Learning to understand the dark

Rob Smith – Senior Minerals Planner

That 2020 had been unusual hardly needs emphasising. The need for adaptation and restraint in our routines has, as we all know, continued into 2021. It’s frustrating, and we all wish it could end right now, but we have to be patient a while longer.

For me, back in April and May last year when the first lockdown was at its peak, the main consolation was the lengthening hours of daylight. Combined with the glorious spring weather and the absence of traffic, it was possible to get out for a walk, bike ride, or run and experience the National Park (or at least that little bit of it near my home) as never before. Some of the reasons we all love it – its diverse landscapes, the wide sweeps of heather moorland, its tranquillity and sense of remoteness, the valleys, forests, and of course it’s wildlife – were all brought into sharp focus in a way that I’d not quite experienced until then, and they seemed more valuable than ever. It wasn’t just the long hours of sunshine; more what the place meant to me during that difficult time.

Sometimes we know instinctively that something, or someone, is special even if we can’t put a finger on just why. But when it comes to a place, as for many things, getting to the bottom of this sometimes tricky question is a critical first step towards being able to look after it in way which ensures its intrinsic value is retained for the future.

The North York Moors National Park Authority has tried to identify exactly what it is that makes the area such a special place. These ‘special qualities’ help us describe and understand why it is so valuable and why it needs protecting. They include those qualities I was enjoying on my lockdown excursions in spring but there are many more, in fact twenty-eight in total. All are equally important, even if we each have our own favourites.

NYMNP Special Qualities (from 2012 Management Plan)

Importantly, promoting opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the National Park by the public is one of the two main statutory purposes of a National Park Authority. Alongside the other main purpose, to conserve and enhance natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage, it drives much of what we do as an organisation.

Last year spring turned into summer and then autumn brought lockdown mark two, and this time it was different. The long days of sunshine seemed quite distant. It was dark before the end of the working day and opportunities to get into the outdoors were much harder to find. Chances are when daylight and opportunity coincided, the weather wasn’t cooperating. Which brings me back to the need for adaptation.

One of the National Park’s special qualities is its ‘dark skies at night and clear unpolluted air’. Recently the National Park Authority has been carrying out a lot of work on the dark skies theme and you can find out more about this in previous blog posts by my colleague Mike Hawtin.

Although I’ve always enjoyed looking at the night sky, and appreciate the way that a starscape on a clear winter’s night can be just as inspiring as a beautiful landscape, or a dramatic seascape, as seen during the day, I’ve never tried to carry on with my outdoor activity at night. The thought of going off for a run through the woods or across the moors after dark for my ‘daily’ activity is a bit unsettling, however much your head also tells you there’s no rational basis for this.  But recently, that’s just what I’ve been doing.

It’s been a revelatory experience in many ways. Firstly, that I was easily capable of overcoming that irrational worry that had deterred me from trying it before. Secondly, I wasn’t the only one doing it (in a socially distanced manner)! More importantly, it has opened my eyes to a whole new sphere of ‘understanding and enjoyment’ of some of the National Park’s special qualities – sights, sounds, smells, wildlife –  that wouldn’t have been noticeable through the sensory overload that full daylight can bring. A landscape reduced in scale perhaps, but enhanced in detail and refreshingly new, even in places I’ve visited many times before.

And of course there’s the night sky. Pause to look upwards on a clear night and it’s impossible not to be impressed and inspired. Yes there’s sheer enjoyment in this, but I also feel that each individual night time visit is another step on a journey towards a better understanding of my local countryside that happens to be on the edge of a National Park, and how its special qualities meld together to make a coherent whole. I know it won’t be for everyone, but I’m pretty sure my adaptation won’t be a temporary one this time.

(Cropped) Northern Lights at Saltwick Bay. Credit Andy Dawson Photography.

Always follow the latest Government advice in regards Covid-19.

To keep up to date with the latest National Park situation in regards Covid-19 – see here.  Hang On – Stay Local – Keep Positive.

The Yew – An Original Christmas Tree

Sam Newton – Woodland Creation Assistant

Yew links to Christmas and Christianity and back beyond into the depths of time. Like other evergreens, branches of yew were brought into people’s houses at Christmas as decoration and also as bitter reminder of the Christian Passion.

Yew trees in St Mary’s churchyard, Goathland. This churchyard contains some of the largest yew trees in the North York Moors. Copyright Sam Newton, NYMNPA.

Yew trees (Taxus baccata) are now strongly associated with churchyards. They are a connection to the old Norse and Celt beliefs that yew trees protected against bewitchment and death. Pagans celebrated the yew at the mid winter festival of Saturnalia, which later melted into Christmas. Many old churchyard yews may have been planted by church-builders, brought out of the woods and into a civilised setting. Or later on top of graves to ward off evil around the dead and provide branches to be carried on Palm Sunday and at funerals. It became a tradition without a remembrance of its origins.

There are also a number of churchyard yews predating their churches, and even Christianity. Some trees alive today in Britain are truly ancient. The Fortingall Yew in Scotland is possibly between 2,000 and 3,000 years old – a myth tells of Pontius Pilate as the son of a Roman envoy, being born beneath and playing as a child within its branches. While the Ankerwycke Yew witnessed the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, as an already 1,000-year-old tree overlooking Runnymede meadows in Surrey.

