Blacka Moor in peril from the conservation professionals

Porstdown Hill

Odiham Common

Blacka Moor

ADDENDUM - November 2006

St Catherine's Hill

NEW Read the follow-up article on Blacka Moor, March 2007

Four strands of barbed wire - a Blacka Moor update

This is a tale of a Pennine edge moorland and the local people who cherish it. It is also a tale of a city council, a local wildlife trust, the Charity Commission and English Nature, none of whom come out of it with much honour. But first, what picture does this conjure up in your mind:
“Scrub has been cleared from the species rich pastures – in the hay meadow the hawthorn scrub was exceptionally dense so we now have a large patch of bare earth.”

This comes from a report by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust (YWT) on Upper Dunsforth Carrs, one of its new nature reserves in the Vale of York. The 12 ha site has an alder carr, fen meadow, rush pasture, and the relic hay meadow where they were clearing the scrub. The site was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) by English Nature in 1984, but a “lack of traditional grazing has enabled hawthorn scrub to encroach on to the hay meadow and willow scrub has invaded the species rich pasture”.

So the return of wild nature is punished by YWT, and the earth is insultingly laid bare to suit their notions – the conservation professionals – of what a nature reserve should be. They will carry on beating this land into submission -or restoring it to a “favourable condition” as they call it - until it is entirely dependent on them and the grazing animals they will undoubtedly introduce to maintain this extreme, plagioclimactic condition. And in all this, they will have the satisfaction that they are complying with the SSSI designation by English Nature, which gives them both a justification for their actions and a screen with which to hide behind if their actions are ever challenged.

If this seems uncompromising criticism, then I yield to someone much younger in years than I, but who startlingly, at such a tender age, has seen through the industrialisation of conservation. Stephen Rowe posted his degree studies on his charmingly idiosyncratic website. His brushes with conservation organisations and his dissertation on Grazing and Diversity have led him to have a pretty jaundiced view of conservation professionals. He asks:
“Have you ever gone out to your favourite woods to discover that it has been visited by countryside vandals? Not only has your favourite woods been vandalised, but it was done in the name of conservation”

In this case he is talking of the activities of the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers. He paints the scene of groups of volunteers being given axes and other implements capable of destroying trees and shrubs and then, when the destruction is over, setting light to a big bonfire to add yet more injury. As Stephen says, the really sad part of this is that the volunteers probably imagined they were doing some good.

Stephen reserves his greatest vituperation for the conservation professionals he thinks are bringing about the “farmification” of all our land. Chief amongst these would be English Nature. Stephen believes they are on a mission to convert and maintain the whole of our countryside as fenced-in and grazed farmland. He says:
”There is no hiding place for nature from English Nature, for they will find the tree plants and shrubs and will bring chainsaws, strimmers, and scrub clearer's upon it with mighty vengeance, for the crime of being nature itself.”

Portsdown Hill

One example he gives is of Portsdown Hill, a chalky slope above Portsmouth, long favoured by dog walkers and horse riders who had open access to this public land. Its history is of grazing land for sheep, but the livestock were taken off 50 years ago, to be replaced by the occasional grazing of tethered horses and the endless enjoyment of its many users in the years since then. However, the fact that the land is designated an SSSI has forced its owners, Portsmouth City Council, to consider whether it should be managed to maintain the species that arose out of its use as farmland, and for which it is designated.

It is no surprise that English Nature advised that the developing scrub be cleared and that cattle be introduced to return and maintain the land in a “farmed” state. Fences went up, and Portsmouth City Council erected notice boards explaining the role of the livestock but, as Stephen notes, not explaining the potential damage they will do to a fragile sloped landscape, the impact upon bird nesting sites, and the decrease in plants that produce seeds that could have fed the birds. I would also add to that the sad loss of the scrubland species, since I have known this hill for over 40 years and recently took solace in walking its interesting landscape that overlooks the hospital in which my mother waited to die. The Hampshire and Isle of Wight English Nature team heralded a training day last year on scrubland clearance on Portsdown Hill, in co-operation with the City Council. It seems they relish this golden opportunity to hone their skills in persecuting scrubland and have jointly purchased an AEBI scrub clearer with the City Council.

Odiham Common

Stephen gives another example where, for once, local people fought back against the English Nature inspired plans of a local authority to manage public land, designated by English Nature as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). This was at Odiham Common in NE Hampshire, where for more than six years, people living close to the historic common had fought Hart District Council and English Nature’s plan to fell most of Odiham Wood, erect three miles of fencing and introduce grazing.

