Friday, 29 June 2012


More red than the other deer in the country is the obvious reason we call them so. A glimpse of roe deer shows this well. But they're not always keen to show us what their coats are like.

Interesting to speculate why lying down in heather and bilberry is so appealing to them. Do they want to be hard to see while able to keep watch, or is it the comfort of being surrounded by sheltering shrubs? If it's the first of these then it works better for hinds than for stags.

And they soon stand up if you get too close, allowing us to see just why they are red deer.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The 'Berlin Fence' ?

Nobody expects to see on the kind of soil up here the same range of wild flowers as you may see in a limestone dale. But there are some cheery common blooms that gladden the heart when we see them in summer. Or there should be.

But this is Blacka's Berlin Wall. On one side we do see the flowers and tall grasses pleasantly fringing the path. On the other side of the fence we get the dour over controlled depressing farmed vegetation that reminds me of East Germany before the wall came down.

It is the happy mix that pleases even in common plants such as ragged robin and meadow buttercup some dominating in one place some in another and at other times each holding its own.

Once through the gate we're in the middle of it. What's not been chewed has been defecated over. Crop and crap management at its immeasurable best. Just what the C.A.P. ordered. Yellow flies, as ever, a bonus.The path as it winds alongside the birches now needs careful negotiation.

And on the other side of the path we get to see two of the strands of SWT's exemplary management operating in tandem. As I've said before, they don't come often but when they do they make up for their absence.

This is where they poisoned the bracken when nothing was growing below and where the cows have helped to ensure it stays like the yard of a slum farm.

A quick look further north reveals that there's been quite a bit of crop and crap going on around the spot that flower lovers visit in July for the bog asphodel.

Not Thriving

This sycamore is not far from Cowsick bog. Each year it gets to June in apparently healthy condition. By mid July it is looking very sad.

First impression of the group of birches behind the young oak here suggests they are doing well. A careful look will reveal a bare stem in the centre dating back nearly ten years to the time that SWT tried to poison all trees in sight. Many succumbed having put up a brave fight but one or two survived albeit impaired. They can be identified by the existence of bare branches among other healthy ones.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012


Is there anyone who, as a child, never imagined they could fly like a swift? On light evenings near midsummer leaning out of the window well past bedtime when grown ups downstairs thought you were asleep the superfast screamers were a glimpse of freedom much to be envied. The swift is a late arrival and early departer but tends to come into its own just as the cuckoos quieten down or even leave for other places. Late June is when you notice that bird song has lost some of its vitality and competitive edge. So displays of virtuoso flight offer compensation though not for music lovers: the swift's screech is its most unlovely aspect.


It doesn't do to hold back. That could be the motto of the robin. His desire to be first to the food is based on sound principles and observation.

If you wait too long you may get nothing because others have different techniques and once established take everything. Hence the avidity.

So not much success in teaching table manners.  Tits seem more laid back but they simply approach the problem in another way. They look indifferent for a time then make a swift dive remaining at the site less than a second before making off.

Chaffinches are closer to the robin in their approach but less intensity while the blackbirds out here are far more wary of people than in the typical suburban garden.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Unnatural England

Sheffield is the home of Natural England's Head Office. N.E. is an 'N.D.P.D.' which means Non-Departmental Public Body. Most people think of it as a Quango which is easier to remember. Natural England has developed into a fine art the business of bureaucratising our countryside with the help and assistance of various landowners and a sprinkling of on board academics. The public are important to NE as recipients or consumers of what NE does but in reality have very little say in the decisions and  pronouncements  handed down. Despite nominal systems of accountability through parliament it gets very little scrutiny and is indebted to a largely servile press as is the rest of the conservation industry. At some point in the future perhap the penny will drop and people will realise they've been taken for a ride.
Currently NE has been somewhat preoccupied with 'the uplands' of which Blacka and surrounding hills and moors are part. A new appearance on their website indicates that NE is conducting a Review of Upland Evidence with a team of hand picked characters who I do not know but would guess will have very little that's imaginative or radical to propose and instead opt for recommending more management which means more farming and hence less that's natural.

