The Wild Side of Yorkshire’s Coast & Country:
Sheffield’s Green Policies in tatters with yet more woodlands under threat
The news for the local environment is not good. It seems like not a week goes by without a reader reporting to me yet another nature conservation or heritage issue with a site or a service under threat. One of the most worrying trends is the collective, political, policy amnesia about commitments, conservation polices, and strategies made for Sheffield over recent decades.
There have been some very positive improvements in Sheffield since the dark days of the 1970s: raw sewage and detergent foam on the River Don, and woods, meadows and heaths bulldozed to oblivion. With hard work, and importantly too, a strong democratic process involving hundreds of local community groups, and thousands of ordinary people, we set down our commitments to Sheffield and to future generations – of people and of wildlife – encapsulated in strategies for nature conservation, for countryside management and access, for woodlands and trees. Yet in the brave new world in which we live, of short-term, here today, gone tomorrow double-speak, eco-babble and green-wash are the order of the day. Having lost the most experienced, knowledgeable and committed individuals in services like countryside management and in planning, commitments given over decades are not overturned just ignored or forgotten. Indeed, when I question key people and organisations about these (does anybody remember Local Agenda 21 for example?) they are not in a position to overturn these; they simply do not know they existed.
The Bowden Housteads Wood site clearly marked as a site of Scientific Interest and within a Green Corridor – but no matter, there will a green roof – so that’s OK then.
Sandra Sykes and Lee Swords both emailed me with concerns about proposals for the Green Belt ancient woodland of Bowden Housteads at Handsworth, which include a Fire Station within the ancient woodland boundary in an area designated as a local Site of Scientific Interest (ANHI) in the 1991 Sheffield Nature Conservation Strategy. The environmental impact assessment for the proposal omits this and the associated polices and commitments. Apparently, all will be well because the buildings will have a ‘green roof’! This Local Nature Reserve is a showcase site developed for local people and wildlife under the emerging South Yorkshire Community Forest in the 1990s, yet they too feel unable to comment in support of the wood. This is all madness and somebody somewhere needs to get a grip. Sandra asks ‘Do they really think they can have squatter rights in Bowden Houstead Wood when the land is dedicated to nature? I remember the majestic woodland prior to the Parkway, and my cousin and her friends used to play there. With regard to the felling of trees in Sheffield, especially at Meadowhead, it is stated that they will plant replacements. How can a sapling replace a mature tree?’ I agree wholeheartedly with these sentiments. The problem I have at the minute is which awful situation to deal with first. With City Council owning this site and therefore standing to make a lot of money from the sale of the land, as the Planning Authority, they appear to be in a position of gamekeeper turned poacher. The area under threat was disturbed by wartime opencast mining but has had sixty years to recover and is within the ancient woodland boundary. Additionally, in this area of Sheffield, with a relatively disadvantaged community, the Wood is a hugely valuable community greenspace resource. The site itself is actively used for dog walking and for other recreational activities and of course, the wildlife of the Wood benefits too.
Sheffield’s Forgotten Nature Conservation Strategy 1991 – conservation and sustainability cannot be here today, gone tomorrow….
The National Trust and the Friends of Gillfield Wood have informed me of possible threats from the new Network Rail proposals, which will seriously damage woodlands around Grindleford, and apparently at Poynton Wood in Sheffield too. I have not been to the latter site for a good few years, but my recollection was that it had some of the oldest and finest oak trees in Sheffield, and mostly located at the bottom of the slopes – near the railway line. This major Green Corridor has a range of nationally protected wildlife species too. One insidious change, which is occurring, is on the back of the current government’s desire to ‘ease’ planning controls and this seems to be a tendency for developers to bang in proposals in without first doing their homework. Local communities and local groups then have to respond. A few years ago, the expectation would be that a thorough evaluation and impact assessment would be undertaken followed by consultation with the local planning authority and local people. Now it feels that organisations believe they can get away without rigorous process.
This same cavalier approach pertains to the renewal schemes for street tree occurring across Sheffield, which indeed, in part, do have some merit. However, as explained to Amey officers and the City Council members at the public meeting on this issue, is that what people want is ‘consultation’, not ‘notification’. Councillor Jack Scott seems to think that because he is an elected member, simply running proposals past his desk for approval amounts to due democratic process. Nevertheless, local people seek to differ and they are demanding to be consulted in a way, which allows them to influence decisions and processes. Perhaps this is too democratic for today’s politicians. The older mantra of sustainable development was to ‘engage, inform, empower and enhance’. There is little of any of this is the current climate, and there is a lack of informed judgement too. If you read my blog you will see the detailed account by Professor Melvyn Jones of the ancient woodland status of Smithy Wood for example, and the in-depth reports for the Woodland Trust too. However, Councillor Jack Scott tells me that ‘I have visited Smithy Wood and been involved with the community group. It is important to remember that it is a man-made landscape consisting substantively of coal slag / run-off. This will be removed and the area returned to a more natural and sustainable woodland. I do not agree with you that it is an ancient woodland.’ Hmmmmmm!? Smithy Wood is under threat and, despite sterling efforts by Cowley Residents Action Group supported by the Woodland Trust to get it scheduled as a Village Green, things still look grim. Please get involved and support the site and the Group.
Finally, for now, I return to the issue of the blitzing of the established berry bushes, famed across Sheffield for their wintering flocks of fieldfares, blackbirds, redwings, starlings and waxwings. These berry bushes provide a superb migrant bird feeding area along the scheduled ‘Green Corridor’ of St Mary’s Gate and Hanover Way. However, once again without any meaningful consultation the area was blitzed and left derelict for over a year. Soon the corridor will be replanted at great expense, with a very bland and boring beech hedge. The reason, I am told, is that there is a danger of road-kill of the birds – especially ‘baby birds and nestlings’, which of course are not there in winter anyway. They have grown up by then! Furthermore, the proposed beech hedge will provided good nesting sites for local birds and will encourage them to this roadside killing zone. Finally, of course, I have asked for evidence of the road-kills over the last ten years or so. Surely, if this is such a death trap for birdlife, and it has been well watched by local birders, then we should be overrun with reports of this tragic slaughter. The answer so far is a resounding silence. In other words, there have been none reported; essentially this is a spurious argument with zero evidence to support it.
The St Mary’s Gate Green Corridor clearly marked
Last of all, for now, the Meadowhead Roundabout debacle continues and if you look, the trees need not have been felled at all. It is just that they wanted the space to pile the excavated materials for the road works; so more double-speak and misinformation. We need a clear vision and a move away from the bland green-wash, eco-twaddle that is currently being dished out. A little more honesty would help too.
Ian D. Rotherham, Writer, Broadcaster, Professor of Environmental Geography, Reader in Tourism & Environmental Change