Hart Council fenced the north-east section of the woodland and chopped down scores of ancient oaks after a government planning inspector originally backed the scheme in 1998. Then Hart Council applied to extend the fencing and permanently ring the common to enable grazing management to be re-instated. A three-day public inquiry was held after local people claimed the application was unlawful as it breached the Scheme of Regulation, Odiham Common’s list of rules based on the 1899 Commons Act, which forbids the use of fencing for cattle.

Evidence was given to the inquiry by Odiham Parish Council, Odiham Common Preservation Society, Potbridge Residents' Association and the Open Space Society (OSS). On the advice of the government inspector, the application was turned down by the Secretary of State for the Environment. The OSS website (Local News, July 2003) reports that the inspector, Elizabeth Fieldhouse, ruled:
"the proposed fencing would materially reduce the general accessibility and perceived openness of the common, as has been evidenced by the current area of experimental fencing in the north-east compartment of the common".

She said the fencing of the experimental area "has so far failed to produce conclusive evidence of any significant benefits to the neighbourhood in terms of nature conservation. I consider that the overall effects of alternative solutions have not been fully thought through. I conclude that the character and appearance of the common would be harmed by the provision of fencing.”

Local campaigner Elynor Gilbert, who listened to the whole three-day public inquiry, is reported in the Fleet News and Mail Online (July 2003) as saying that she could not believe Hart Council went ahead with the original fencing scheme in 1998:
“The council has wilfully spent enormous sums over the last four and a half years on a crazy plan to ‘manage’ part of the common. Grants from Hampshire County Council and the Countryside Agency have helped the council destroy a valuable and beautiful woodland. Visitors have abandoned it and the area has been turned into a disaster.

“People who have lived in the area for more than 50 years told the inquiry that they have never known the common to look as bad as it does now. Thankfully the common will be returned to the people as a natural and eventually inviting open space under a new management plan. Those of us who fought for ten years for the right to enjoy the common as it should be — freely, openly and without hindrance — feel vindicated.”

Blacka Moor

The local campaign around Odiham Common will have resonance with the Friends of Blacka Moor, who recently presented a petition to Sheffield City Council of 761 signatures, collected from walkers and users of the moor. The petition called for Blacka Moor to be kept free from cattle and barbed wire, and for the Charity Commission not to alter the original 1933 Graves Covenant that gave ownership of the moor to the city council, and for it to keep the historical rights to public open access to the moor for walks and pleasure grounds.

Blacka Moor (Blackamoor) is on the eastern edge of the Peak District National Park, a few miles outside Sheffield. At 230-280m, it’s a broad south eastern sloping valley that has gritstones and shales typical of the Lower Coal Measures, and with several springs emerging, together with bogs and flushes (much like my local moor in West Yorkshire). Originally part of the Duke of Rutland’s estate, it was likely to have been managed as heather moorland for grouse and used for sheep grazing. Land sales eventually brought 448 acres of the moor, and surrounding land and woodland, into ownership of the Graves Charitable Trust, which covenanted it as a gift to Sheffield City Council in 1933. In a letter to the Lord Mayor of Sheffield, the Trust described the purpose of the land purchase as being:
”to preserve the moor in its natural state and to prevent any alteration to its present character by building operations or any other form of interference.”
(Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Feb 1933)

The moor was given to the council on the condition that it:
“be allowed to remain in its present natural state, with such pathways to be provided in accord with the character of the Estate as will make the moor accessible to all who desire to visit it for health-giving exercise and pleasure”
(Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Feb 1933)

Public ownership and the subsequent absence of farming on Blacka Moor have given it a long history of recreational use by local people walking, having picnics or horse riding, and generally enjoying its naturalness and tranquillity. In more recent years, users of the moor have come to value the increasingly wild and essentially unmanaged nature of the moor.

Management has always been light. Over the early years of it becoming a public space, a kind of old-style keeper was permanently stationed there who would repair paths and would manually deal with birch spreading across the heather. This according to older local people worked very well, but it was not continued. Thus when in 1980, a farmer applied to the council to graze sheep on the moor, the application was accepted as it was regarded as an appropriate management tool now that the keeper was no longer there.

Government money was granted for fencing and the grazing regime was introduced by 1983 without any consultation with local people. As a result, objections were received from local amenity and conservation groups relating to loss of access due to fencing, restrictions on dog walkers, and fears for the negative impact of grazing on habitats and species. The grazing was stopped. Management since then has been restricted to cutting firebreaks, some tree planting and limited bracken control.

So why is Blacka Moor back in peril now, giving rise to the 761-name petition in September this year?