In fact the remit from DEFRA referred to seems pretty categoric leading with

Supporting England’s hill farmers,     and going on with
Delivering public goods from upland environments (including biodiversity)
Supporting sustainable upland communities
Driving and monitoring change

I love these statements invoking 'change'. From what and to what for goodness sake? Reading the document may help but I must take my depression pills first,

Two initatives from this blog are under consideration: 1) Bets are being taken on whether the moorland owners and shooting lobby will be happy with the outcome. Current odds are 150-1 on.  2) Volunteers are being invited to meet at Blacka in order to scrape off the moor a quantity of recently deposited brownness to deliver to N.E.s Sheffield office with an accompanying greeting card addressed to Unnatural England.

Culpable - via Afterthought

Not many people would consider that wildlife is guilty of helping to damage Blacka Moor nor that it is impeding access. But then not everyone thinks like Sheffield Wildlife Trust

When I met the local Public Rights of Way officer on Blacka in April to talk about problems on paths we looked at this footpath which earlier in the year was much drier.

The Sheffield Wildlife Trust reserve officer came with us. I drew attention to the fact that, in 2007 before the first appearance of cattle, across its whole length it never got wider than eighteen inches (45cm). In that first year the cows walked over it constantly and this led to the grass fringes which had previously grown tall during summer, getting cropped to the ground, and the path becoming rapidly wider. There’s really no room for contradiction about this as I watched it happen day by day. And the Sheffield Wildlife Trust officer in April did not try to deny it. Now two months later a paper has arrived from Sheffield Wildlife Trust with notes written as minutes of that site meeting. This has some of Sheffield Wildlife Trust’s notorious hallmark ‘afterthoughts’ just one of the irritants that come from dealings with SWT: things that were not said are reported as if they were and others that were said get ‘interpreted’. One of these afterthoughts implies that deer might be just as responsible for the chronic widening of the path as Sheffield Wildlife Trust’s cows!!! This is such total nonsense that it stimulates numerous questions. Why would they say this when it’s demonstrably wrong? What game is being played? What kind of management does this lead to? Usually we would simply call this being in denial. But when you think about it, it tells you just how little Sheffield Wildlife Trust know about the wildlife on Blacka. And even about their own cattle. That is assuming they believe what they themselves say.
I’ve watched deer moving over Blacka Hill perhaps scores of times and can honestly say I’ve never once seen then walking along this path. Traversing it, yes a few times. Rather than walking along man made paths they much prefer to walk through tall vegetation like bilberry bracken or leggy heather. I’m not exactly sure why but they do. But this is only to say what most people know who have spent any time at all looking at deer.

The cattle particularly in that year but also to a lesser extent in other years mostly went along the path. Walking along man made paths is something which cows habitually do. That year they ate the grass at the sides and in doing so further trampled the heather at the edges. This broke up the tall leggy heather stalks encouraging more grass to come through and the path in consequence became more of a track than a path but also unacceptably soggy - even remaining damp during long dry spells. Even the apologists for heather could not be happy as the heath is receding as the sog advances.

This year the cows have been here again and the evidence is there including cropped grass stems and their generous deposits.

This is about afterthoughts, but it also gives a foretaste of what any evaluation of Sheffield Wildlife Trust’s 2007-2011 management plan will turn out like. If it’s done by SWT we know what to expect. But we can hardly trust anyone they contract the job to. They will produce what the paymaster wants. The reason why wild animals behave as they do and domestic animals also can be a conundrum. Not so with SWT. Their motivation in one respect is plain. If they tell us what we know to be wrong it means they have an agenda of sorts which they insist must be allowed to continue on its way. The truth is neither here nor there.

Sunday, 24 June 2012


It could be a symptom of a deep psychological flaw or it could just be that some people never grow up. Whatever it is, whenever there’s a chance to see a mad torrent in full flow, I want to get as close as possible to it. There’s a satisfying rawness to these excesses of the natural world for some of us who spend much of our time in cities; so, as we can’t do anything about the disappointing weather, why not just enjoy its scenic effects. Bring paint box or camera.

And waterproof boots.

