Shared learning

Roy McGhie – Conservation Project Assistant

I’ve taken over the role of Conservation Project Assistant from Kirsty who left the National Park Authority earlier this year for pastures new.

Roy McGhie - learning to scythe at Ryedale Folk Museum - copyright Roy Hampson

I have had a fairly diverse career so far. I am a qualified primary teacher, have worked in business and manufacturing, and have spent more time studying than I care to think about! I have always had a passion for the natural environment, and volunteered whenever and wherever I could. A recent move to North Yorkshire enabled me to retrain in this sector, and now I find myself working for the National Park Authority, which is a dream come true. I love being able to meet the people who manage the land in the National Park, helping them to conserve and enhance the North York Moors in a way that is beneficial to both people and the environment. So far I’ve been largely concentrating on turning Traditional Boundary Scheme (TBS) applications into agreements to help restore boundaries that are so important to the landscape character of the North York Moors.

North York Moors National Park landscape - copyright Roy McGhie, NYMNPA

Amidst my TBS efforts, a couple of weeks ago John (Land Management Adviser) and I attended the annual Farm Liaison Officers conference hosted by the South Downs National Park. This event is an opportunity for agri-environment staff from all 15 of the UK’s National Parks to meet and discuss common issues and difficulties that we face, as well as to find areas of best practice which we can take back to our own National Parks. Whilst the job titles differ from Park to Park it was clear that what we all shared was a passion for working with land managers to achieve mutually beneficial conservation goals.

The first full day was filled with site visits – even if the specific habitats and species we saw were sometimes different to those in the North York Moors, the issues around land management and competing pressures are similar to those we face here.

Tom Tupper - South Downs NP, Farm Liaison Officers Meeting 2015 - copyright Roy McGhie, NYMNPAThe first day started with a visit to Bignor Farm near Pulborough. Here, Tom Tupper, a local landowner, introduced us to the chalk grasslands, known as downlands, that make up much of the iconic character of the South Downs. During World War II the South Downs lost about 80% of its grassy downlands, partly to intensive agriculture for food production, and partly to military training. Today, only about 4% of the South Downs remain as chalk downland.

Tom also took us to Bignor Roman Villa, which has been in his family’s stewardship since it was re-discovered over 200 years ago. The site is renowned for having some of the best Roman mosaics in the country, both in terms of detail and preservation. Our stop at the villa allowed us to discuss the intricacies of preserving monuments alongside the public (and often financial) requirement for interpretation and access. There are similar issues at Cawthorn Camps, a Roman site on the North York Moors.

Roman Villa - South Downs NP, Farm Liaison Officers Meeting 2015 - copyright Roy McGhie, NYMNPA

We visited Peppering Farm on the Norfolk Estate. The Estate is currently in a Higher Level Stewardship agri-environment agreement, but carries out more conservation work than it receives money towards, for instance in regards to reversing the decline of the Grey Partridge. This highlighted the ongoing issues that arise from trying to balance landscape enhancement with the need for productive practical agriculture. We also saw a restored dew pond. Dew ponds have been dated as far back as Neolithic times, and are a source of much debate as to how they traditionally filled up with water. Landscape archaeology suggests they were used for watering cattle and were lined with clay to hold the water. As we saw, they are always a popular haven for wildlife. There are number of such ponds in and around the North York Moors.

Dew Pond - South Downs NP, Farm Liaison Officers Meeting 2015 - copyright Roy McGhie, NYMNPA

We also visited Pepperscombe on the Wiston Estate. Here we were introduced to the Steyning Downland Scheme which aims to reconnect people, particularly children, with the countryside around them. The Scheme partly came about because of increased visitor pressure on the South Downs Way, which runs through many farms and fields, as well as mountain biking and dog walking issues. Today there are Trustees and a steering group to represent the needs of the local community, which has seen a designated area created for bikers, the establishment of a team of local volunteers to monitor the plant life, and the opportunity for school children to enjoy creative educational days out on site.

Cattle are used to graze the scrub. The photo below shows the effect just a small number

Conservation grazing - South Downs NP, Farm Liaison Officers Meeting 2015 - copyright Roy McGhie, NYMNPA

of cattle can have. The area on the left in the foreground was grazed by just six Dexter cattle for only 3 weeks. The area on the right in the background is a new area of scrub the cattle have just moved in to. The difference is remarkable. Dexter cattle are the smallest of all European cattle breeds, and can be particularly suited to conservation grazing with public access because the animals are less intimidating to members of public than larger breeds.

