Latest news from Tom Burditt
One fine May morning
21:27 25 May 2013
By Tom BurdittToday was a beautiful Saturday morning in May, the kind from a song: warm and sunny, blue skies, birdsong and apple blossom.At 9 o’clock though I get a phonecall from Martin our tenant farmer in Silverdale to say that it looks like last night someone had been along the footpath across the Lots and smashed up all the gates. As a result, the fields are no longer stockproof, so the sheep that are in there grazing could get out at any moment. Martin is going down to move the sheep to a more secure location, but I pop down too with my family to take a look at what has gone on.It is a bemusing contrast – an idyllic and sleepy scene with the carpets of Green-winged orchids set against a Bay and Sky of endless blue......and the pointless brutality of the gates. I had expected to see them broken, but in fact they are simply completely missing – the hinges from which they have been wrenched hanging empty and sad. I can’t begin to fathom why – they aren’t dumped in a corner somewhere nearby; I look for signs of a campfire on which they might have provided fuel but can’t see anythinig (it is Bank Holiday weekend after all, and this area is a very popular camping destination, both licit and illicit). So someone has used a huge amount of force to remove them, and then taken them with them. It seems more than the high spirits of A Level students.Grazing animals are completely essential to maintaining our landscapes and wildlife; and it takes careful thought, timing and stocking (and deep care for the animals themselves) on the part of the farmer to get it just right. Here on the Lots early spring grazing ensures that the orchids don’t get swamped out by long grasses or invading trees and scrub. Most of our wildflowers survive on soils where there are very few nutrients (nutrients just favour the growth of coarser things like nettles, thistles and tough grasses) – and grazing also ensures that what nutriment the soil does contain goes into fattening lambs as they grow rather than staying on site.The real custodians of the countryside, on The LotsBut the animals do need to be allowed to get on and do their job without disturbance...and even in a sleepy place like little Silverdale they are often not left in peace. People wrenching off gates on a drunken night out is one end of the scale...in most cases problems and stressed farm animals are caused by visitors' thoughtlessness or just not understanding the impacts of actions: leaving gates open can have a big effect if it means the sheep end up on the High Street, or going over a cliff. Uncollected dog poo can cause pregnant ewes or heifers to miscarry. Many a family pet can turn wolf when faced with something to chase and no lead to hold them back with often catastrophic effects on young livestock...Having said that, we do also suffer occasional bouts of sheer devilment: signs and fingerposts get pulled down, padlocks glued up; and on one occasion a whole flock of sheep appeared to have been moved by someone through a locked gate, just for the ‘fun’ of it. How and why they did it completely beats us. (Sometimes there can be unexpected explanations: last year we got quite upset that someone was stealing the plastic markers off our new orienteering course at Sizergh, only for mobile phone footage to be sent in by a visitor showing the cows levering them off with their tongues and swallowing them down whole).We’re trying to use signs to help our visitors to know when livestock are around; and to ask them (you) to behave courteously and sympathetically when they are. The animals are doing their best to keep our special places looking at their very best...treating them with a bit of respect seems a small price to pay for such beautiful scenery.
Springing to life
14:10 04 March 2013
By Tom BurdittSo long now I’ve been outIn the rain and snowBut winter’s come and goneA little bird told me so.Gillian Welch, from “Winter’s come and gone”Hawfinch at Sizergh (c) John Hannah 2012 and used with permissionWhen is it that you first notice that spring is here? The first primrose in the woods perhaps, the first celandine in the hedge, first snowdrop in the garden? Frogspawn, newly emerged butterflies, hazel catkins? There’s so many to choose from, but we each of us have those little signs of nature that make us realise that the turning of the earth is slowly bringing another winter to an end.For me it is hearing the birds singing again that helps to make my sap rise and brings with it that unmistakeable deepdown feeling of excitement that, at last, another spring has come.Mistle thrush at Sizergh, (c) John Hannah, 2012 and used with permissionIt starts not long after Christmas: as the mornings very slowly start to lighten it is the seesaw “teacher-teacher” of the great tits that I notice first, coming back into my life by singing around the time when I wake up. Then they are everywhere – in Eaves Wood, in the trees around our office at Bank House Farm in Silverdale. The songthrush is next, a proud songster noticed first from next door’s conifer in the lengthening afternoons, right up until dark falls...and almost before I am aware of it that song seems to pour down from above wherever I go. Now by the start of the March the soundtrack to my mornings, the backdrop to my whole life, is an orchestra of different voices: the squeaky trill of the dunnock, the woodland peeping of the nuthatches, the sad repetitions of the mistle thrush from the ash tree at the end of the lane. Each of them coming back into my days like a long lost friend: don’t worry, we’re here again “Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s / Still waking refreshed, our summer’s / Still all to come” (as the poet Ted Hughes wrote of his Swifts).Now I can see that my life will