The first few lines of ‘Lines on the Ancient Yew in Darley Church Yard’ (in Derbyshire)
By Samuel Barker

Thou art an interesting tree,
The fact’s beyond dispute,
Thy monster trunk and giant bows
And intersecting roots,
Rearing in solemn grandeur,
Thy patriarchal head,
Reigning in midnight dimness,
O’er the regions of the dead.

Male yew tree in St Nicholas’ Churchyard, Bransdale, showing the beginnings of next year’s flowers. Yew trees are dioicous, with individual plants either male or female. Copyright Sam Newton, NYMNPA.

The story of the yew tree is one of life, death, and resurrection. It was said by the noted forester and dendrologist Alan Mitchell, that “there is no theoretical end to this tree, no need for it to die”.

Yews reach such old age through an amazing ability to renew themselves and return from apparent decay. New shoots from the base can coalesce with the main trunk, while lowered branches can put down roots, and fallen trees remain alive as long as the smallest amount of root remains attached. Ancient trees can be split into several parts, and no longer look like one tree, but can go on surviving for many hundreds of years more.

St Nicholas’ Church, Bransdale, and its churchyard yew tree. Copyright Sam Newton, NYMNPA.

Death lingers in these long-lived trees, with all parts of the plant containing highly poisonous taxine alkaloids. Yet at the same time these same highly poisonous chemicals provide modern day science with anti-cancer compounds. The yew tree can regenerate us, as well as itself.

Yorkshire has a strong but somewhat forgotten link to yew trees. The ancient Celtic name for the City of York is Eborakon, which can be translated to ‘the place where the yew trees grow’, or came from the name Eburos, meaning ‘yew man’. In the North York Moors, yew trees are common in churchyards, and can occasionally be encountered in the surrounding areas.

For more information about this natural and cultural marvel have a look at the Ancient Yew Group’s website

How did the Turtle Doves in North Yorkshire do this year?

Richard Baines – Volunteer North Yorkshire Turtle Dove Project Officer

2020 Breeding Season

Many people ask me ‘how did the Turtle Doves in North Yorkshire do this year?’ This is always a tricky one to answer because we have only been conducting surveys for five years. This is a short time scale to confirm a population trend. However, this year has been amazing for several reasons. The great weather in spring got us off to an excellent start and must have been good for returning doves. Despite observing the lockdown restrictions at all times we managed to monitor 20 population squares and conduct both visits in each square.

Turtle Dove - North Yorks Forests, Spring 2020. Copyright Richard Baines.

Turtle Dove in North Yorkshire 2021. Copyright Richard Baines.

A maximum of 33 and a minimum of 23 singing males were found in these 1km squares. Turtle Doves were found in 50% of the twenty squares. This compares well to previous years but may have been helped by the good weather. During the surveys I realised how important it is to conduct a Turtle Dove breeding survey in still conditions. It would have been so easy to miss a purring Turtle Dove on a windy morning.

Many additional sightings were sent in to our project this year, a total of 270 birds. Many of the casual sightings will have been seen more than once but the good news is this was 28 more than 2019. These included a minimum of 63 singing males which were found in locations away from our formal survey squares. This gives a minimum total of 86 singing males in our project area in 2020. The number of unique singing males found in each of the four years of our project has been consistently between 50 and 100 birds.

Turtle Dove - North Yor4kshire, July 2020. Copyright Richard Baines.

Turtle Dove in North Yorkshire 2021. Copyright Richard Baines.

With less surveys being possible in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions we are very pleased with the results. A Big Thank You to everyone who sent us their sightings this year. We now know where most of our Turtle Doves are in North Yorkshire. This is a big help, allowing us to target conservation work in the areas where Turtle Doves need it most.

2021 Surveys

 We are hoping to be able to carry out the full suite of North Yorkshire Turtle Dove surveys next spring. We will shortly be announcing the dates for our annual April volunteer meetings, either at one of our regular venues or, if necessary, virtually. Its really important we keep up these surveys and continue working equally hard on improving habitat for Turtle Doves in our area. If you are new to our project and would like to volunteer please email.

Good news story

From the Updale Natural History Recorder

Barn owl (Tyto alba) makes full recovery

Barn owls, such an iconic species of our countryside, are on the increase in many areas of the North York Moors, helped in part, by recent mild winters. However, good habitat management and providing nest boxes has played an important part. Barn owls are extremely vulnerable in prolonged wet weather and extended periods of laying snow, both conditions prevent them seeking prey items such as voles and shrews. Monitoring of barn owls takes place by Schedule 1 Licence holders as part of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) ringing and nest recording programme. This provides valuable data on survival rates and suitable habitat in order to best direct conservation efforts.

Many young barn owls were ringed before they fledged their nests this season within the North York Moors National Park by members of Tees Ringing Group. When a barn owl is found with a ring on its leg, the unique number tells us where it was ringed and therefore how far it has travelled and how old it is. One such barn owl was recovered recently and now it’s got a beer named after it.

Image of Tyto Alba beer by Great Newtome BreweryOn 28 September, a juvenile barn owl was found with a injured wing on land at Great Newsome Brewery near Hull. It had been ringed as a nestling in a tree cavity on 24 June earlier this year at Rosedale. On fledging the nest, it had dispersed a massive 89kms/60miles. It was nursed back to health in Hull and successfully released back at the brewery site on 6 November. The brewery named their latest trial beer after it, Tyto alba, a hoppy pale ale. What a great success story.