South Downs landscape - South Downs NP, Farm Liaison Officers Meeting 2015 - copyright Roy McGhie, NYMNPA

On the second day, we were back in doors talking through shared subjects such as funding opportunities under Rural Development Programmes and transition from the current national agri-environment schemes (Environmental Stewardship) to the new Countryside Stewardship scheme. Overall the conference proved to be very informative, and I think we all took away knowledge that will help us with our work with land managers to enhance the qualities of each of our wonderful National Parks.

Toad patrolling

Bill Shaw – Ecology and Conservation Land Management Adviser

For us ‘herp enthusiasts’ (people who love amphibians and reptiles) this is a very exciting time of year. After 5 months of twiddling our thumbs, when all 13 of our native ‘herp’ species are hibernating, there is now a big build-up in the amount of activity as they are all frantic to breed!

In the amphibian world frogs hibernate under the mud at the bottom of ponds, absorbing sufficient oxygen through their skin to survive. They are the first to wake up and start spawning, generally in February. They are described as being explosive breeders as they cause quite a commotion in their breeding ponds for a week or two, with many croaking males visible at the surface.

Then it all goes quiet.

Well, at least until the common toads get going!

These endearing creatures (personal opinion) hibernate on land and then in March they move en masse to their breeding ponds, which is often the one they were born in. If there is a road to cross on the way there is the obvious potential for a lot of squashed toads, and this is where the organisation Froglife have stepped in to co-ordinate a national scheme of Toad Patrols. Last year it’s estimated that they helped nearly 81,000 toads to safely reach their home ponds.

One such patrol site is near Osmotherley, on the western edge of the National Park. I went up there a couple of weeks back to help out and what a satisfying thing it is to do. All you need is a bucket, a torch and a high-vis jacket and away you go, walking up and down the road in the dark, putting the toads in the bucket and taking them to the pond. The thing I really liked about it is the direct connection with nature. Just think about it – how often do you actually get to pick up any wild animal.About to set off across the road (female toad with male on its back)Setting off across the dark dangerous tarmacSafely arrived

 

 

 

 

Revivifying a pond

Bill Shaw – Ecology and Conservation Land Management Adviser

Ponds are very important habitats for wildlife and used to be an important part of the farmed landscape, providing drinking water for livestock. Ponds are often close by houses, farms and villages – and so provide excellent opportunities to watch a habitat in action.

With the advent of mains water, which could be used to fill drinking troughs, the need for communal ponds declined dramatically and so they tended to be forgotten about or filled in to create more productive land.

A pond that is not cleaned out fairly regularly will naturally fill in with vegetation, become a marsh and then, over time, dry land. This process is called natural succession and, interestingly, if all land in the United Kingdom were left totally untouched nearly all of it would eventually become oak woodland – the climax vegetation.

Anyway, this loss of ponds has not gone un-noticed and there are a number of organisations working to restore ponds and dig new ones where possible e.g. the Freshwater Habitats Trust for one, and the North York Moors National Park for another.

Last year we were approached by some locals in Silpho village in the south east of the Park about their village pond which had dried out. The geology around here is limestone which does not hold water well, so to water livestock here in the past the pond had been dug and then lined with ‘puddled’ clay which held the water. These sort of ponds are called ‘dew ponds’ and, despite their name, they actually rely on rainwater to fill them up. During construction a layer of soot or lime was put under the clay to deter earthworms from burrowing through the clay and riddling the pond with holes!

Parish records showed that the pond had been constructed during the agricultural revolution in about 1800. In 1982 the clay liner had finally given up and the pond had dried out so a plastic liner was installed, but this had failed by 2012 and the pond had totally grown over.

The task for us (official and unofficial Volunteers, and National Park staff) was to remove all the vegetation and install a new plastic liner. This took two days and was very enjoyable, being a good mix of brawn and brain!



The pond will now fill naturally with rainwater and in the spring we’ll bring some suitable native plants in from a nearby pond – plants like water crowfoot, water forget-me-not, water soldier, hornwort, floating sweet grass, marsh marigold, water mint and yellow flag iris. I for one have put money on frogs breeding here this spring!

We’ve now got our eyes on three other ponds fairly close by that we want to reinstate, so creating a local network of watery homes for wildlife.