have a new character in this spring drama, which is the hawfinch. I was aware of them last year too but towards the end of February this year I have been working often out of our Sizergh office, and the feverish excitement of the return of the hawfinches is infectious: every time the office phone rings, it seems, there is another expectant bird-watcher asking if they are back yet, how many, how often? Arriving at Sizergh in the mornings to start work there are already parked cars with telephoto lenses sneaking out of the gaps above frosted windows; knots of cameras, binoculars and ‘scopes on the cafe verandah.Watching Sizergh's hawfinches, March 2013The hawfinches come to Sizergh’s car park in spring every year to feed up on the seeds scattered earthwards from our many hornbeam trees – a quirk of geography that makes this a superblocation to watch and photograph them in the quiet times before the human life of Sizergh awakens each day. Every Friday and Saturday morning through March (and some other days too) our Sizergh ranger Rob is there on the verandah helping the many birdwatchers to get the most of their experience.I joined him on both Friday and Saturday last week...and though Friday’s single hawfinch was exciting in its way, Saturday brought quite a crowd; of the beautiful and characterful stocky, pink orange, black and white finches as well as about 50 people coming to see them. To hear Rob exclaim suddenly “There’s one! Can you hear that chinking noise like a coke can opening? There it goes, into the tree there” is to experience a sudden thrill bubbling up inside you. To watch them, Professor Yaffle like, descending branch by branch to the ground is tremendous. But to see them staring at you, grinding their powerful beaks from side to side as they comically chew on a seed is very endearing indeed: they seem to have personality: a strange, quirky look that makes you feel like you’re face-to-face with another individual rather than simply with a bird.They are vividly alive.Sometimes the excitement of Spring is irresistible...Female hawfinch at Sizergh (c) Phil Evans 2012 and used with permissionSizergh’s hawfinch watches with Rob run every Friday and Saturday from 8am to 10am, with the cafe open for hot drinks and bacon sandwiches from 9am.Or follow this link for some of Rob’s top tips:http://www.ntlakesoutdoors.org.uk/things-to-do/hawfinch-spottingMale hawfinch at Sizergh (c) Phil Evans 2012 and used with permission
A Mermaid's Purse
12:13 03 February 2013
By Tom BurdittMy wife Nancy and I, and the kids, are walking along the strandline just after the turning of the tide.
The wind is driving in from the South-west, meaning that it funnels right up Morecambe Bay – it has had nothing to stop it since the Isle of Man and it seems to take great pleasure in making our eyes water and whipping up the shallow muddy sea into proper waves worthy of a rocky Atlantic shore. Even though this is tame little Silverdale with its neat little fields, and smart houses, its tiny rocky coves and its acres of salty mud.
(Last Wednesday, driving from Arnside Knott to Sizergh the storm had surged right up the Kent Estuary, flooding the road and slopping the waves right over the car windscreen).
After the snows the weather has well and truly turned again; and when it’s like this the best chance of wildlife is down on the shore. The rising tide pushes the winter waders right close to the land, and onto the little rocky outcrops. Hundreds of birds huddle together so close that you can see not just the red of the redshanks’ legs and the shelducks’ knobbly beaks but the red rims around the oystercatchers’ eyes. Feathers flutter. The birds in the green fields back of the beach, nibbled into lawns by winter sheep, are curlews.
The storm winds also have a habit of dredging up interesting treasures from the sea, and the stinking litter-strewn mess of seaweed, flotsam, driftwood and seagull carcase that makes up the strandline is the best place to look. My wife is 10 times more observant than I and stoops to pick up something that’s caught her eye.It is dark green, almost black, the size of a large and particularly disgusting-looking pillow of ravioli, pointy at the ends and rough textured. A Mermaid’s Purse I say, though I’m only partly sure and it could easily be a piece of dried bladderwrack, tattered by the waves and with its bladder burst.Walking back along the beach, following the tide out so that we just make it round the headlands and back via Silverdale Cove to Silverdale Shore, we hope to find some sea potatoes (sea urchin shells) but other than bright purple mussel shells and a £5 note the maybe Mermaids Purse still remains the highlight as we head through the village back home.The Shark Trust, the UK charity dedicated to shark conservation, are running the Great Eggcase Hunt at the moment and looking at their website http://www.sharktrust.org/en/great_eggcase_huntit soon becomes clear that our find is indeed a Mermaids Purse. I had never really heard of them as coming from anything other than from dogfish, but following the Shark Trust’s brilliant instructions and keys, and a good soak in a basin of water to bring the eggcase back to its true size and shape, it becomes clear that our case was once home to a baby Thornback Ray.When grown up these are truly spectacular fish – with wondrous markings: gold, silvers and browns in intricate camouflauging patterns of blotches, swirls, rivulets and sandy speckles not unlike the low tidal creeks of Morecambe Bay itself. They have a wingspan up to a metre wide, and can grow to 1.3 metres long, with a row of up to 50 sharp-thorn like spines sunning down the length of spine and tail. Over 44 rows of teeth grace the eerily smiling mouth which hoovers up the shrimps, crabs, sandeels and bottom dwelling fish that are their prey.
Despite being Britain's commonest Ray, they are still described by the IUCN as "near threatened". They live all round our coastline, but especially in shallow muddy or sandy coastal waters, coming close inshore to spawn. It is likely that our eggcase was laid on the sands somewhere out there on the Bay’s sea-bed last summer; that the ray grew in there through the autumn and hatched out as a 12 cm long (but see-through) baby around Christmas-time.
The kids are wide-eyed; and so are we. Out there in the Bay it’s not just the waders and the cockles; the flukes and plaice. Out there is a whole world of wildlife that we can’t see, and can only just start to imagine.
Out there, there be monsters.
For more information on the Silverdale shoreline and how to get there, go to:
New Year's Day: Walking off the winter blues
21:15 01 January 2013
By Tom BurdittView of Morecambe Bay from NT The Lots, SilverdaleOver the Christmas period, even Rangers need to batten down the hatches and spend some time indoors, especially given this awful weather – the howling winds, driving rains and leaden skies.But it’s not long before the yearning to be out takes over again...the need for fresh air, to open up lungs and get the skin tingling, the widen open spaces to lift the soul. Being inside and inactive for too long just makes me feel gloomy. But where to go? With young kids the Fells and Dales are too wild in this wet; and most of the paths round here that go over fields have turned into mud that is not much fun once the novelty has worn off.So over Christmas, I’ve become just one of the many visitors to the National Trust’s land in Arnside and Silverdale. It’s not just that they’re close to home, or familiar: the rugged limestones around here are so close to the surface that they do make the walking better than in most places after all this rain. You can also get those wide and expansive views at much lower altitudes than elsewhere in either of our nearby National Parks: Arnside Knott, the Eaves Wood Pepperpot, Holme Park Fell or even Gait Barrows National Nature Reserve. Better for when there’s rain around that can sneak up at any time, and when the continuous wind on higher up fells makes your ears ache and everything a real struggle.Perhaps the best thing about exploring Morecambe Bay though is that those views out westwards, out over the glistening mud as wave upon wave of squally showers sting your face between bursts of brown sunlight (shine a torch through a glass full of milky coffee and you get a similar effect)...those hopeful, inspiring views out over all that space are the perfect thing to take you out of yourself, to lift the winter melancholy, lethargy, and sloth. And you don’t even need to trudge through miles of muddy paths, or have to cling to the side of a mountain to get to them.The easiest places to get to the views are at Silverdale:The Coveand Lotshttp://www.ntlakesoutdoors.org.uk/things-to-do/picnic-at-a-smuggler-s-coveand Jack Scouthttp://www.ntlakesoutdoors.org.uk/things-to-do/watch-the-sunset-from-jack-scoutOr at Silverdale Shore (not National Trust; signposted from Silverdale village) you don’t even need to leave sight of your car!So come on out: the fire, warmth and food of home are so much better when you get back to them after a bit of soaking and a chill.Caught out in a sudden rain shower on The LotsHappy New Year!
November 2012 – Journey into a forgotten world
20:32 25 November 2012
By Tom Burditt
It is the start of November, it is getting dark, and I am freezing cold. I am standing on top of a landmark that for millions of people every year marks the place where they turn off the motorway for the start of their Lake District visit. It is a place that millions of people every year drive within half a mile of. It is a spectacular, unique place with spectacular wildlife and even more spectacular views. Yet of those millions of visitors maybe 1 percent will know its name; and maybe 1-thousandth will have been here. It is Farleton Knott – a hidden world that is well worth a visit.
Farleton Knott (the part owned by the National Trust is also called Holme Park Fell) is managed as part of the Trust's Arnside & Silverdale property, but actually it is 4 miles further East, just off Junction 36 of the M6. It is linked to Arnside & silverdale by having the same ranger team and by being grazed by the same tenant farmer as part of the Bank house Farm tenancy; and by being made of the same Carboniferous limestone. But it is a very different place altogether.
