Four strands of barbed wire - a Blacka Moor update


We are creatures of our experience. As a fairly new species, we’ve been around in contact with wild nature for some 120,000 years, except that in the last 5,000 we have withdrawn from that wild nature as we became its master. Some have called this the extinction of experience. Nevertheless, through out that history and hopefully for all time, children given the freedom to play will always seek out the nearest wild place, be it a big tree, a pond, a watercourse or nearby woodland.

There is a recreational element to this in adults as well, when we seek out an experience of wild nature, albeit that the ingredient of play is replaced by a sympathetic contact with nature that some understand as spiritual, and others appreciate as a simple but powerful pleasure. How ever and in what way we react to it, there are certain key physical attributes that research into our experience of landscape has regularly identified. These attributes are the scale or extent of the view; the variation in topography; the presence of water; and the naturalness of the scene.

Few would argue over the merits of our attraction to water in the landscape, nor to the geological and topographical delight that is afforded by hills and valleys, while not forgetting our varied coastal scene. The scale or extent of view is more challenging as an attribute as it contains elements of legibility and coherence together with mystery and complexity.

While I increasingly favour the close-up scale of walking within woodland, it is perhaps understandable that some people don’t like being faced with impenetrable scrub – it is often a physical barrier, it holds no mystery for them and it’s not an easily “readable” component of the landscape (albeit that it is not that common and is probably a transient before forest cover develops). By contrast, the sparsely vegetated, wide-open views of most of our landscape completely lack mystery and complexity for me and, while I accept that for many people this is a legible landscape, research shows that given the choice, we tend to plump for a more complexly vegetated landscape closer-up to us, providing it is not dense; and we are happy with densely vegetated landscapes within the wider view.

Naturalness is the key attribute

Naturalness is often distinguished as the most powerful factor in our preference for landscapes and is manifested by our liking for native vegetation in the landscape scene, especially trees, and for the absence of any overt man-made elements or discernible human-induced change. These are relative and scalable elements of the attribute, and our reaction to them may alter with experience as our “eye” becomes tutored; particularly with human-induced change as we begin to discriminate between structurally intact and altered forms of vegetation. Thus the influence through external management of a location has a direct bearing on this, as we can observe the effects of physical management, clearance or grazing. This also bears on other elements of our discrimination - our experiential values - where the total amount of the vegetation and its density are as important as its intactness. (1,2,3)

I recently walked the New Forest in Hampshire, noting down my impressions, which were later commented on by someone from the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust (HIOWWT). I saw a consistent browse line amongst the trees that gave a clue to the heavy herbivore pressure that this woodland was under from the free-roaming forest ponies. There were also many recently pollarded hollies, looking like a vehement decapitation when it was probably some slavish adherence to a long past and now unnecessary tradition.

I saw a ground layer almost completely devoid of vegetation, except in the very few places where grazing was excluded. The Wildlife Trust worker claimed instead that the “field layer is staggeringly rich with a diversity that is far greater than in the equivalent ungrazed adjacent woods”. Further, he claimed that the bryophyte flora of the “field layer” is of international renown, having written about it for British Wildlife (a house journal for conservation professionals) some 10 years back. His one concession to my description was that the ground layer has “low (very low in part) biomass”. Indeed. So low in fact that I couldn’t see any of it!

I was tempted to send this Wildlife Trust worker a series of photographs from my local (ungrazed, unmanaged) ancient woodland that would currently show a range of woodland species in flower, with evidence of many, many more to come – and all of them in such an abundance that even the most casual observer would be infinitely more likely to choose to walk there than in the sad nakedness of the New Forest. But as any veteran of disputes with conservation professionals will know, the odds of an even discourse are stacked against you.

George Peterken has written about this sometimes crushing orthodoxy of contemporary conservation professionals, commenting on the superior attitude of promoting maximum diversity over simple, rich and natural abundance:
”Conservationists have often expressed their views in imperialist terms, for example, by yielding to the quantitative imperative to assess value and to resolve conflicts by recourse to counting the numbers of species and sizes of populations and by measuring diversity with formulae.”

He goes on to say:
“The closely argued scientific case for nature conservation is not necessarily superior to the more holistic and arcadian terms used by, for example, Richard Mabey in the Common Ground. The increasing ascendancy of imperialist attitudes has made it more difficult to persuade managers to leave some parts of woodland nature reserves to run wild.” (4)

Precisely so, George, who knows that wildness and naturalness are intertwined, and it doesn’t really matter that we can’t be sufficiently precise about what these two words independently or together mean, just to satisfy the constant need of conservation professionals to be able to measure and manage. However, it is certain for me and many others around the world that human management always takes away from the appearance and feel of wildness, as we recently found during one of our favourite walks.