Developing connections

The objective of our Connectivity programme, put simply, is to protect and enhance the best bits, and to extend and connect them to other sites where possible. To do this we’re going to be working in the National Park towards:

  • improving the quality of current wildlife sites by better management;
  • increasing the size of existing wildlife sites;
  • enhancing connections between sites, either through physical corridors or by ‘stepping stones’;
  • creating new sites; and
  • reducing the pressure on wildlife by improving the wider environment.

Our Management Plan illustrates the strategic corridors (“wildlife super highways”) in the North York Moors, and we’ve come up with specific areas along these corridors where we’re going to concentrate efforts for the next few years. Different people in our Conservation Department have been allocated different ‘polygons’ (target areas) to lead on.

We’ll be keeping you up to date with what is happening on the ground.

Ami Walker – Conservation Land Management Adviser

I’m well underway with Connections 5 to 8 which run from Dalby to Levisham (in the south east of the National Park). The first step has been to ascertain which habitats and species are found in this part of the North York Moors and to see if the current management is beneficial or detrimental to these interests.

2013-05-17 Polygons 7 & 8 - Lockton

Species rich grassland areas and road verges are just one of the important habitats in this area. I’ve been surveying those that we are already aware of to make sure they are in tiptop condition and I’ve been looking for any potential to extend these assets further. There is a particular site just outside Lockton village that has got that potential! It is a steep grassy bank which lies between a road verge with lots of flowering plants and another area of flower rich grassland. Managing flowering grassland by cutting or grazing is necessary to maintain the diversity of this habitat or else it will be overcome by rank grass and scrub. By getting this intermediate bank site into good management using a positive grazing regime, in this case with native breed sheep, the flowering plants will be given a chance to flourish so increasing the good habitat for pollinators, such as bees and hoverfly, which birds and other animals feed on; and linking up two separate sites of species rich grassland into one larger extent.

In the same target area, I’m going to be trying to extend the valuable habitat at Sieve Dale Fen SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) by setting up a National Park Authority Land Management Agreement to conserve and encourage the wetland plants in the next door field to the SSSI and so increasing the extent of this diverse wetland habitat.

There are also deciduous woodlands in the wider area which mainly run in a north/south direction. Where new actual tree planting isn’t appropriate there is still the possibility to strengthen the hedgerow links (east/west) around Lockton and Levisham instead, in order to connect up the wooded areas in Dalby to those in nearby Newtondale.

Lockton and Levisham village both have large areas of communal/amenity grassland and I’m thinking there may be potential to turn some of this 2013-05-17 Polygons 7 & 8 - Lockton - Geotrupes stercorarius Dor beetlegrassland in to village nature areas. While I’ve been out surveying with my clip board I’ve been approached by locals and visitors who’ve all been receptive to the ideas behind what I’m trying to do. It’s really important to get local people on board as well as specific land managers and I’ll definitely be reporting back to the local community on how the project progresses in their area and the wider National Park. Village nature areas would be a great way of getting local people involved, if they’d like to.

The next phase is to start doing practical work on the ground such as grassland management and enhancement, installing fences so that positive grazing regimes can be instigated, and setting up the hedge planting for the 2013-05-17 Polygons 7 & 8 - Lockton - Early Purple Orchid 1autumn. In most cases this will be done through agreements with land managers and farmers. Money from national schemes and National Park grants will assist by paying a contribution to help cover the cost of capital works and acknowledge profit foregone.

John Beech – Coastal Project Officer

I’ve been out ground truthing a target area round Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Sea coast, with an emphasis on reconnecting existing habitats. A mixture of grasslands, hedgerows, wooded gills, wetlands and streams all provide scope for improvement works to connect, extend and create a more robust mosaic of habitats.

I’ve been talking to landowners in that area to identify work which we want to support and which they are happy with. I’ll be working up the details in the next few weeks with an idea to implement the work over the coming autumn/winter.

Whilst out and about a further two project ideas (pond creation, species rich grassland donoring) have come up in previously surveyed areas  – proof that the connectivity message is spreading!

We’ve already installed six new ponds close to Robin Hood’s Bay, and now that it is summer they are already attracting aquatic life including invertebrates such as greater water boatmen, whirligig beetles and pond skatersCurlew, Swallow, Grey Wagtail and Snipe have also been seen using the ponds. In partnership with the National Trust (land owners) and the tenant farmer, the ponds have now been fenced to prevent cattle and sheep accessing them which has solved the siltation and effluent problem.