Barn Owl - copyright Updale Natural History Recorder

Band of Six

Our Ryevitalise Landscape Partnership Scheme has been active now for over 16 months; it’s had quite a time so far. We thought it would be courteous to introduce the very adaptable delivery team.

Upper reaches of the Rye catchment. Copyright NYMNPA.

“I’m Alex, the Programme Manager for Ryevitalise. My main role is to work closely with all of our wonderful partners and the National Lottery Heritage Fund to deliver our Ryevitalise vision to ‘conserve, enhance and restore the natural and cultural heritage of the area, enabling people to reconnect with the history, wildlife and landscapes of the River Rye and its tributaries’.

I’ve always had a passion for nature. Growing up locally I have great childhood memories of taking part in lots of activities with the North York Moors National Park. In my early teens my family moved to the Falkland Islands where I was fortunate to volunteer for Falklands Conservation, spending days on end undertaking penguin chick census checks … it was amazing! My family then moved to Ascension Island where I carried out bird, turtle and endemic plant counts, and these experiences led me to pursue a career in conservation.

Alex Cripps, Ryevitalise Programme Manager. Copyright NYMNPA.I studied Environmental Science at the University of East Anglia, including a year in Canada – my dissertation focused on the impacts of habitat fragmentation on ungulates (moose, elk and deer) near Banff National Park. I then spent two years travelling and working in New Zealand before I decided I’d better get a ‘real’ job.

I was delighted to be offered a job in 2013 working for the North York Moors National Park as their Conservation Graduate Trainee. Since then I have developed a huge passion for rivers; I became the Esk and Coastal Streams Catchment Partnership Officer in 2014 before taking on the role of Ryevitalise Catchment Restoration Officer in 2017, part of a small team to develop Ryevitalise. In 2018 the final Ryevitalise application was submitted and now here we are, delivering this ambitious landscape partnership scheme and it’s great to be leading the team as Programme Manager.

I love sharing my enthusiasm for rivers and the fascinating wildlife that our freshwater habitats and surrounding areas support. For those of you who know me you will know that I absolutely love aquatic invertebrates – one of my favourite moments in the Rye catchment was watching mayflies dancing above the River Rye near Helmsley, there’s nearly always a dipper bobbing about here too.

Ryevitalise will be raising the profile of rivers, looking at how valuable these ecosystems are and how important they are to local communities. We will be working alongside local communities, including land managers and young people, reconnecting people to their local river systems and exploring how simple every day actions to help care for our rivers can collectively make a huge, positive difference. So it’s great to be underway, delivering a wide variety of projects, and I look forward to meeting some of you soon!”

Mayflies dancing above the River Rye near Helmsley. Copyright Alex Cripps, NYMNPA.

“Hi everyone. My name’s Paul Thompson and I’m the Programme Officer for Ryevitalise currently overseeing our ancient woodland restoration work, access improvements, and community arts project. I’ve also been supporting land managers in Bilsdale carrying Paul Thompson, Ryevitalise Programme Officer. Copyright NYMNPA.out habitat improvement works. I’ve been really inspired by our community who care passionately about our local heritage and rural landscape. Finding solutions to key conservation challenges that benefit people, the economy and the environment is incredibly rewarding, and demonstrates the power of National Lottery Heritage Fund’s landscape partnerships.”

View of Hawnby Hill. Copyright Paul Thompson, NYMNPA.

“Hello! I’m Amy, Ryevitalise Education & Engagement Officer; my job is exactly what it says really. Anything from working with schools, volunteers, local communities, running events and bit of historical work thrown in for good measure!

I started conservation life as a seasonal ranger for the National Trust on the lovely South East Cornish coast. Then moving closer to home to work for the Tees Valley Wildlife Trust as part of the River Tees Rediscovered project. All my roles have involved people (and rivers) in some way! Whether it’s bossing… I mean working with… volunteers; mammal surveying, running community events or working with local people of all ages. I love seeing folks reaction to the first path they have built, catching their first tad pole or that first cup of tea after a gruelling task. It’s amazing how inclusive conservation can be; wildlife doesn’t care who you are or what you can do.

Having spent many of my days as a teenager walking the Cleveland Way and hiking up Hasty Bank, it’s great to actually work here and show off what a lovely place the Ryevitalise area is!”

Cleveland Hills from Urra Dyke at top of Rye Catchment. Copyright Simon Bassindale.

“Hi! I’m James and I’m the Catchment Restoration Officer. Essentially my job involves working to improve the water quality of the River Rye by engaging with land owners, whether by creating conservation agreements which typically address point source James Caldwell, Ryevitalise Catchment Restoration Officerpollution issues, promoting opportunities to increase habitat connectivity, controlling invasive species, or helping to create a more natural river by removing obstacles to fish migration.

I had a rural upbringing and have always had a passion for the environment which is reflected in my career choice, starting as an assistant ranger for a trust in Peterborough, moving to a countryside ranger position with a borough council in Surrey and most recently settling at the North York Moors National Park Authority. 

I enjoy exploring, whether walking, running or cycling, and am delighted to have such variety on the doorstep that also forms my wider “office” and supplies great photo worthy content.”