Disenchantment sets in

A new and over-sized path had been driven through the riverside woodland towards the Strid in the Bolton Abbey Estate, and the lower branches of the trees alongside the trail up to the higher waterfall in the Valley of Desolation had been pruned-off. There is a commercial imperative of amenity management on this estate, but for us this walk had lost the qualities of wildness that we enjoyed and we will not be going back.

Far worse is the situation where the disenchantment arises from nature conservation rather than amenity management. In an Addendum to an article on Blacka Moor, I appended details of a dispute about the contested imposition of conservation management by HIOWWT on St Catherine’s Hill near Winchester because the introduction of livestock grazing would cut across the open access that local people had enjoyed for many years. (5) The fruits of that management are now being felt, the damage to trees distressing to local people, one of whom wrote to me with some trenchant views about the role of HIOWWT and Natural England, and concluded with:
”I doubt that we will be visiting this reserve again - it has been ruined for us.”

The same disenchantment has descended upon the Friends of Blacka Moor who doggedly persevered in their opposition to the imposition of fencing and grazing at this edge of Peak District public open space. One amongst their number no longer enjoys his walks on the moor, tainted as they are by the grievance felt at being abused by a whole series of supposedly public servants as the Friends made their case for wildness in a less managed landscape during seven sessions of mediated public consultation (write-ups of the consultation meetings can be downloaded from 6).

I have a depressingly large amount of additional information and correspondence about the sorrowful chain of events that followed on from my original article (5), including the public consultation on the management of Blacka Moor; the Grazing Impact Assessment (7); the letter dated 12th February this year from Sheffield Wildlife Trust (SWT) to the Reserve Advisory Group that announced that the recommendations agreed from the public consultation would be ignored, this letter coming three days after an article in the Sheffield Star triumphantly announced the introduction of 15 Highland cattle to Blacka Moor. Amongst the catalogue of self-serving arguments in the article was the following from Jane Chapman, of the Peak National Park Authority:
"The proposed management of Blacka Moor will bring significant achievements and positive progress in landscape, biodiversity, recreation and cultural heritage, increasing the awareness of urban communities." (8)

I wonder if “positive progress” in recreation is afforded by the four stranded barbed wire fence (the lowest strand at 32cm) that has gone up around the moor, which has been described to me as an unprecedented event on land designated as a public open space and a pleasure ground under its original covenant to Sheffield Council (see 5). I am told that Sheffield Councils Public Rights of Way Officer declared the fence to be an accident waiting to happen and demanded it be taken down and replaced by stock fencing with perhaps one or two strands of barbed wire at the top. It still remains, with local walkers not just fearing for their own and their dog’s safety from the vicious nature of this fence (one dog has been seriously injured, unsuspecting as it was of this new danger) but also for the safety of local wildlife such as badger and deer.

The “urban community” close to Blacka Moor (the Friends of Blacka Moor) certainly did increase their “awareness” when they used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the minutes of a closed meeting held back in October 2005 between SWT, English Nature (now Natural England) and the Peak District National Park Authority in which it was agreed by those present that the issue of cattle grazing and fencing should not be negotiable. Thus the public consultation sessions that took place over 2006, funded by SWT, were doomed from the outset because of the implacable views of the key conservation authorities involved.

Getting to the crux of it

One day, perhaps as an emotional release but certainly as a cautionary tale, someone will write down the full history of these shameful events (you can see a current web log and seasonal photographs taken by someone who regularly walks Blacka Moor – 9). However, much that has happened has resulted undoubtedly from one action - the designation of Blacka Moor as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) by what was English Nature. This has been confirmed to me through a reading of the Grazing Impact Assessment and a little guess work.

The bulk of the Eastern Peak District Moors SSSI was designated in 1986 following the requirement in the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 to revisit all SSSI designations. Blacka Moor was not then included as a unit of that very large SSSI. In 1996, the whole of the SSSI and much else in the Peak District, as well as Blacka Moor, was included in the Peak District Moors (South Pennine Moors Phase 1) Special Protection Area (SPA), a European designation arising from what is commonly known as the Birds Directive. Thus the SPA created another layer of protection for the upland breeding bird assemblage that is one of the key notifications for the SSSI. It is my conjecture that English Nature then sought to capitalize on the designation of the SPA by seeking out other areas within it that could be added to the SSSI, and which would also add towards meeting some of the biodiversity action plan targets for these upland and moorland birds.

