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.
High summer and after several weeks with barely a spot of rain, the dales landscape is beginning to look like a garden party where the drinks are running out. Fields that would normally be a verdant green are as beige as the high chapperal, sheep gnawing at the tufty, unappetising sward. Hedgerows sport withered skirts of wilted wildflowers; even some of the trees – the first to the water table with their big root systems – are looking a bit nonplussed, new growth flopping like handkerchiefs off some of the twiggier stems.
A troupe of walkers stopping by at the Meeting House excitedly report that ‘Janet’s Fosse is bone dry’, so I decide to investigate, hoping to get a closer look than usual. Setting off mid-morning it’s already hot enough to have forced a fellow rambler into the shade, and an Australian to boot, sitting on the ground under a spreading sycamore (or something). Here to walk the length of the country for charity, they had packed for English weather and they ruefully tell me, have somewhat more to carry as a result than now seems reasonable. I wish them well and offer a donation – cash, not more clothes. Obviously.
Janet’s Fosse is dry, though not to the bone – a dribble tumbles reluctantly over the tufa, supplying a much diminished splash pool – but I can stand on dry ground in the centre of what is normally a substantial, turbulent pond, perhaps a metre below where its surface would have been the last time I was here.
Gordale is even drier, nothing but a school party clinging to the rock face. I’m able to scamper up rocks that are normally drenched in a thundering cataract without a second thought, and onwards towards Malham Moor.
On this walk, I want to explore the high ground behind Malham Tarn, so I divert along the bridleway to Arncliffe through Great Close just as far as Back Pasture Hill, from where there’s a stunning view back towards Gordale and beyond to the slopes above the lower Aire Valley. Getting off the beaten track is worthwhile on its own merits for the peace and quiet and the chance to see a different view but turning back towards the Tarn, this little diversion comes with the added bonus of the sight of the lake still as a millpond, reflecting the marbled clouds so perfectly that approaching from above, the water’s surface might be mistaken for the sky itself, filling the frame around the silhouettes of trees.
Into the woods around the Tarn, the temperature drops by at least 10 degrees and everything is green – except for a stand of sapphire-blue Aconites in full flush. It’s one of the things woodland does incredibly well: moderating extremes of temperature and humidity.
The contrast with the grazed moorland couldn’t be more stark and I’m led to wonder whether without our continued intervention along existing lines, these upland landscapes would ultimately revert to a patchwork of moors, meres, mosses and forest, and would be far more resilient as a result. Woods and wetlands intercept and retain vast quantities of moisture (reducing flooding in lowland areas), effortlessly support an incredible diversity of species, and – if managed forestry is also part of the mix – provide timber, fuel, fibre and food in variety. If only we had an opportunity to amend the systems of regulation, subsidy and cultural convention that define what we understand by the ‘Yorkshire Dales’ (other similar upland landscapes are available) I wonder what might be restored in these landscapes…
The furthest point of my walk before looping back towards Malhamdale is the Tarn Moss – a nature reserve within a nature reserve, comprising a peat bog on the fringes of the tarn, access to which is via a sinuous boardwalk path.
Flat and damp even after the drought, this intricate habitat sports a plethora of rare and common species and is currently bedecked in the emerging florets of Meadowsweet flowers and studded with Ragged Robin and Devil’s Bit Scabious flowers, each it seems being visited by its own personal fly.
It’s a long walk back to Airton but mostly downhill and I’m in no hurry. Passing by Malham Cove on the way feels like a happy obligation to an old friend – I don’t think I’ll ever tire of visiting it, whatever the weather.
The other day I received an envoy from nature. Small and mostly blue, the diminutive bird caught my attention as I sat at breakfast looking out over the patch of weedy garden in front of the Nook. Normally a Blue Tit would disappear at the first sign of anything moving in the shadows; but this one was hopping about on the windowsill, practically pecking the glass in what looked very much like an attempt to get noticed.
It’s not the first time this has happened. A few years ago, at my previous home, a Blackbird raised my attention at the kitchen window in much the same way. Different species, different place; but in both cases the bird feeder that I normally filled regularly was empty. Although I resist the human tendency to anthropomorphise everything, in both cases it was tempting to conclude that I was being instructed to rectify the omission, and promptly…
Amusing as that thought is, there’s something deeper worth examining in what the apparent demands of a couple of wild birds might say about our relationship with nature. We’re increasingly aware (I hope) of the toll that industrialised human activity is taking on the natural world – not least through the issue of plastic in the oceans so eloquently exposed in the BBC’s Blue Planet II but also in deforestation, species loss and of course, the spectre of climate change to name a few pressing matters. But these are only the latest manifestations of the impact that human society has had on the world. In fact, many thinkers draw clear lines between human advances from pre-history onwards and the loss at each stage of some of nature’s richness. The industrial revolution is perhaps the first time these impacts become blatantly obvious but the message is, the rot set in right from the start of humanity’s long walk over the planet.
Of course, to leave it at that would be an over-simplistic analysis of human conduct, not least because it’s impossible to identify a ‘starting’ point in any species’ evolution. However, somewhere along the line, the dominant cultures of the world first detached themselves from, then set themselves above the natural world, defining roles for themselves at best as ‘stewards’, at worst as exploiting conquerors, with representatives of every gradation in between. The result is that everything about the contemporary industrialised way of life takes far more from the natural world than it can possibly return – in land, in water, minerals, clean air and even life itself.
There is another way to look at nature. We can start by deconstructing the idea that we should be in relationship to it en masse, as though humankind and nature were two categories of equivalent weight in some kind of equation. Instead, the reality is that the one entirely encompasses the other: humanity is a product of the natural world, entirely dependent upon it and in relationship, not with ‘it’ as a whole but with the hundreds of thousands of other species involved as well as the physical parameters of this spinning rock on which we all find ourselves. Ecological author and activist Tony Juniper puts it succinctly: ‘Economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of ecology’. In other words, everything we do (economy) is a subset of and relies upon the health of everything else that happens beyond the borders of human intervention (ecology).
The shift in thinking we need is one which enables us to act as though we are participators in that interdependent ecology rather than either exploiters or paternalistic supporters of it. Instead of attempting to create a zero sum gain of inputs and outputs – an impossibly complex equation – our aim can be to find pathways that reinforce rather than diminish the intricate relationships between ourselves and other components in nature’s web. We can start by asking ourselves what we really need to consume in order to thrive; then identifying where we can source those things in a way that supports rather than parasitises the relationships between other components of the natural world. Next we might fruitfully consider what makes for real wealth (as opposed to money and things). Finally, we could find ways to reuse and recycle materials essential to that ideal but which can’t be returned to nature at the end of their useful life.
Tossing a few seeds to feed a handful of garden birds might seem like a great gift but really it is nothing in comparison with what we cost the earth in every conceivable way every day of our lives. So when the Blackbird and Blue Tit come knocking on my window, the message isn’t just ‘please feed us’; it’s much stronger. What they are saying is ‘You owe us this and much more – don’t forget it.’ And I’m fine with that.
Some amazing reading…
Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari
What Has Nature Ever Done For Us? – Tony Juniper
The Great Work – Thomas Berry
Silent Spring – Rachel Carson
Agri-culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature – Jules Pretty
The Earth Care Manual – Patrick Whitefield