Wild of the Mark

Sheffield Moors Partnership is currently writing its Master Plan. They have had the original not to say unusual (or even convenient) idea of writing the plan before consultation. SMP's close relative is EMP Eastern Moors Partnership. One of the more revealing exchanges in responses to its consultation is within this document.
The comment made on the text of the draft management plan was thus:
When the word „wild is used by local conservation officials and even „wilderness in the context of this kind of writing it seems to indicate that „wild is something valued. It evokes a sense of anticipation and a sense of otherness, and a sense of mystery –  something which captures the imagination as only a selfmotivating landscape with its free spirited unshackled wildlife could do. But the way that the landscape is described both as it is now and how it is intended to become after „exemplarymanagement is nothing of the sort. The writers of this brochure know that but still insist on using the word wild about land that is given a farm management prescription. I do not understand why this fundamental error continues to be repeated and can only assume there is come kind of deception going on.
The response that came back was this
The Eastern Moors are not a“wilderness” but the term “wild”is used to describe the nature of the open moorland. People will continue to refer to moorland as open and wild even though it‟s not in its natural state. Is the term “wildlife” correct when many non domesticated creatures that we refer to as wildlife are dependant on the human management of the moors? We use the term “Wild” as a description that most people use of the moorlands
Chief of the non domesticated wildlife that is dependant on human management is of course the grouse. There's no serious doubt that without management it would survive albeit in smaller numbers. There's nothing like needing to have something to kill to get people to look after it.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Starting (2)

Just the morning after writing the previous post, 'Starting', and rashly revealing: "Each time I pass this way now I offer up a little prayer that the wildlife trust will do nothing here at all." I find that SWT's ill-mannered cattle have started to do their managers' bidding. They've been colonising the very place I was eulogising.
Give me strength ........

Here and that other place near the gate onto the moor you can now find enough of the stuff to satisfy any desperate coprophiliac. Such a person will doubtless also get great delight from the accompanying flies.

The two stags who had been lying here yesterday morning  had expressied their distaste by jumping over the wall and were to be found in the woods near the road from where they started up afresh.

Friday, 22 June 2012


Many walkers are familiar with the sudden appearance of woodcock as it flies off alarmed having left things very late - in fact until you're more or less on top of it. The pheasant tends to behave similarly. Woodcock have a special liking for the most sheltered area on Blacka near the south east facing wall. This is blessed with thick cover provided by swelling bilberry shrubs and well protected from the north and west by a useful mix of native trees and rhododendron. Many times when walking along the narrow path we've been startled as the bird raced off to a safer refuge.

This morning the starting creatures were somewhat larger. Two stags rose up fast as we unexpectedly appeared. They would maybe not have expected anyone to be walking on such a morning in driving rain - and we did cut short our visit. If I had been asked to say where deer would be in these conditions I might have suggested the thicker woodland lower down so this was a surprise. The wet shrubs in a rainstorm don't look the ideal place to tale a rest for such large animals howeve much protection they give for birds.

This is an interesting spot on Blacka for wildlife and is where I chose to site our little bird feeding station, dividing the treats along the top of the wall and the small hanging bird table. A poor and cold June has meant that the 'bird caff' has been well patronised into the summer.

Adult birds do of course welcome some help when there are other mouths to feed. This is also a good spot for hearing and seeing blackcap and other birds and birdsong generally has been excellent this year. Sometimes, especially in winter, there's evidence that fox and badger have been around in the night though they are unlikely to find much nutrition from what's fallen from the table.

It's possible that the poor summer has been to blame for the non appearance so far of the other residents seen in previous years: lizards and the vole who occasionally peeps out from holes in the wall hoping to scavenge some sunflower seed. The rhododendron behind the wall is still in flower and this is a chance to say again that it plays its part here not just provoding shelter for all who visit but also for giving us a cheery splash of colour. Each time I pass this way now I offer up a little prayer that the wildlife trust will do nothing here at all. Their unique talent for clumsy intervention threatens to bring on more depression than a week of heavy rain in June.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Birch as Art

One of the most impressive features of Blacka is its range of birch trees.

They appear individually, standing proudly in mainly open space, also in small groups and then more densely in wooded parts often with an underlayer of thriving bilberry shrubs.

There is plenty of young rowan and oak as well but it's the birch that attracts attention through its ability to acquire character and formal diversity at a very early age.

I know nowhere else that so successfully showcases the potential of birch to embellish a landscape. This is down to its transience.

The specimens here are in their way rare in that they are part of an advance guard with a mission to occupy and improve an area previously blighted by an exploitative management regime. Birch is a young tree mostly short lived therefore defying any attempt to protect it and consequently of no interest to conservationists who must always be looking for grant-funded projects. *

To spend a day looking at the variations in form shown by these young birch trees would be an educational experience for a young (or even old) art student. We in this country may have only a restricted range of native tree species compared with tropical forests but birch in particular does its bit to promote difference of form through its growth patterns.