Sheffield Wildlife Trust (SWT) was awarded a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to set up nine new nature reserves across the city. In a match made in heaven, they approached Sheffield City Council in 2001 with a view to taking on Blacka Moor, the council relieving itself of the responsibility for managing land with a SSSI designation. However, the charitable trust document does not allow for disposal of the land, especially if the result was a change in purpose. Since SWT would fence it off and manage it as a nature reserve through the grazing of cattle, this would have serious implications for the public access and amenity use granted in the original trust covenant.

From then on, the tale becomes one of dissimulation towards inquiries made by the general public as the council and SWT continued to develop proposals for a handover and management of the land, confident that their plan would be sustained by the SSSI designation, but needing the assent of the Charity Commission to alter the terms of the trust (the council are the trustees). SWT must also have been fearing a loss of lottery funding if they didn’t secure Blacka Moor. Despite objections being sent to the Charity Commission, it has now approved the terms of the trust being altered to include conservation objectives, which opened the way for Blacka Moor to be given on a 30-year lease to SWT.

I have read much about the conservation reasons given for the justification of SWT taking on and managing Blacka Moor. It seems confused, misleading, inaccurate (sometimes false) and it has verged on a brow-beating of ordinary folk who beg to differ with the conservation professionals (the city council scrutiny committee minutes reveal much). In what seems always to characterise the disingenuous nature of these justifications, SWT set out to unnerve the public by suggesting that the area will be covered with impenetrable trees and, since many women are afraid of walking among trees, it raised the spectre of wild men lurking in wait. At Odiham Common, English Nature raised the similar spectre of the common filling up with dense holly and other shrubs making it more difficult to walk through. At Portsdown Hill, English Nature justified the removal of scrub as it was blocking “the views across the Solent from the area's best vantage point”. A nonsense considering the site is markedly sloped downwards towards the Solent.

I find myself asking, when you look at this track record of nature conservation on public land, why it is necessary for every piece of land designated SSSI by English Nature to be managed as though it were farmland? This is especially galling in the case of Blacka Moor as it is only one unit (No 69) in amongst a total of 136 units in a huge north/south swathe that is the Eastern Peak District Moors SSSI, and there are 32 other units in there that have the same habitat designation as Blacka Moor. What would be lost if Blacka Moor was not managed as farmland? How much more could be gained?

In some areas of England, local English Nature representation has embraced the wilding of landscapes, supporting the alteration and reduction in management interference in light of what should be becoming apparent now of a mechanistic approach in the original process of designating SSSI. I would argue that Blacka Moor deserves much better than the studied insouciance given to the representations on its behalf to the Peak District and Derbyshire local team of English Nature by the friends of Blacka Moor. Is it not highly relevant that the rights to public access were granted to Blacka Moor long before anyone had notions of enforcing conservation strategies on to the land? Perhaps English Nature should recognise, value and work with the tremendous local support that Blacka Moor has, and help realise the vision of the local people in an imaginative plan based on the needs of people and wildlife.

Mark Fisher 18 December 2005

If you want to support the Friends of Blacka Moor, or have suggestions on what they should do next, then you can email or write to  Friends of Blacka Moor, 10 Marsh House Road, Sheffield S11 9SP

ADDENDUM -  November 2006

St Catherine's Hill

It is happening again, this time at the St Catherine's Hill nature reserve, near Winchester, adding to this recent pattern of disputed land management procedures – brought in by wildlife trusts and supported by English Nature – that cut across the longer-term public access and use of land enjoyed by local people.

St Catherine’s Hill is the site of an iron age fort, one of a number of similar defensive positions along the southern chalk ridge of Hampshire that includes Danebury and Old Winchester Hill. As with most of the chalk downland of the area, its millennia of use in livestock farming has built up a diverse grassland flora and accompanying invertebrate population, but with the wild nature of shrubs and trees always looking to reclaim this plagioclimax.

Remnants of the characteristic juniper scrub of this downland are now uncommon, and thus receive some measure of respect from conservation professionals, but hawthorn, privet, dogwood and blackthorn scrub occurring in nature reserves designated for chalk grassland are destined for merciless persecution from grubbing up and even poisoning (in a nature reserve?!) and the recommendation is to keep them in check by sheep and cattle grazing. Such is the case for the SSSI that is St Catherine’s Hill nature reserve, because English Nature has spoken. Its recent report on the condition of the SSSI grades it as unfavourable, with the levels of scrub at the "upper limit of acceptable cover" (see below, after the references, for a link to take you to a recent photo of the reserve).

The land has been owned for over 130 years by nearby Winchester College, who have generously allowed local access, which my partner can attest to from 25 years ago when she was at school nearby. She does not remember seeing any cattle or sheep grazing back then.

