arrangements for longer term lease was taking place. Various meetings – only one councillor involved a ‘consultee of choice’ and general friend of conservationists but no official council portfolio – Trevor Bagshaw Meanwhile plans went ahead for EMP (NT and RSPB) to take over the adjoining Eastern Moors.

August 2010 Identified ‘stakeholders’ were invited to a series of consultation events about the Eastern Moors. As an add on the Sheffield Moors were also awkwardly tacked on to this even though there had been no public discussion of the future of those moors or even any publicity relating to potential change of ownership. (There had been a fairly extensive process before PDNPA leased the Eastern Moors) I searched all around the area and found no posters in or around Sheffield. No official Sheffield representatives were at these consultation meetings.

September 2010 I asked the SW community Assembly to ensure there was a proper consultation about the future of the Sheffield Moors.

Between September 2010and March 2011 I tried to find out more about how any decision or recommendation was being formed and the involvement or lack of it of elected and accountable members of the council. The answers always led the same way – there’s nothing agreed yet and no proposal –we’ll let you know when there is something.

March 31st SW Community Assembly meeting – a presentation before the meeting by EMP and an inadequate Q&A session (not attended by all Cllrs) followed by a short discussion among cllrs, recommending further exploration of the EMP option

Whether my intervention had any effect I don’t know – it was a call once again for a proper consultation before any decision. Clearly, apart from farmers, the people of Sheffield and surrounding areas and their elected representatives are a very small part of this process and they are considered a pushover by the conservation sector. Talk of Sheffield Moors Partnership was ongoing as it was presented to the August 2010 meetings even though no official and published launch had happened. Who are they, we thought? From the letter of December 2009 written by NT’s manager to the Sheffield officer it’s obvious that many major decisions had already been made, meetings have been held, a vision composed not without bloated phrasing and corny sentiment; fine details are being planned out with no suggestion that there could be issues of principle to tackle beforehand through serious dialogue with the public. And who chooses the supporters who comprise the 'broad church of engaged stakeholders'? The broad church mentioned has a pretty narrow doorway. No wonder the sour faces frustrated by the insistence at the 31st March meeting that the people of Sheffield are stakeholders!! That could cause congestion in the aisles.

The conservation sector may be not for profit but its approach in many ways mirrors big business and its obsession with growth. Conservation is fixated with empire building. Chiefs and directors love to make their mark by expanding their organizations and no better way than grabbing land. See how SWT struggle with Blacka, unable or unwilling to provide even one regular warden, yet still find the resources to buy Greno Woods.

Much Warbling

It should be a village in the Cotswolds but it was what we had here on a peaceful Sunday morning. Within a few days there's been a sudden greening, woodland flowers and then the arrival of the warblers, first the smaller ones then the coloraturas.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Forestry Commission Response

Anyone with a view on the grant supported work done in the woodland by contractors working for SWT may wish to read the papers relating to this which have come through a Freedom of Information request. The papers are now publicly available and can be accessed here. Comments sent in on behalf of this blog can also be seen along with highlighted comments from SWT and the FC, SWT in blue and FC in red print.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Glades and Mini Glades

SWT's Forestry Commission funded glade creation has brought us several sites characterised by free standing torsos, about as natural looking as wind turbines. Not far away are mini glades where gale-felled trees lie allowing light to penetrate to the floor of the wood. A few steps beyond is a good spot to hear wood warblers. No habitat creation was necessary for this to happen.

Ripped Off

It only needs one or two to wreck something and we don't see the impact of those who are careful to leave none. But it was always possible that annoyed mountain bikers would tear down the latest notice from SWT. It was to be found lower down among the debris. Not stopping at that they went on to leave their mark on the barrier itself which was made in such a way to allow walking through. I expect that was what angered them: such is the thinking among some of the MTB community that they would reason that it's unfair for walkers to use the path if they can't. So nobody can get across here now without a difficult detour. No use saying to people who don't listen that of course everybody was allowed here. We just had to agree to leave our cars and bikes and other private transport behind. Not sure what the value is of some of the vocabulary on the notice - if it was intended to show that the writer should gain respect through being in tune with the terminology then it's failed in this case. Still there is no sign of recent biking further on so maybe the culprits have vented their frustation and gone elsewhere. Barriers further on are as yet untouched.


To those who tramp the paths day in day out over the year the new voices are a special treat. This week we've already had the chiff-chaff and now the willow warbler. Fewer sounds from the mistles who dominated earlier on and blackbirds and song thrushes have been picking up just lately. The pleasure is only slightly mixed by the knowledge that we might bump into occasional birders some of whom are over-earnest, overweight and overladen with equipment.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Stakeholding Again

Feel for them, these managers who are required to conduct consultations.

The whole thing is frankly a bloody nuisance (as Nick Clegg would say). We know what we want to do so why should we have to go through this **** cleggy rigmarole of asking the public - I mean, just because it's their land and they pay the money. Anyway let's get out that old list of tame consultees from the Stakeholder File. Yes I know most of them are a bore and one or two are liable to drone on about the same old thing, but over the years we've managed to find ways of neutralising their message. We can't have any independent thinking going on. The best consultations are planned carefully to give us just the result we want. It goes with the job.

Just remember at all costs avoid that Blacka Blogger menace putting his oar in.

April, Early

Friday, 1 April 2011

Sheffield Moors Partnership

The career conservationists were out in numbers last night to attend the South West Community Assembly meeting at Tapton School. Primed by RSPB/Eastern Moors Partnership to be there to support their bid to expand onto the Sheffield Moors this was an effective show of force on the part of the conservation industry locally. The planning of the campaign has been pretty well orchestrated and there was little doubt that councillors would be easily persuaded. It is pretty rare anyway for our councillors to make anything of a go at scrutinising anything that's put to them. There may have been some achievement in our getting them to insist that a consultation should go on in which the people of Sheffield would be considered stakeholders. My impression is that the bird people were not too happy with this and would obviously have preferred a quick fix. There had been signs all the way through that attempts would be made to jump people into this decision. This is a tactic often used by officers to bounce elected members into making rash decisions characterised by the use of phrases like a "window of opportunity" and "unique chance"; I've even heard "once in a lifetime". It is then not long after that local people realise the implications of a decision that was not properly examined by those whose job should be to shine a sceptical light on every proposal. I remember SWT's clever wheeze eleven years ago when they told us that Heritage Lottery Fund had ring-fenced funds available for grants to wildlife trusts but Sheffield would have to hand over Blacka Moor and other places for the sites to get the benefit of the funds. HLF told me indignantly that any organisation including the council was eligible for that money. We now seem to have a new organisation called the Sheffield Moors Partnership. These conservation exploiters do like to stick together telling the same story of how the land has to be managed - Ah there's grants in them there hills.