Littondale, with mown meadows in the valley-bottom and grazing, woods and bracken on the sides. The thistles suggest over-grazing.

Littondale, with mown meadows in the valley-bottom and grazing, woods and bracken on the sides. The thistles suggest over-grazing.

For centuries the landscape of Wharfedale was shaped, in part, by traditional farming methods. In medieval times these used low intensity methods to produce both crops and livestock but the great monasteries of Fountains, Rievaulx and Bolton Priory had large sheep flocks and sold their wool on the European market.

When the monasteries were dissolved, and wool prices fell, many tenant farmers took to cattle and sheep rearing. However, even at the end of the 17th century there was still a great deal of small-scale arable production. By the early nineteenth century there was a demand for food from the growing industrial towns and farmers and many farms began to produce milk from the lower lands and use the higher fells for sheep. The limestone grassland was favoured for cattle (and horses in the days when these were numerous) for summer grazing. Cows sent there are free of mastitis, and they come down ready to calve, “thatched with beef, full of hair, and with a rare bloom” as one farmer picturesquely described them.

So, although changes occurred over time, they were slow. There were a few large landowners but the idea of investing capital to improve returns, and the ability to do so, was alien to almost all. They distrusted risk and relied on time-honoured practices. Wildlife had plenty of time to adapt. But during the Second World War, farmers were pressurised to produce, and grants were provided to do so. Since then official policy has mostly been to improve productivity at the expense of the environment. The Common Agricultural Policy included grants to support agriculture in less-favoured areas and in Britain these were angled to increase production. Wharfedale has not been immune. Changes involved drainage, re-seeding, increasing chemical fertiliser applications, and cutting meadows for silage rather than hay.

The explosion of cash investment into the fragile ecosystems of Dales farms has led to many problems related to more intensive farming methods. But the loss of unproductive farms, with the land merged with adjoining or nearby businesses, has produced ‘gentrification’ and some homes are now occupied only at weekends. There are fewer people looking after the land so labour-intensive jobs such as shepherding, rebuilding walls and barns, maintaining woodland and so on tend to go by the board. This can result in shortcuts, such as laying poison, which endanger birds and animals.

One labour-intensive job now found no longer is pulling bracken. In the past this was sometimes used as bedding material, and the traditional mixed farming tended to prevent its spread, since cows trampled it out. Modern concentration on sheep farming means that bracken is spreading fast, a problem throughout much of the uplands. Bracken is sometimes useful, where its tough rhizomes prevent soil erosion and where it forms a habitat for some rare butterflies, but mostly it spreads at the expense of grass and heathland and forms a monoculture of little value. It also concentrates grazing on the remaining grassland, already under pressure from overgrazing.

The extension of sheep flocks in the uplands has been a feature of post-war agriculture. There are 60% more sheep in the Dales than there were in 1960 and although many died in the foot and mouth crisis, many have been replaced. At the same time shepherding has almost ceased and so sheep are not moved around. Instead they stay on the areas they like best and intensively graze areas of wildlife interest. The increase in sheep-ranching has been accompanied by a reduction in the number of cattle. Overgrazing is not the only problem – the establishment of a sheep monoculture reduces habitats. Associated operations can also be bad for wildlife – dipping sheep to reduce scab is a normal part of farm life but the chemicals, which are sometimes misused, pollute watercourses and kill small organisms.

Official support, over two generations, for intensive agriculture has resulted in much higher loads of fertiliser applied to quite fragile ecosystems. This favours competitive species such as rye-grass, at the expense of other grasses and wild flowers. Dales meadows are valuable survivors of an earlier age of rich grassland, full of herbs which can be important to livestock as sources of vitamins. They rely on low level applications of natural fertilisers such as animal manure. Cutting the meadows for hay late enough to allow plants to seed lets the system perpetuate itself, rather than taking constant silage.

Much effort and public money has been invested in drainage operations. Moor gripping has created extensive areas of grassland, with the loss of wetland plant and animal species. Now the drains are being blocked and the boggy areas restored, but it takes time to restore an ecosystem. Slowing water runoff helps to retain water, though, reducing flooding and soil erosion, which is an important factor in an increasingly unpredictable climate.

Britain has for centuries been sympathetic to planting trees but in the uplands the old woodlands have recently had to contend with sheep for possession. Woodland has been less profitable, even though it is valuable as winter shelter for livestock, which nowadays are often brought down into covered shelter anyway. In the Dales, Swaledale and Wharfedale have more semi-natural woodland than other areas, but this is still only 1 per cent of the whole National Park area. Woodland has been modified over the years, by clearance, heavy stock grazing and re-planting with non-native species. There is often little diversity and a limited ground flora. Now work is afoot to improve woodlands and to plant new areas. Again, this will reduce soil erosion and flooding.