Another example of this is alder, interestingly a close relative of birch and growing alongside it in parts of Blacka's wet woodland. In common with its cousin it also manages to acquire great diversity of form and fascinating formal characteristics from an early age. It's also a tree that looks very much at home in moist and gloomy situations. Rackham would have drawn it and Dickens would have written a short story about it.

* I can almost hear the voice of a Natural England officer saying " conservation value" !!  Translation reads " value to conservationists".

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Being Followed

For some who protested several years ago about cows being put on Blacka it was mostly about risk. Numerous incidents around the country were reported in the media telling of attacks by cows, some of them tragic. I had worked with cattle and had no personal fears but hated the way that using them turned the place into farmland. Only one cow had ever reacted badly to me and she had the excuse that I had tried to apply a wet cloth to her udder at 5.30 in the morning; that resulted in a savage kick in the mouth but I knew it had been mostly my own fault. The other thing to avoid when only half awake in the early hours is having a cow stand on your foot. There are better dancing partners around.

One behaviour trait of cows that can be disconcerting is the habit of following you along a path. I watched a lady with a dog being followed on Blacka in just this way a couple of days ago and shortly afterwards they did the same to me. I thought little of it until I read of this incident recounted by an experienced herdsman.

Monday, 18 June 2012

The 75% Con Trick

People below a certain age and above a certain IQ should know that you can't believe what you're being told. We oldies, who've lived much of our lives before the PR revolution took over and tainted everything, do tend to struggle because our default position is that of trusting authority especially that in public office. That's why we're such excellent fodder for consultations. So how to guard against this? How do you know when you're being had? To test whether someone is pulling a fast one, assess just how hard they are trying as a ratio of how much it's in their interest that you believe them. But the top people know that they must not always appear to be trying too hard so that can't be totally reliable. Another better way is to measure what's being said against your own direct observation.

Groups with a similar vested interest regularly intone their shared dogma and the wisdom is that the more often it gets heard the more inclined is the gullible public to fall for it.

The reason, or so we're told,  that so much of our remote landscape is a heather monoculture is because it is a precious and valuable habitat and that 75% of it is in this country. Now the cunning of this needs noting. When people hear that 75% of a landscape is in a certain place and then further that it is 'under threat' they tend to think something should be done to protect it. That's the beauty of this con trick. The part of the story which they don't hear is that this kind of landscape is artificial and kept as it is purely for the self interest of people who want to shoot game birds. Any marginal advantages it gives for certain selected other bird species is purely incidental to the reason the owners want to keep it as it is. We can be sure that the same people who are arguing for its special protection would be arguing just as forcefully if no other birds ever visited. They would, in true public relations tradition, be finding some other precious incidental reason for justifying what they want to do.

Does anyone ever ask why other countries do not have more of this boring landscape? Has nobody ever considered that people in other countries may have more sense and, crucially, fewer rich and privileged people with a taste for elite pursuits?

Does nobody ever consider that the wildlife value of these uplands would increase staggeringly if the grouse moor management stopped and it was allowed to naturalise? The answer is yes they do but if they work for Natural England they are expected to keep quiet because N.E.'s top brass is hand in glove with the grouse shooters and the farmers and the big estate owners who also manage to get well represented among DEFRA ministers.

The direct observation approach is the best test. The area managed closest to a grouse moor around this part of  Sheffield is Burbage and Hallam moors. The typical area where shooting estates have been allowed to become 'unfavourable' beacuse unmanaged for shooting is Blacka Moor. The wildlife interest comparison between the two just cannot be missed. Yet the lesson does not seem to be learned. One person I know, unaware of my interest,  told me with complete conviction that the moors have to be managed with burning and sheep or the results would be disastrous. It turned out that a couple of months previously he had been on business to the house of a man who owned a small shooting estate and been told the usual 75% story; that's how the propaganda works and then gets disseminated by the gullible.  But he's not the only person to be suckered. The Moorland Association, in common with the Game and Conservation Trust,  puts enormous resources into pushing its propaganda and they have prominently displayed on their website a statement from the ex Chief Executive of Natural England Helen Phillips shamelessly praising the trust for what is in effect its exploitation of our uplands as if the MA's being charitably altruistic. Well we know, don't we, that, like News Corp and Mr Cameron, Phillips and the grouse moor owners and doubtless the new Chief Exec. of N.E. are 'in it together', even if the rest of us are on the outside. And so is Richard Benyon the minister who has his own grouse moor. Welcome to the 19th century, polished up and presented by the 21st. At least in the 1930s there was a grass roots movement with the gumption to fight for access. Now where are those who should be demanding that what we get access to should be worth visiting?

