A Land That All Can Enjoy

Within ten minutes, I can be walking on the moor and then go up and over the hill that rises above it. This walk is my anchor. Lately, I have left setting out until dusk so that I can revel in the anonymity that darkness brings and listen to the chattering of a few grounded birds. I go there for fresh air after a day locked in front of a screen. Sometimes accompanied, but more often alone, it is the neutral forum where thoughts can be worked through and decision paths made easier.

At other times, the moor reveals its distinctive colonies. The surrounding cover, familiar to millstone grit, is a sparse canopy of silver birch and rowan (sometimes willow), a shrub layer of gorse and broom and a ground layer of sedge, rush and tough grasses. Neither the canopy nor the shrub layer thrive at mid-level in the shales and mudstones of the coal measures, nor on the hilltop of hard sandstone. Heather on the northern edges joins with bilberry and crowberry to suggest an acid soil. Flag iris and bog asphodel pick out the wetter sites with cotton grass and cuckooflower in just the damp. Bracken, the bastard fern, has its smothering grip on the shaded North-facing slopes and always menaces to spread. But the poor dear has shoots that are not hardy, and so we will probably be saved its greater advance. You can judge that there is little cover, so that it is fortunate that the needs of lapwing and partridge are small. Hares are there, but you are the one being watched.

The moor is a common land with a microcosm of openspace activity that spans more than a few millennia. Cup and ring markings in the millstone grit give evidence of prehistory activity of the Bronze Age and links this moor in with others to the west and north, known together as Rombalds Moor. Legend has it that Rombald was a giant who used the moors to cross from East Coast to West Coast, as the valleys lay impenetrable with forest. What a sight our giant must have had, a landscape below barely touched by human activity and energised by its feral population.

Giants and early stone-carvers gave way to settlement as witnessed by the remains of a fosse and agger earthwork built for defence. Other earthworks have yielded urns and charred bones and so I think of the moor as a place of people. The eventual loss of settlement reflected the shift to the valleys as the trees were cleared, their wild predator residents persecuted to extinction and farming took hold as the dominant transformation of land. People over the millennia since have still found use of the moor: the quarrying and cutting of sandstone for building and the eventual exploitation of the poor coal and poorer ironstone went hand in hand with mixed livestock grazing, although it is now only sheep. There are tales of horse fairs, the yearly gathering and trading by travellers, but I have heard of so many of these sites around the District that I can't think they all be true.

The sheep are a year-round show of character both in their rugged nature, the charm of the Swaledale breed, and in their certainty that walking out into the moor road assures them safe passage. In almost a parody, some days the sheep will queue nose to tail as they wait in line at what must be that day's highly ordained crossing point. Fatalities are few, and kept even lower by walkers who are experienced sheep watchers. They will know how to upright a pregnant ewe when it seems she has given up all hope. A golf course coexists with the sheep - which must give cause for some interesting local rules (clearance of sheep droppings permitted from the lie?). And we know that the tension has been higher between the golfers and horse riders since the sheep can never do the same damage as the horses. Nor do the sheep pose a problem with the myriad other activities of flying kites and model aeroplanes, novices taking their first tethered hang-glide, the scuba divers making good use of the unwanted reservoirs, the dog walkers who keep on the flat and scuttle back to their cars and the courting couples who add to the entropy of the night. It is the botanist who will have cause to chide the sheep since their grazing, while discriminate, does prevent what little regeneration of shrubland and wildwood that could occur.

There is an essential harmony around this coexistence that recognises the stake that each user of the moor enjoys. It is both natural and formed and requires no deep philosophy, or choice between farming ideologies, just an appreciation and a determination to be always unselfish in its use. That equation was blown apart yesterday when the moor was closed, and it was closed on behalf of only one of its users. Thus the paradox that is farming - that selfish use of land which tyrannises the major part of the UK - has brought its thoughtless dichotomy to this moor. A disease that is not fatal - to sheep or human - and which condemns its clovenhoof carriers to exterminating slaughter, is elevated to an exaggerated doom solely because its existence wipes out the ability to export livestock. When will we learn the lessons of this moor? Isn't it fundamentally alien to our ecology to enclose and concentrate livestock? And isn't it a bad use of the resources of our land?

Mark Fisher, 2 March 2001

www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk