Celebrating the Wild Side of Yorkshire’s Coast & Country: Ancient Woodland Concerns at Greno Woods and Hall Woods, Sheffield
Sheffield Wildlife Trust achieved a landmark in the recent acquisition of the Greno Woods and Hall Woods complex, and for that, they are to be heartily congratulated. However, with acquisition comes responsibility to care for remarkable and delicate resources – namely medieval woodlands – and to work effectively with local people.
Having recently inspected the sites, the work to date falls well short of what I would expect from the Trust and indeed, from a major Heritage Lottery Funded project. There are some basic issues and problems in terms of the process – which should be:
- To undertake necessary and appropriate surveys of the area – ecology, heritage / archaeology, access and others issues;
- To develop an outline Management Plan for the area with proposals for works to be undertaken and a timetable for the same;
- To consult with local residents and other stakeholders on the same, and, where possible and appropriate, to reflect concerns back into the proposal;
- To then undertake the site works with necessary monitoring and the potential to feedback and to modify if there are problems.
These are standard procedures and the surveys for example should be undertaken by appropriately qualified and experienced individuals. The works should also reflect local and national strategies and policies with regard to, in this case, nature conservation and woodlands. Importantly, it is standard practice not to begin works on site until the surveys and consultation have been done and a sound management plan, acceptable to stakeholders, has been produced. This can be a lengthy and painstaking process……..but that is conservation! It is better to take long and get it right as you only get one chance.
There have been problems already, and a major Scheduled Ancient Monument, a series of Iron Age enclosures that evidence human settlement in the area from over two thousand years ago, has been seriously damaged. I understand that English Heritage are now investigating; not an auspicious start for site conservation.
Having visited and assessed the works so far, they do not seem to be done within the framework outlined above. There seems to be no plan, little prior consultation, and zero effective site monitoring and review. Furthermore, there are serious concerns over the experience and competence of the site survey teams. Greno Woods for example, has had centuries of charcoal making as well-documented by Professor Melvyn Jones, and yet the archaeology survey failed to find a single charcoal hearth in the Wood – which suggests they are not competence to see and identify what is there. Other vulnerable features include ancient, worked trees that are not always obvious to the inexperienced surveyor. These and other features represent the footprints of human activity in the Woods over countless centuries of an eco-cultural resource; and expert can read the evidence like the pages of a book. However, once removed, the evidence is erased and illegible; the ancient woodland reduced in value has a diminished sense of lace and of local character.
THE HAIRY WOOD ANT – REGIONALLY RARE WOODLAND SPECIES – NESTS MOVED ASIDE AND SQUASHED FOR A BRIDLEWAY
In terms of the wildlife and the ecological interests, these woods reflect the long-term interactions of the natural conditions and human occupation. One species of particular interest is the Large Hairy Wood Ant (Formica lugubris), a rare and important species found in just a handful of the region’s top woodlands. The status of the ant at Greno Woods has been flagged up by Sorby Natural History Society for thirty years or more, and around Sheffield it is right at the most southerly part of its national range. This ecological indicator of ancient woods is therefore a priority species for conservation and I was shocked to hear that a number of the ancient nest sites of the ants had been flattened to make a ‘bridleway’ simply because this was the easiest way to do it. That is not conservation.
Moving to Low Hall Wood, a preliminary site walkover confirmed our worst fears. Firstly, and the good news , is that parts of the wood have a rich heritage of what appear to be very early iron-working and associated charcoal burning. Indeed, some of the charcoal hearths were clearly abandoned over four hundred years ago; which makes them some of the earliest known in the region. Sadly, the access roads for vehicles to extract planted conifers (as part of the restoration works) have cut right through the main charcoal production area and have destroyed or damaged much of the heritage. These sites were very obvious to anyone with experience of woodland heritage and archaeology and again, this indicates a lack of necessary survey and assessment.
LOW HALL WOOD: ANCIENT CHARCOAL PRODUCTION HEARTH BADLY DAMAGED BY RECENT TREE EXTRACTION WORKS
Historically these were ‘worked’ woods and the present-day operations might be considered as carrying on the tradition. However, modern management with few people but large machines completely erodes and erases what has gone before. In half an hour, you can obliterate the evidence of centuries or even millennia of human occupation; a unique and irreplaceable timeline. For the most part the ecology will recover, except for ancient worked trees, which once gone, never return. However, the unique timeline, the ancient story of the people of Grenoside in their wooded landscapes are lost forever; which is a terrible loss and very sad indeed. You may argue that we still have a wood and this still bears the scars of human usage and I liken this to taking a felt-tip pen and doodling on the Mona Lisa. You still have a painting only not as good as before!
DOODLING ON THE MONA LISA
NOT QUITE SO GOOD AS BEFORE…………………………..
Ian D. Rotherham, Writer, Broadcaster, Professor of Environmental Geography, Reader in Tourism & Environmental Change