For months now I have been up to my elbows in the minutiae of drafting a 20-year ‘Nature Recovery Plan’ for the National Park. The work seems only to intensify as we approach the Authority meeting date next week, when I will be presenting the plan to Members, in effect our board.
It has been a real challenge to balance all the interests that need to be considered and produce a document that is the right mixture of ambitious and realistic. The plan has been through seven major drafts, but some sections of text have been altered many more times than this as we received and weighed up comments and contributions from organisations and individuals ranging from large governmental departments such as Forestry Commission through to locally based bodies such as Yoredale Naturalists.
I can smile now when I remember returning home one February night to Grassington after attending a round table meeting about the plan with farmers in Orton. We got caught in a blizzard and I was getting concerned we might have to spend a freezing night in the car. Thanks to the driving skills of my colleague, we made it (and Helen even drove me to my front door before going home herself). The journey was worth it to hear what the farmers had been doing collectively to position themselves to take advantage of new opportunities from environmental payment schemes and the emerging market in carbon credits – that and the hearty lasagne and scrumptious tray bake we ate sitting around the table at the village hall!
It is good to get out into nature to remind myself what it is all about. Last Wednesday was such an opportunity as I and a Wildlife Conservation team member, Ian Court, used a staff development day to show people around two contrasting woodland sites where conservation initiatives are underway.
First, we went to Snaizeholme near Hawes, where we learned about the ongoing struggle to protect red squirrels and of the tremendous efforts being made by private forestry estates, other landowners and many, many volunteers including the Wensleydale Red Squirrel Group to maintain red squirrel refuges. The red squirrels made an appearance on cue and people had good sightings of them. It’s always a worry that you won’t be able to show people the species you take them to see but also a buzz when the audience is appreciative and gets a real thrill from the interaction with wildlife.
At Snaizeholme we discussed the Woodland Trust scheme to create a huge additional area of broadleaf native tree planting (the link takes you to a news release on the project published in June). There are obvious advantages for the squirrels and other woodland species but, as is so often the case in nature conservation, potential downsides for other species. Here, it is anticipated that some open habitat will be lost which attracts ground-nesting birds to attempt to breed. The Trust’s scheme for the site has been designed in consultation with our team and many other stakeholders and I think it represents a good compromise, since it includes retention and enhancement of open blanket bog habitat on the higher ground.
During the visit I reflected on how the draft recovery plan addresses both the single-species approach to conservation, for example red squirrel is one of a suite of species identified as needing bespoke conservation action, as well as the landscape-scale initiatives we need which are typified by the Woodland Trust’s Snaizeholme project and several others underway in the National Park.
After lunch, we walked around Freeholders’ Wood by Aysgarth Falls. In contrast to the mainly conifer woodland we had seen in the morning, this was an example of broadleaf woodland managed as ‘coppice with standards’. This traditional form of management was practised to obtain a reliable harvest of wood products such as materials for fencing. The coppice rotation means there is always a part of the wood that is open, allowing light to the woodland floor benefitting a host of wildflowers and pollinating insects. Another beneficiary of such management was the Hazel Dormouse which thrived in woods where coppice created ideal conditions for hazel trees to produce lots of nuts. The dormice disappeared from Wensleydale as this form of management went out of use, but there are now two sites where dormice have been reintroduced, one of them being Freeholders’ Wood where the management regime has been re-established with help from the Bolton Castle estate. Hedgerow planting has taken place to link the sites and there is evidence now of dormice moving along the newly wooded corridors.
As we explain this decades-long conservation work to colleagues, I reflected again on how the draft plan recognises the importance of connectivity in the landscape as well as the positive role that species re-introductions can make.
I am in awe of the years of accumulated knowledge and experience of wildlife conservation that resides in my small team. Ultimately, however, all our conservation work relies on the goodwill, support and enthusiasm of farmers and land managers. Whether the Yorkshire Dales National Park continues to support nationally and internationally important areas of habitat and populations of species depends largely on them.