It’s the big ticket sights that mostly draw flocks of tourists to the Dales – the spectacle of Malham Cove or Gordale Scar, the aloof majesty of the three peaks, the grandeur of Wharfedale… But for me the real charms of the area lie in the rich diversity of its everyday landscapes and the extraordinary lesser known places that for the most part are bypassed by the crowds.
Around 10 miles west of Airton, between the villages of Austwick and Feizor a craggy hillock rises unobtrusively from the plains below Ingleborough. At this time of year its flanks blush greenish blue as that most English of springtime scenes, the bluebell wood, reaches its annual climax. So, having been tipped off that the display is a superb one this year I head to Oxenber Wood on a spare afternoon hoping I haven’t already missed the show.
Oxenber and Wharfe Woods now clothe the former Austwick township quarry – a sort of stone larder used by the people of the village in the 19th century – also historically managed as wood pasture with coppicing. The combination of the limestone formation (often breaching the surface in the form of limestone pavements), this historic pasture management and its elevation above the surrounding intensive pasture has created a unique, species rich ecology now designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Marvellously, it’s also one which the public can enjoy via a good network of waymarked paths.
Entering the wood by one of these narrow, steeply climbing dirt tracks is like crossing the threshold between two worlds, swapping the simplified ecology of the grazed field for a much more complex environment, full of niches and hollows filled with uncountable variants of plants and animals. It’s not quite wild – ongoing light management prevents that and for good reason, as occasional grazing and coppicing ensure there is sufficient year-round light for rare ground-flora to survive. But there’s enough wilderness about it for nature to function as nature does.
The wild is nature’s cauldron, where species mingle, adapt and evolve. In the fertile open spaces, variation flourishes whilst in the difficult marginal niches, differences are exploited and particular characteristics promoted. Cast a brief glance over this woodland, perched on a rocky hillside with stones breaching the surface everywhere, and you’ll see a reserve of biodiversity, not just of different species but within the same recognisable species – tall / short, deeply coloured / pale, robust / slender… Here are plants rarely seen elsewhere and new to my eyes; there a solitary bee in unfamiliar livery. Here a splendid orchid; there a crab apple in fabulous blossom. In short, this is a thrumming pool of genetic diversity, all too small on its own but potentially contributing ecological resilience to a wider network of similar places and between them to the landscape in general. For however sophisticated our technological approach to landscape and agriculture, its resilience still depends upon the ecosystems services provided by species found only in the natural world. Imperil them and we imperil ourselves.
In the world of ecology, distinctiveness matters, because the interrelationships that make a habitat tick are finely tuned to the special characteristics of the organisms that have co-adapted in it; and because introduced varieties of the same species found locally but with dominant habits both disrupt those interrelationships and reduce the overall genetic diversity of a species. That reduces the resilience of the species to pests and diseases, in turn undermining the resilience of the habitat and ultimately that of the bigger ecosystem in which we live known as planet Earth.
That’s one reason why these almost-wild places are so precious. Another is the sheer sensory delight and refreshment they give, free of charge, to anyone who seeks them out. This season’s special gift is the abundance of colour fizzing from the lush energetic new growth of the woodland floor. As I wander, my eye is caught by all kinds of spring flower – creamy primroses and sulphur cowslips, wild garlic, dog’s mercury, cow parsley, cuckoo flower and speedwell. But the monarch of the spring, sweeping all before its enveloping train is the bluebell. Their slender, graceful stalks and nodding, dark bells seem to cover every patch of ground. Here but for a moment, they paint the hillside in regal livery, commanding attention to some wordless ceremony and are gone. They and their admiring public will be back to relive the scene next year. Until then we must content ourselves with memory.