Coastal grassland - Kingston Field, Fylingthorpe

Better, bigger and more connected

Simon Wightman – Head of Natural Environment

The State of Nature report was recently published and represents the first time the UK’s wildlife organisations have joined forces to undertake an assessment of how nature in the UK is fairing. If you haven’t had a chance to have a read, you can find a copy of the report here.

The overall message is a bleak one. Of the species that we have enough data to analyse a trend – the reasonably common or well studied ones – 60% of species have declined over the last 50 years. One in ten species are considered to be under threat of extinction in the UK.

Farmed landscape  - Rosedale

However, something else struck me and offered some cheer. England still supports a fantastic diversity of wildlife that inspires us and enriches our lives every day. Many of these species are in trouble, restricted to tiny islands of suitable habitat in an inhospitable countryside, but they are still here. It is a huge challenge but if we can find a way of making our towns, villages and countryside friendlier for wildlife then it’s not too late.

Coastal slope at Boulby

If we cannot start to address some of these weak links even in our National Parks then it will be much harder in the wider countryside. But there are a huge number of people and organisations working to protect and enhance the fantastic wildlife of the North York Moors. There are farmers and woodland owners who care passionately about the plants and animals they share their land with.

Grassland in Summer - Danby Dale

The North York Moors National Park Authority has launched a new ‘Connectivity’ Programme, which has identified key areas where we feel the landscape could be improved to make it more wildlife friendly. This might be planting trees and hedgerow corridors, or connecting up old farm buildings to help bats. It might be buffering species-rich grasslands or creating new habitat patches to help rare butterflies. It might be planting woodland to link up fragmented, isolated patches. We have set aside money to support landowners and land managers in developing these networks along four simple principles:-

  1. Ensure that existing habitat patches are managed as well as possible
  2. Enlarge existing patches wherever possible
  3. Create new habitat
  4. Improve the surrounding habitat to make it easier for species to move between patches

Hay Meadow close up - RosedaleIt is early days but the response and enthusiasm from farmers and other land managers has been fantastic.

I was mulling over the challenge facing us last weekend whilst digging a pond in the garden with my son. He wants to see tadpoles but we decided to wait and see what comes along by itself. If ours was the only garden with a pond then we would never see a frog but we know that our neighbours have tadpoles so I’m confident we’ll have frogspawn next year.

So securing a future for wildlife is not just about having great habitat, it’s ensuring that there’s enough of it and that species can move Duke of Burgundy butterfliesabout between the patches. Of course, a lot of the species and habitats that we are trying to help in the North York Moors National Park have much more specific requirements than the common frog and need it provided on a much bigger scale than garden ponds. It won’t be as easy but the principles are the same.

It would be great to hear your thoughts and ideas about how our new Connectivity Programme could improve the North York Moors for the special wildlife that lives here.

New Roles in the Conservation Department – part 1

We’ve had a couple of new starters in the Conservation Department recently and here’s a brief introduction to what they are going to get up to.

Kirsty Brown – Conservation Project Assistant

Since early February, I have been out on site to gain a better understanding of work across the North York Moors National Park, including:

  • Path works on the Rail Trail, a popular walk along the route of George Stephenson’s original railway line of 1836, and conservation of the Wheeldale Roman Road, both near Goathland
  • Listed buildings in Staithes and planning applications such as a new spa for a hotel
  • Practical conservation work including building a tree nursery area and gorse removal from a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)
  • Collaboration with Pond Conservation possibilities on the river Rye
  • And the pearl mussel conservation project along the river Esk.

With some MapInfo training, I am currently inputting the boundary information from the 2012/2013 Upland Management Scheme (UMS) agreements. To aid me with the roll-out of the new Traditional Boundary Scheme (hedgerows and dry stone walls) which is replacing the UMS, I’ve been shadowing Ami, our Conservation Land Management Advisor, on farm visits to assess new walls and hedges, and work through the end of the process for the current Upland Management and Farm Scheme documentation.

Discussing these current schemes along with the National Park Authority grant delivery review with Rebecca, the Conservation Projects Officer, has given me the background to develop new forms and work on an efficient process to deliver the new Traditional Boundary Scheme.

Rebecca and I also attended the Farming Advice Service Adviser Workshop at Askham Bryan College in February which provided a very useful update and overview of CAP reform, Cross Compliance, the Water Framework Directive and grants for farmers, further adding to our ability to assist and advise landowners in the National Park.