On the website of the Nidderdale AOB is the following statement:
If left unmanaged,heather grows into a dense mass of long woody stems that supports very little wildlife and which has no grazing or economic value.
Well the last bit is probably correct but as for supporting 'very little wildlife', it's nonsense. Here on Blacka the bilberry grows full and bushy much enjoyed by those birds and mammals not found on more managed sites and trees begin to sprout up with tremendous advantages for wildlife. The whole discourse here is cunningly misleading and comes from people who are either repeating what they've swallowed as propaganda  or know the truth but don't like the implications for their chosen lifestyle.

All good PR operatives know that it's their job to set the agenda before the opposite message has a chance to get articultated and the PR contracts for the combined conservation and moorland interests would be very much worth seeing. Most wildlife trusts spend more time on office work and presentation than having a presence on site (unless it's a sunny day) and they have their own appointed in house PR and Publicity officers dedicated to spin their indispensible role in places like Blacka, but many have PR firms contracted to help them too, ensuring that the public and local authorities are kept on-message.

Those who've been taken in should feel no shame. The resources devoted to putting over the message of conservation industry indispensibility matches or overwhelms that spent on onsite work. And most of it originates in grants from public funds. So we've paid for it.

Friday, 15 June 2012


It was two days ago at Stony Ridge. As he got out of the car the man looked at me: "Vet?" he asked? I looked to see if there was a sick dog in the back of his car . Seeing my puzzled look he persisted: "Is it vet?" pointing generally at Blacka Moor. The penny dropped helped by his strong accent. "It's not too bad today," I replied, "drier than it's been for a few days."

This morning was a different story, possibly the vwettest it's been for several years.

On Wednesday I was wearing  Muckboots because my walking boots had not dried out. Today there was no choice. Tracks and paths were a series of linked lakes of indeterminate depth. A little courage was necessary and a certain old dog was found lacking.

This (above) was today's view of Lincoln Cathedral. Below, the main bridleway.

The falls and rapids below were satisfyingly elemental, much to do with the volume.

Much birdsong nevertheless just audible. This is what we come for. An experience of nature that is as far away from everyday life as we can get where we can be alongside that which we can't control and shouldn't want to. In short it owes nothing to humans and managers.

I suppose it's appropriate that on such a day something should put a damper on enjoyment, so here's the first appearance this season of evidence that Sheffield Wildlife Trust is still alive.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Cuckoo Country

Visibility restricted focuses the interest closer at hand. The simple flowers that act as weeds elsewhere are allowed to fully express themselves where no farming happens. Fields are no place for that kind of interest and moors with sheep or cattle are in effect farmed fields. So it's over the fence and along the lane where pleasure lies. Lots of birdsong and welcome stillness to compensate for the mist. And while bending down to look at the flowering grasses up bubbled an excitable female cuckoo indignantly chased by smaller birds, five feet above my head. A similar incident occurred yesterday: I had been standing still listening to the male calling hoping to capture a picture of him. No sooner had I gone among the trees than two of them, the other a female bubbling, fluttered in the branches above. This must be the most cuckoo-friendly of places.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Far and Near

Those who look out for wildlife in the landscape are in a minority. I see many walking, running and cycling with heads down. Still,  many go past something that would fascinate them if they knew it was there. I frequently wonder how many things I've missed on a typical walk because I was looking the wrong way or had made too much noise or was talking with a companion. That's as nothing to what's missed by those who cycle or jog or walk while texting or with earphones attached.

Sometimes, though, it's easier to see things in the distance than close to when out in the open with no distractions.

A buzzard was circling this morning just as a jogger had stopped to ask me about cuckoos. That bird has not yet allowed me to see it closer than this. Then something made me think the sheep on the skyline was not a sheep after all.

 Looking down from the hillside the woodland below was enticing.

Even close by some animals are well disguised.

My companion still couldn't see the group of hinds lying in the dead bracken even when I pointed to where they were.

Fortunately we also get to see good close up views of wildlife with attitude.