Byland Abbey. Copyright NYMNPA.

“Hi everybody! I’m Sam Lewsey, the Field Officer for the Ryevitalise project and my main areas of responsibility are the citizen science programme, and the delivery of practical works with our wonderful volunteers.

Sam Lewsey, Ryevitalise Field OfficerI came to the North York Moors from the National Trust, where I worked as a Ranger for the last few years, and before that I worked for Cambridge University. Both my parents had a huge love of the great outdoors and natural history, and this was something I picked up from an early age. I am passionate about wildlife and love working with volunteers setting up programmes of surveying – developing my own ID skills and helping others develop theirs. Hay meadows and their associated pollinators hold a particular fascination for me. When not crawling about looking at wildflowers and fungi you’ll find me out on a run – the longer and hillier the better!

If you’re keen to get involved in volunteering with us please give me a shout and I can talk you through the opportunities that are available within this fantastic scheme.”

Riparian woodland in autumn, near Hawnby - copyright Paul Harris, NYMNPA

“Hi everyone – my name’s Ann Pease and I am the Administration Assistant for Ryevitalise, overseeing all of the background paperwork that keeps the project ticking Anne Pease, Ryevitalise Administration Assistantalong! One of my many roles is liaising between the team and the National Lottery, helping to collate and provide the evidence needed to receive our funding. 

I’ve volunteered for many years across the conservation sector – and am over the moon to be able to work on a project having such a positive effect on our areas landscape and wildlife. 

Being a local girl I am deeply connected to this landscape – I’ve spent much of my life up on the North York Moors and it’s great to see this project champion what makes the area so special. 

If I’m not working you’ll probably find me out walking somewhere – I am a big fan of National Trails and long distance walks…I am also a big fan of butterflies, moths and birds of prey and never miss a chance to have a bit of a geek out!

At the moment I am on maternity leave having had a baby boy in July (mid lockdown!), so am watching from afar – but am very much looking forward to being back in February to see how the project is getting on…”Ryevitalise logo banner

No lockdown for Ring Ouzels

Vic Fairbrother, Ken Hutchinson and the Updale Natural History Recorder

We have been studying Ring Ouzels on the North York Moors for over 20 years. This has involved intensive fieldwork every week throughout each breeding season, commencing before the birds return from North Africa in order to establish first arrival dates. Courtship behaviour, nest building, egg laying, the hatching and fledging of chicks and levels of predation have all been carefully monitored. Simple and complex song was also recorded and analysed and the presence of a local dialect established. Conservation measures were identified and implemented. Although our intensive study had ended, we had hoped to continue to maintain a general overview of the Ring Ouzel’s foothold on the North York Moors again this year.

An early indication of problems ahead came when the annual meeting of the UK Ring Ouzel Study Group in Penrith on 21 March this year was cancelled in view of the imminent pandemic lockdown. Shortly afterwards, the BTO and RSPB suspended all survey work, nest monitoring and bird ringing and it became clear that our own observations were also going to be severely affected.

Although our ability to monitor them this year has been severely disrupted, this remarkable bird’s annual struggle for survival has continued on our doorstep.

It was sunny with a cold wind in Rosedale on 21 March and with travel about to be severely curtailed, it was cheering to watch Curlews and Lapwings back on their upland breeding grounds but even more special was the sight of two Wheatears which are often the first migrants to arrive back in the dale. Sudden chacking at Nab Scar then revealed the exciting sight of the first Ring Ouzel of the year to return to Rosedale from their winter quarters.

Wheatear, Rosedale. Copyright Vic Fairbrother, Ken Hutchinson and the Updale Natural History Recorder.

As more ouzels gradually returned to local sites, small groups of ouzels (presumed to be passage birds i.e. migratory birds on their way to somewhere else) were also reported from a number of locations during much of April.

With restrictions still at a high-level, the permitted daily exercise walks provided a real treat on 29 April, when a female Ring Ouzel was observed gathering nesting material at Sturdy Bank and taking it to a suspected nest site whilst the male was singing nearby. A week later, the female flew into this suspected nest site where she remained and was presumed to be sitting on eggs.

Ring Ouzel, Rosedale. Copyright Vic Fairbrother, Ken Hutchinson and the Updale Natural History Recorder.

During the next few weeks, territorial behaviour by two more pairs of ouzels was also reported from Reeking Gill and Reeking Gill South and with the easing of restrictions in mid-May, slightly more detailed monitoring was enabled.

An increasingly rare sight and an experience to treasure occurred on 27 May, when a pair of Cuckoos flew in towards Reeking Gill, the male calling beautifully. When he came to the south end of the embankment a male ouzel promptly chased it away. A few minutes later the male Cuckoo returned to land on a rock just inside the entrance to the gill. As walkers approached, he flew higher up the gill to land in the rowan tree opposite a first brood nest site, at which the second male ouzel immediately chased it down and out of the gill.

Cuckoo, Rosedale. Copyright Vic Fairbrother, Ken Hutchinson and the Updale Natural History Recorder.

Three days later two female ouzels were being closely watched at Reeking Gill. A male and at least two fledglings could be seen below the first brood nest site high on the north east side when one female flew up the gill and straight into a new and presumed second brood nest site, almost opposite the first brood nest site and close to where the Cuckoo had been evicted on 27 May. To our great surprise the second female then gave her nest site away by flying straight in to heather just outside the south east entrance of the gill and in the vicinity of the other Cuckoo altercation. The discovery of these new nest sites explained the agitated behaviour of the two male ouzels towards the Cuckoo a few days earlier. Later, the two male ouzels were heard counter-singing.

The welcome easing of restrictions eventually enabled eight nestlings to be fitted with BTO rings at Sturdy Bank and Reeking Gill. The three nests here and the one at Sturdy Bank all fledged young but a nest at Reeking Gill South was predated. Fledged young were also seen at Bank Top, Hob Crag and Blakey on the west side of Rosedale, along with a number of rather inconclusive ouzel sightings. In view of the many constraints it is almost certain that other breeding attempts went undetected in the study area this year.

Rosedale. Copyright Vic Fairbrother, Ken Hutchinson and the Updale Natural History Recorder.

Ring Ouzels switch to eating berries as they prepare for migration and during our study, we had become concerned at the lack of regeneration among the scattered rowan trees in the study area.

The Ring Ouzel’s remarkable link with the industrial heritage in Rosedale was recognised during the Land of Iron Landscape Partnership Scheme, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. We were delighted when as part of a number of biodiversity initiatives a small-scale tree planting project was developed in an attempt to provide a sustainable supply of rowan berries here.

Land of Iron Landscape Partnership Scheme logo banner

Mature Rowan Trees, Rosedale. Copyright Vic Fairbrother, Ken Hutchinson and the Updale Natural History Recorder.It was a sunny day but with a strong chill breeze from the south west when on 3 September we decided to check how well the rowan tree planting was faring. There were widespread reports of good berry crops elsewhere and as we descended below the railway track and worked our way towards Blakey Swang from the south, we could see that the surviving mature rowan trees here were a splendid sight.

We then turned our attention to several small enclosures and scattered individual saplings carefully placed in the vicinity of mature trees along the steep escarpment. In some of the small enclosures we could see that numerous strong saplings had grown well above the tree guards. Vic pointed out a particularly healthy group in one of the highest enclosures and Ken looking through binoculars observed that one bore a small clump of berries. At first, Vic thought that he was joking but the first fruits of the planters’ efforts were there on display. He could not resist the impulse to climb the steep bank for a photo.

Growing Rowan Trees, Rosedale. Copyright Vic Fairbrother, Ken Hutchinson and the Updale Natural History Recorder.

The full story of this 20-year study by Ken and Vic has now been published and can be enjoyed in The Ring Ouzel: a view from the North York Moors launched this month by Whittles Publishing. Illustrated in full colour throughout and enhanced by superb paintings by local wildlife artist Jonathan Pomroy copies may be ordered at www.whittlespublishing.com  or obtained from the Moors National Park Centre, Danby or from Sutton Bank National Park Centre, as well as a number of other sources.

The Ring Ouzel: a view from the North York Moors - advertisement.

We are extremely grateful for all the support and encouragement we have received from members of the National Park staff throughout the study.

Way! Hey! It’s Lamprey!

Amy Carrick – Ryevitalise Education & Engagement Officer

My friends in the world of fresh water have always tried to convince me that lampreys are beautiful creatures that are an essential part of our eco-system. I was somewhat unconvinced! Their slippery skin, suckers and razor teeth never quite made them the most attractive of animals. Having grappled with measuring elvers in plastic trays in the last Ryevitalise blog post, I was never convinced that neither eels nor lamprey were anything other than something out of a horror film. However whilst Riverfly monitoring on one hot sunny morning recently along with one of our (socially distanced) experienced volunteers, we came across one of the blighters. Even though notoriously difficult to catch, one landed right in our net after our 3 minute kick sample. As our volunteer excitingly popped it onto his hand and waved it in my face, I really wasn’t sure why he was that excited … so he explained how fantastic they were for our rivers.

Young lamprey temporarily caught during recent Ryevitalise Riverfly Monitoring. Copyright Amy Carrick, NYMNPA.

So why the Rye?

Firstly we have three species of lamprey in this country – sea, brook and river lamprey. These have been a rare sight recently in this area until the past few years. As a result of an improvement in water quality, the removal of migratory obstacles and the installation of special tiles that help movement, the lamprey are navigating through the River Derwent. The population has become so important that the lower reaches of the Derwent now have protected status, reflecting the spawning distribution of the species in the catchment.

That this ancient species has made it back up to the River Rye towards the top of the Derwent catchment is very encouraging. Small numbers have been recorded in the past few years by our Riverfly monitors.

So why should we care?

Well over the past few decades high levels of pollution in our rivers has nearly wiped out any chance of seeing lamprey in the UK. All species of lamprey require clean sandy gravels to spawn. The young larvae then swim off to the soft marginal silt of the river to grow; feeding on the algae, bacteria and detritus. Sediments can also smother spawning gravel sites, also effecting other species of fish too. Dramatic changes in water flow and levels also affect these spawning sites. The migratory sea and river lamprey require good water quality to survive their long journey from sea to spawning sites.

This means that if you do have lamprey in your river, something is going right!

So what can we do to help?

Although the fate of the lamprey population depends on the goings on in the lower catchments, the more we can do in the upper catchments to keep lamprey here the better for our freshwater ecosystem, and that’s exactly what the Ryevitalise Landscape Partnership Scheme is trying to achieve. The reduction in sediments is one of the biggest factors; reducing Himalayan Balsam eroding our river banks, stopping cattle predation in rivers, changing the way riparian land is farmed to reduce runoff, all helps in the battle against sediment. Water level management and the planting of trees also helps with reducing the dramatic water level changes during the winter. And most importantly (slightly biased) is engagement! If people don’t know why we should care for lamprey, then they never will. Sharing the beauty and importance of this slippery creature with as many people as possible will help in protecting these quirky river species.

Did you know for example lamprey predate dinosaurs by 200 million years?! And my favorite – apparently during the Middle Ages, lampreys were widely eaten by the upper classes throughout Europe. It is thought King Henry I died from overindulging on lampreys.

So while I will still recoil in horror at seeing one, I now know how special lamprey are and I will attempt to make these as popular as the cuddly otter or water vole….well one can try…..

Ryevitalise Landscape Partnership Scheme main logo band

A miscellany of wildlife encounters

During the last few months, alongside everything else that has been going on, there has been the chance for additional up-close and personal nature experiences. Here’s a few from the (mostly) home life of the Conservation Department – some in pictures some in words.

Here’s a stunning patchwork green view that could be seen when looking over towards Whitby from Borrowby while completing a grassland survey. Copyright Victoria Franklin, NYMNPA.

Golden ringed dragonfly being pointed at. Copyright Rachel Pickering, NYMNPA.“A golden ringed dragonfly let both our children [very gently] touch it. For me I guess one of the more striking things about this encounter was that we were in Cropton Forest – part of Forestry England’s ‘commercial conifer forestry’ which some people write off as having no wildlife value. My family and I have spent many happy hours in Cropton Forest during the past couple of months enjoying wildlife and cultural heritage and just for that time not seeing another soul.

There was a nesting blackbird squashed into a hole in a wall in my parent’s potting shed which successful fed and raised a brood of chicks. On our usual dog walk near home we came across a cobweb of small eggar moth caterpillars. We took some home for a week or so and they enjoyed living in our kitchen fed on blackthorn. We let them go back into the hedgerow when we realised that when they form a cocoon they stay in it overwinter and perhaps even for 2 or 3 winters! So much better off back in the hedge.”

“Last week after a dawn bird survey I stumbled across a fantastic small quarry … With three species of orchids; Bee, Butterfly and Fragrant (maybe Chalk Fragrant) … I was as they say Well Chuffed!”

“I’ve been seeing loads of wildlife; it’s photographing the pesky thing’s that’s the problem – for some reason they don’t seem to want to cooperate! There’s the barn owl that’s been hunting at the bottom of the garden and in our neighbour’s field almost every morning and evening for the past couple of months; I’ve seen more badgers this year whilst out running than ever before, including an adult with two cubs; then there’s the hare that’s taken up semi-permanent residence on the lawn; the herd of 10 fallow deer in the barley field next door that I see from the kitchen window most evenings; and I’ve been dived bombed by lapwings when running on the moor above Kepwick.”

“I came across this delightful critter in my garden yesterday – it’s a Nicrophorus Nicrophorus Investigator. Copyright Briony Fox, NYMNPA.Investigator – it is a burying beetle and like other burying beetles they bury the carcasses of small vertebrates such as birds and mice as a food source for their larvae. They are common and widespread (although I’ve never seen one before!). They have a very good sense of smell and are reputed to be able to smell a carcass up to two miles away (ewww!). It was quite a big bug – around 2cm long.”

“I had a rather unpleasant wildlife encounter at Falling Foss on Thursday when our friends dog ‘found’ a nest of agitated bees on the path and they swarmed and chased us. I evaded the inevitable but the others all got stung so that wasn’t fun. We did see a toad later on so that made up for it a bit!”

“Me and my family have spent hours watching the wildlife in our garden and in and around the village throughout lockdown, this is my favourite event because I love a happy ending…We have a troop of sparrows who eat their way through a big feeder of bird seed every day. I enjoy watching them line up on twigs waiting for a go and squabbling over the perches on the feeder. They have a dust bath under the hedge often alongside our chickens. The group fledged lots of young and my two children loved watching the fluffy youngsters hanging around under the feeder waiting for attention from their parents. Just before the children’s bath time one day we heard a loud thump on the lounge window. I ran out followed closely by the children and found a stunned just fledged sparrow lying on the ground. I picked up the little bird and we all peered down at her – she opened an eye! We decided to put her in a big cardboard box while the children had their bath and see what happened . . . After the quickest bath on record we opened the box and there she was standing up and looking up at us. The children carried the box out into the garden and off she went back to the troop…”

Swallow Beard - Alasdair wearing a swallow chick. Copyright NYMNPA.“Earlier in the year I had about 50 whooper swans fly low over the house! What a noise! I’ve had a pair of redstarts nesting in the eaves of the house…A pair of swallows built a nest in the chicken coop and the chicks fled the nest early to escape the temperature of a hot day (nest was very close to the tin roof). So I moved the nest, scooped up the chicks and popped them back – one got attached and found comfort under my beard for a while before I popped it back with siblings – happy to say all four have fledged! Good work mum and dad!

Being at home more has meant that I’ve gotten to see the green woodpeckers more often rather than just hearing them ‘yaffling’ in the woods…”

“My main experiences with wasps have mainly been negative…it normally involves providing a glass of sacrificial cider to keep them at bay in the beer garden on a sunny afternoon. They also act as play things for my cats when they invade my house. I don’t know much about wasps but never the less I know how important these little beasties Alex's wasp nibbled bird table. Copyright Alex Cripps, NYMNPA.are, although trying to explain that to anyone outside of the conservation sector can prove challenging. Whilst attempting to tackle my garden I noticed my log bird table had slowly started to shrink, once a solid round log was now two thirds of its size. I assumed I was not feeding the birds enough food and they had taken to destroying my table as a form of protest, until I noticed a wasp happily munching away at the wood. I was unsure why a wasp might have taken a liking to my bird table until I stumbled across an episode of Springwatch where Chris Packham was stood excitingly next to a wasp having a good old munch on his old shed door. I didn’t realise that this ritual was part of the nest building process until seeing that episode, so although my bird table is not as smart of it used to be, it’s great to see nature in action!”

“No major surprises but it’s been a lockdown pleasure to watch goldfinches, tree sparrows, magpies, wood pigeons, doves, crows, etc. pop into the garden and the occasional herring gull pop down to eat any scraps left out and remind me just how big they can get! We also have three cheeky hens who are resident in the back garden…We’ve also had a few visits from hedgehogs in the front garden, including one who popped by at 5pm for a quick snuffle in the soil – we haven’t actually seen a hedgehog in the front garden for quite a few years now, so our late afternoon visitor was quite welcome. There was also some distinctive paw prints left out on the front step one night and we think it had popped back for some more exploration. We’ve also had rabbits in the garden too, probably from the close-by cemetery which is home to a few. Last weekend I joined a small group of friends in a mates back garden to celebrate his birthday and at dusk we had the pleasure of watching the local bats pop out and skitter around the sky for insects – one bat came very close to brushing all of our faces with its wings as it did a loop around the table top! I’m presuming they were common pipistrelles, we have them at home too and they have been a delight to watch.”

“In my tiny garden I’ve had three blackbird nests, one thrush nest, and two robin nests … and the butterfly is a common blue seen in a quarry near my house.”

Ephialtes manifestator. Copyright Sam Newton, NYMNPA.“I’ve had lots of red mason bees and leaf cutter bees using my solitary bee ‘hotel’ and holes drilled in the fence. While watching them a few weeks ago, an impressive parasitic ichneumon wasp called ‘Ephialtes manifestator’ visited and started laying eggs in some of the full nesting tubes. I’ve since found out that it’s only the 10th record of this wasp in Yorkshire, so I’m really pleased that I’m helping support these associated parasitic species as well.

More small eggar moth caterpillars. Copyright Sam Newton, NYMNPA.I ventured on a few new footpaths not far from home, and on one came across a really nice veteran oak tree. While looking at it, I found a number of deathwatch beetles on it – which this far north are very rare in natural situations (i.e. not eating National Trust properties!) – so were quite an exciting find (for me anyway!).

When lockdown began to ease I spent some time looking for small eggar moth webs in the nearby hedgerows, and have also reared some caterpillars. They’ve all pupated now, but they kept me very busy as they ate an immense amount and needed daily supplies of fresh blackthorn!”

“I saw a hedgehog as I was leaving a site visit in Bilsdale last week, makes a refreshing change to see a live one rather than the many killed on the roads.”

Bilsdale hedgehog. Copyright James Caldwell, NYMNPA.

Not all the species have been rare and not all the locations special – but each encounter made an impression.

Microscopic wildlife

Recently the Hoopoe blog by NHBS hosted an interview with Ben Fitch, the Riverfly Partnership’s Project Manager.

Ben emphasis how important riverfly monitoring is as an initiative because it is such an effective way of monitoring the health of a river through its fly life. Ben also happens to mention the flat-bodied mayfly larva (Ecdyonurus dispar – Autumn Dun) as one of his favourite river flies, particularly the white-spot variant.

Excitingly during a socially distanced riverfly training session a few weeks ago Alex, Sam and Amy from the Ryevitalise Team found this very variant here in the River Rye. Apparently the exotic looking spots might be caused by a recessive gene, but what triggers it remains unknown.

Autumn dun white spot from the River Rye - through a microscope. Copyright NYMNPA.

Riverfly monitoring in the Rye catchment is getting going again now, whilst keeping in line with current Covid-19 restrictions. So we thought we’d have a chat with one of our own riverfly people – Sam Lewsey, Ryevitalise Field Officer.

Riverfly monitoring in the Rye Catchment. Copyright Sam Lewsey, NYMNPA.How long have Riverfly volunteers been out in the Rye catchment this year?

We started the phased return of riverfly monitoring from the middle of June. Amy (Education and Engagement Officer) and myself have been meeting individual volunteers on site to go through revised risk assessments and answer any questions they may have, as well as conducting the first kick-samples of the year. Normally riverfly monitoring would have started up at the beginning of May, but due to restrictions our volunteers understandably weren’t able to get out and monitor for the first 6 weeks of the sampling season.

How many Riverfly volunteers have you got on the Rye?

Currently we’ve got 30 riverfly volunteers registered through the Ryevitalise programme, although not all of these are currently ‘active’; unfortunately due to C-19 we had to Riverfly monitoring in the Rye Catchment. Copyright Sam Lewsey, NYMNPA.cancel our riverfly training and refresher days in April, so some volunteers are still awaiting their official training, including health & safety. Others have received training previously and are in the process of being assigned a site to monitor. Our first phase of volunteers to get back to volunteering were our established riverfly volunteers (8 in total) at sites where they had monitored before.

Riverfly monitoring is a good thing because…
See Catchment Based Approach partnerships website’s explanation of riverfly monitoring

“Riverflies (and other freshwater invertebrates) are at the heart of the freshwater ecosystem and are a vital link in the aquatic food chain. Because riverflies are riverfly populations are affected by many factors, predominately water quality, habitat diversity, water level and flow rate. Their common characteristics of limited mobility, relatively long life cycle, presence throughout the year and specific tolerances to changes in environmental conditions make them powerful biological indicators to monitor water quality, and so are commonly referred to as ‘the canary of our rivers.’  The Riverfly Partnership spearheads an initiative to allow interested groups to take action that will help conserve the river environment. This initiative provides a simple monitoring technique which groups can use to detect any severe perturbations in river water quality…”

Basically this Citizen Science initiative “ensures that water quality is checked more widely [than it would be otherwise] and action taken at the earliest opportunity if any problem are detected”.

Ryevitalise is participating in the national riverfly monitoring scheme run by the Riverfly Partnership. It’s important that we’re part of the wider scheme for several reasons: it standardises the methodology used across the UK; we get top-notch training and support from the Riverfly partnership’s extremely knowledgeable qualified trainers; we can run reports of our results easily from the database that our result go into; and we get to contribute important data on water quality and catchment health to the wider national scheme so that research into trends in the health of our rivers can be carried out and lead to informed changes and positive impacts on terrestrial and aquatic management.

Riverfly monitoring focuses on three groups – the up-wing flies or mayflies (Ephemeroptera), caddisflies or sedges (Trichoptera) and stoneflies (Plecoptera).

Such tiny creepy insects are actually fascinating and wonderful because…
See Freshwater Biological Association’s website

  • Riverfly monitoring - Mayfly larvae. Copyright Sam Lewsey, NYMNPA.They are a vital link in the aquatic food chain as a food source for fish, birds and mammals
  • They are one of the longest lived group of animals on the earth (mayflies have been around for over 3 million years, with the first written reference to them being made over 4000 years ago!)
  • Mayfly nymphs are present in the water all year round, and can spend up to two years feeding under the water before emerging as their adult form… but once they’ve Riverfly monitoring - Yellow hawk female. Copyright Stuart Crofts, Riverfly Partnership.emerged they fly for only a few hours (enough time to display and mate) before dying
  • Caddisfly larvae are fantastic grazers that clean up old leaves and twigs from the river bed, and sort through sediment as they go
  • Caddisfly cases used to be made into jewellery because they are so beautiful!
  • Riverfly monitoring - Cased caddisfly larvae. Copyright Sam Lewsey, NYMNPA.Stonefly nymphs are extremely hardy – managing to continue growth even in sub-zero temperatures. They are also able to suspend growth if a river dries up temporarily
  • Overall, riverflies are a vital part of both the aquatic and terrestrial food chains, as well as being key players in sorting sediment on the river bed and breaking down waste products like old leaves and twigs

Ryevitalise Landscape Partnership Scheme main logos

Good news story: Turtle Doves in a weedy corner

Richard Baines – North Yorkshire Turtle Dove Project Officer

On 24 June I got a text message from one of our Turtle Dove volunteer surveyors. The message went something like…

‘A good morning’s survey – I saw five Turtle Doves including two feeding alongside eight Yellowhammers in a weedy corner of a nearby field’.

I was very pleased Andy had seen five Turtle Doves because that was one more than I had seen in the same survey square the previous month. But hang on a minute … ‘feeding in a weedy corner’ ?… that phrase pushed me to the edge of my seat … I messaged Andy back and asked him to send me a map of where they were feeding … as soon as I saw the map, I gave a big hurrah!!!

The ‘weedy corner’ was in fact the wild flower plot sown in the last couple of years by a farmer especially for these endangered birds as part of the grant scheme through the North Yorkshire Turtle Dove Project. Even better – Andy had actually got a photo of one of the doves (see below), great evidence of success! I rang up the farmer to give him the good news – not surprisingly he was very pleased that his hard work was having the desired effect. The flowers in the mix he planted include Turtle Dove favourites such as Common Fumitory, Black Medick and Birds-foot Trefoil. Three species which were once commonly found by the side of arable fields but are now increasingly rare.

The farmer and I had located the flower plot in one of his arable field alongside Forestry England woodland. This forest-farmland edge is a habitat known to be favoured by Turtle Doves, and other species such as the Yellowhammers Andy had also seen.

A Turtle Dove in seeded plot 24.6.20 (North Yorkshire Turtle Dove Project). Copyright A Malley.

Our Turtle Dove Project has been overwhelmed by the good will shown by local communities and farmers. Now we have direct local evidence showing that these wild flowers and their seed really do make a difference for these beautiful birds when it comes to feeding – so we can continue our work with an extra spring in our step!

National Lottery Heritage Fund logo

For more about the North Yorkshire Turtle Doves (and Richard) – have a look at a feature on our website called Bid to save turtle doves.