Thus in 1999, Blacka Moor was included as another unit in the Eastern Peak District Moors SSSI. Even back then, I am told, there were local people who advised the ecology officer of Sheffield City Council to resist the designation on the basis that the land was covenanted for public recreation, as was their right during a period allowed for making representations. We will never know what would have happened if the designation had been resisted, or if it would have made any difference with English Nature if it had. What we do know is that once designated there is a requirement to manage the site in the condition that supports the criteria against which it is selected.

Thus Blacka Moor, which apart from a brief period in 1983 had not been grazed by livestock for 70 years or so, now had to be returned to a condition consistent with when its was managed for grouse shooting and farmed by sheep, of an upland dwarf-shrub heath. The criteria for this are clinical. Here is a selection:

  • There should be one species of bryophyte present at the one metre square scale (1mss)

  • At least 75% of vegetation cover should be from species in Table 1 with at least two of the indicator species present, and at least 25% should be from Group I and less than 50% should be from Group II at the 4 mss;

  • Less than 10% should be bracken;

  • Less than 20% should be scattered trees and shrubs, and less than 10% if the trees are concentrated in woodland;

  • Pioneer regrowth (up to about 10cm tall) should be 25-50% of ground cover;

  • Less than 33% of shoots of dwarf shrubs collectively should show signs of browsing;

  • Less than 66% of dwarf shrub shoots collectively should show signs of browsing.

Enough! As it stands, none of the upland bird breeding species of national importance that the SSSI/SPA is designated for have been recorded on Blacka Moor. A survey of other moorland and moorland edge birds on Blacka Moor reveals very low numbers: a pair each of whinchat, stonechat, meadow pippit, red grouse, linnet and reed bunting, and maybe up to seven pairs of tree pipits. Thus it is hard to see how SWT can substantiate the claim on their website that Blacka Moor was designated an SSSI because of its “important population of upland breeding birds”. (6)

While an SSSI designation is meant to hold land ‘in stasis’ for the target species it is notified for, in this case they aren’t there and the designation of Blacka Moor is nothing more than an inappropriate imposition, an enforcement that is attempting to blot out the last 70 years of history and return the landscape of Blacka Moor to an artificial, farmed state that has long been overtaken by natural processes - the outcome of those natural processes having been appreciated by local people. Now, four strands of barbed wire will separate those local people in time, space and experience from the wildness that they had come to enjoy. Is such a loss to be traded for an uncertain gain in bird species?

I will return to this nonsense of managing landscapes for target species in more detail. The impossibility of imposing our will in direct conflict with wild nature is summed up for me by Peter Marren from his wonderful book on rare wild flowers:
“But we should nevertheless take the time to ask ourselves what we are conserving wildflowers for. …wildflowers need to remain wild: it is their patrimony, the reason for their existence. Do we still have the restraint, the humility to say to ourselves: thus far but no further. Has mankind become so dominant that even wildness itself is our possession too?” (10)

Mark Fisher 29 March 2007

(1) Preference and naturalness: An ecological approach, A. Terrence Purcell & Richard J. Lamb, Landscape and Urban Planning 42 (1998) 57-66

(2) Visual perception of wild land in Scotland, Dominic Habron, Landscape and Urban Planning 42 (1998) 45-56

(3) Public Understandings of Nature: A Case Study of Local Knowledge About “Natural” Forest Conditions, R. Bruce Hull, David P. Robertson & Angelina Kendra, Society and Natural Resources, 14 (2001) 325–340

(4) Natural Woodland: Ecology and Conservation in Northern Temperate Regions, George F. Peterken (1996) Cambridge Uni. Press ISBN 0-521-36792-1

(5) St Catherine’s Hill, Addendum, 26 November 2006 in Blacka Moor in peril from the conservation professionals, 18 December 2005

(6) Nature Reserves, SWT,

(7) Blacka Moor Grazing Impact Assessment, Penny Anderson Associates Ltd., May 2006 (Commissioned by Sheffield Wildlife Trust)

(8) Highland cattle brought in to safeguard heathland, Sheffield Star, 9th February 2007

(9) The Blacka Moor Site, Friend of Blacka Moor

(10) Britain’s Rare Flowers, Peter Marren (1999) A & C Black ISBN 0-85661-114-X