The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust took over the management of the reserve by agreement with the owner and in the last few years has been grazing sheep on a small scale in mobile pens preparatory, it would seem, to allowing them to roam freely over the whole of the reserve in the next stage of their management. Except that there was no consultation with local people, and signs asking dog-owners to keep their dogs on a lead went up only two weeks or so before the introduction of the sheep on 15th October. Subsequently, a sign was put up that outlines the trust's reasons behind the ban, saying it is to provide the "best grazing regime" to improve and maintain the chalk grassland and the flowers and insects found on the nature reserve.

Many nearby people were unhappy about this unilateral action by the wildlife trust, and the howls of protest at the trust's edict were reported in the local Hampshire news at the end of September (1). Dennis Garratt, head of conservation at the trust, was reported as encouraging local people to come along to the "Born To Be Wild" event being held at the reserve on the day that the sheep were be allowed to graze free-range. Turning to the trust's website, we find that Mark Langford, the trust’s officer for the reserve, was to be on hand to “talk about the valuable work that the sheep do on the reserve”. I expect they were particularly keen to show off their flock of pet Shetland sheep that the trust had bought especially for what is often erroneously called conservation grazing.

What Messrs Garratt and Langford will undoubtedly have failed to mention to any of the public turning up, was that there is nothing wild or natural about sheep grazing a chalk downland. Sheep are not a wild animal, nor are sheep native to Britain, even if a flock of feral sheep on Soay in the Western Isles seem to persist. Moreover, if the trust think they are using the sheep as “wild” conservation tools in the sense of them being a surrogate for our extinct and extant wild herbivores, then they should welcome the free-running of walker’s dogs because native predators - such as wolves - had a key role in distributing the affects of wild grazers and browsers in the landscape by scaring them up and moving them on. Thus there were open, grassed areas in wilder landscapes, but there were also shrubs in that landscape plus groups and large islands of trees.

As much as they will never agree to their sheep being scared-up (livestock get more welfare protection in law than wild animals) they will not also admit that their conservation efforts are just farmification – maintaining the land in an artificial, farmed state. This not what being born to be wild is about.

I am glad to see that local people from St Cross near the nature reserve are not letting the wildlife trust get away with it so easily. More than 20 dog owners staged a demonstration at the reserve to protest at the ban, many angry at the lack of consultation. In response, Langford, the trust's reserve officer, stated (2):
"We didn't ask the dog walkers what they thought about the ban because they would not have been okay with it."

Local resident, Emma Michel, 74, has walked the reserve for three decades, but fears that her dog would pull her over if it was on a lead:
"What right has the trust got after 30 years to say I can't walk freely with my dog?"

Since then, a group of walkers have raised a petition of more than 800 signatures, asking for a compromise over the ban (3). Along with Winchester City councillor, Ian Tait, they have tried to meet the charity's chief executive, Sue Walton. But they have been "fobbed off" in their attempt to meet with the trust, and now they feel they are being treated “appallingly” by the charity and being "rubbished".

The wildlife trust would seem to have descended into the usual bunker mentality when challenged, and the disingenuous nature of their mutterings pile up by the day. Why would the charity's chief executive say she could possibly meet the group, but then blow them off the day before? Didn’t she know she was going to be away on holiday, especially when it has since been stated that she would be gone for three weeks? Isn’t it a bit wicked of Garratt to claim that the chief executive had already met the group at the site on the first day of the ban, when what happened was that the trust probably talked over the heads of the people who were there, and none of them got a chance to speak to the chief executive and ask her questions? Why does Garratt think he has closed down any further discussion now, just because he has talked to the landowner and the local MP since the ban? What does the landowner think of the evidence of the trust's stewardship of its land so far?

I agree with Cllr Tait when he says:
"I want to establish precisely what the trust feels their responsibility is. I think there has to be a balance between the human uses, the wildlife and the sheep on St Catherine's Hill, and I think there needs to be a more formal meeting to discuss this."

I am sure the local communities around Odiham Common and Blacka Moor would also wholeheartedly agree and support that.

Mark Fisher, 19th November 2006

(1) Steven Rowe's original website has gone, but he has moved some writings and expanded on his themes on a new website - Conservation and his study module on Grazing and Diversity is at|
(2) Trust’s edict leads to howls of protest this is Hampshire, 28 September 2006
(3) Owners take the lead in dog walking protest this is Hampshire, 10 October 2006
(4) Dog walkers’ frustration as meeting is called off this is Hampshire, 16th Nov 2006

You can see a picture of the reserve showing the returning "upper limit of acceptable cover" shrub layer, and the grazing sheep at