Much of the upper dale is divided by the stone walls which are such an important feature, together with the stone field barns. In the lower dale, however, hedgerows are the rule and, although the pressure to remove them is less with grazing than arable uses, the tendency, in the past, has been to pull them out to save labour and take advantage of grant aid, destroying habitats for birds and small mammals. Now grants are available to replant hedges, but a new hedge takes centuries to regain its earlier diversity.

People are of course a problem in many ways. During the foot-and-mouth crisis Wharfedale was not the only area where wildlife prospered while people were excluded from the countryside. The introduction of open access is of concern to many, not only gamekeepers. However, many areas have already suffered by the construction of access tracks bringing motor vehicles deep into the moorland and tourism, which is promoted as a possible solution to falling farm incomes, can lead to problems. The intense pressure on favoured paths, such as the Pennine Way, or paths up well-known hills, can require expensive repairs and wildlife is certain to suffer, particularly at weekends. Nesting birds are at risk, especially when walkers fail to control their dogs.

Some problems are not merely local but are no less real for that. Airborne nitrates are an insidious form of pollution. They are mostly derived from car exhausts and effectively fertilise an area. Plants respond differently. Nitrates are toxic to some mosses, which suffer tissue damage. On the other hand, grasses are able to take up the fertiliser and shade out the rarer, more delicate plants which are often seen as being of greater conservation value. Increased grass growth attracts more sheep, which can damage other plants by trampling. Thus the nitrate acts as a multiplier to existing overgrazing. It also fertilises stream water and can lead to increased growth of algae, which can rapidly ‘bloom’ and outgrow other water plants.

Birds such as red grouse, stonechat, whinchat and golden plover all prefer heather to breed and avoid the heavily-grazed grassy areas which nitrate pollution produces.

The nitrates also form airborne acids. These were a major problem throughout Europe in the 1970’s, mainly from sulphur from burning coal in power stations. Now power production is cleaner, sulphuric acid is less of a problem but trees and plantlife, and the animals and birds which depend on them, are still at risk. Lichens and bryophytes are particularly prone to acid attack and Wharfedale is under the polluted south-westerlies from the Lancashire conurbation.

The recognition of global warming has produced a flood of remedies, mostly concentrating on the reduction of energy consumption. Recent government action to produce a proportion of our energy from sustainable sources has led to pressure on the countryside for sites for wind turbines. While many of the wind farms we see at present are comparatively small, up to 30 metres tall, economic energy production now demands much bigger turbines, as much as 120 metres – 400 feet – tall.

The effects that such wind farms will have on wildlife are still unclear and there has been little research to assess whether, for instance, birds will be injured by such large and fast rotors. Certainly there have been some accidents but the state of knowledge at present is such that both sides can claim, both that turbines are safe, and that they are a menace. It is therefore disappointing that government wishes to introduce so many, so fast. While much of our area is within the National Park, and part is within the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, lower Wharfedale is not and will probably be under pressure from wind farm developers. Under recent changes in planning law, even these statutory designations may not be enough to protect an area from turbines.

The introduction of alien species into the countryside has brought some novel problems to conservationists. The best-known is perhaps the establishment of grey squirrels, north American animals which have edged out the native red squirrels, over the last century. Another north American animal which has had a negative effect on the existing wildlife is the mink, which has been accused of complicity in the disappearance of dormice from many areas, although the similar effect on water voles is of more relevance in Wharfedale.

The similarly north American signal crayfish is another unwanted introduction. It is larger than the native white-clawed species and out-competes it. Signal crayfish also carry crayfish plague, which is fatal to the native crayfish. The Wharfe has populations of signal crayfish and the few white-clawed remaining are at great risk.

While many of these problems in conserving our area are well-established and not easily solved, actions have been taken which will hopefully lead to a better environment for our native wildlife. The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority takes a positive attitude to conservation and has introduced the Dales Woodland Strategy and the Farm Conservation Scheme, which assists farmers to integrate their day-to-day activities with conservation measures. National agri-environment schemes, such as the Pennine Dales Environmentally Sensitive Area Scheme, which covers part of the upper dale, and Countryside Stewardship and English Nature’s Wildlife Enhancement Scheme, have a major part to play. Many of these strategies involve compensating for the grant aid for intensification with offsetting conservation grants. However a great deal can be done by education and advice, as with the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Groups.

Non-official groups can also do much to help. The Yorkshire Wildlife Trust runs reserves in the Dales, including Grass Wood at Grassington, in maintaining and improving which Wharfedale Naturalists’ have always played a large part. The Woodland Trust has acquired woodland and set up a programme to improve, extend and establish native woodlands in the Dales. The Field Studies Council runs a Centre at Malham and has done much in researching and conserving wildlife in Wharfedale. But the best defence for our local wildlife is active, knowledgeable and vocal local support – which is where Wharfedale Naturalists’ come in!