Today I have come here with Ross, our new Trainee Ranger, as part of a visit to sister site Clawthorpe Fell National Nature Reserve. Sitting on top of a pillar of rock in the middle of Holme Park limestone quarry immediately next door to the National Trust land, Clawthorpe Fell is a place with no human access save the occasional visit by Natural England’s reserve manager Rob (who is our guide for the afternoon). Even with Rob there, we need escorting along terrifying quarry roads made of loose shale, weaving between quarry dumpers bigger than a house, an induction by the Quarry managers, helmets and fluorescent jackets, and flashing lights.
Very slowly the quarrymen, their dumpers and diggers are using the quarry waste shale stones to join the lost world of Clawthorpe Fell back up with Farleton Knott/ Holme Park Fell with a land bridge. So perhaps one day you’ll be able to go and experience it for yourself. Until then, though, don’t worry: you can get to Holme Park Fell at any time, and it is well worth it. You’ll be alone with over a square kilometre of 350 million year old rock for company as the throngs rush past on the unheard motorway hundreds of metres below you. It’s quite a feeling.
Holme Park Fell is not the easiest place to get to! Try parking opposite Holme Park Farm on the A6070, 2 miles south of the A65 at M6 junction 36, towards Burton and Holme at grid ref SD530795. From there you can either walk or mountain bike up the bridleway. Alternatively, follow the Limestone Link by bike or on foot from the Clawthorpe to Hutton Roof road at SD552788.
On the radio
21:10 28 May 2012
By Tom BurdittToday was a beautiful sunny early summer's day in Silverdale - Morecambe Bay a sparkly silver blue, brimstone butterflies floating past on my way to work...but instead of getting out there into nature I headed down to the BBC Radio Lancashire studios in the centre of Blackburn to take part in the Sally Naden show. A two hour show with the presenter and 3 guests. A fire safety officer from Leyland who has just come back from training firemen in Zimbabwe, an American folk singer from Cornwall and...uh...a Ranger from Silverdale talking about the National Trust rebranding and develpoing its countryside staff from wardens to rangers, and also the "50 things to do before you're 11 and 3/4 campaign". To find out how it went, go to the BBC Iplayer for the Sally Naden show on Monday 28th May follow the following link... http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00sg4r9
Up into the Snow
21:51 30 January 2012
By Tom BurdittOn Saturday my family and I had one of our best experiences in Lakeland since we moved up here last April: Stickle Tarn in the snow, on a gloriously sunny day. What a privilege…
One of the joys of being a lead ranger up here in Cumbria is the opportunity to occasionally get out of my own patch of South/East Cumbria and Morecambe Bay and head to the middle of the Lake District to meet up with the other lead rangers. Historically, the National Trust managed our vast Lake District estate as a succession of fairly independent properties - each valley or historic house having relatively little to do with each other. Now we come together to make sure that there is a bit more consistency in the way we look, the kinds of activities we get up to, our approach to environmental issues like water quality or relationships with farm tenants, and also we come together on joint projects.
The Ranger Experiences are one such joint initiative (perhaps you have even come to this blog from the website where they are hosted www.ntlakesoutdoors.org.uk ): the idea being that we have a space where we can share with our visitors our local knowledge of what’s special about the places that we live in, work in, and manage. It might be a great place for a picnic or for watching a sunset, a place to go swimming or bouldering, for watching birds or butterflies, seeing leaping salmon or hearing natterjacks.
As a newcomer to these parts, it is exactly the sort of information that we as a family have needed to help us to get to know this incredible part of the world. And more or less every time I meet up with one or more of my lead ranger colleagues, I come away with some great tips. Last Friday it was James Archer, lead ranger for Grasmere and Langdale, who recommended the National Trust’s Stickle Gill car park as a way of getting right up into the middle of the fells without having to drive on the treacherously icy roads that we had encountered the week before near Coniston. It might be well-known to thousands of people, but it wasn’t to us.
We woke up on Saturday morning in our Arnside flat and out of the window there was a ribbon of snow-capped mountains glowing at us, calling to us, from over the fuzzy green and terracotta of Cartmel Fell on the other side of the Kent estuary. The kids, too, were desperate to get up into the snow.
The path up from the Stickle Gill car park didn’t feel like walking at all - to the kids it was a mountaineering adventure, heading for the snows up amongst the Langdale Pikes alongside tumbling waterfalls and ice-blue pools right for summer bathing. Wainwright describes, in typical style, the path as “that steep ladder to heaven [that] stirs the imagination, and even the emotions, and this is especially so whenever the towering peaks come into view suddenly and unexpectedly…the east bank path has a special attraction almost unique on Lakeland paths - a rock stairway requiring continuous hand and foot climbing.”
Writing in 1958, Wainwright also describes the path the severe erosion that had been inflicted by walkers, reducing them to “rivers of scree”. That the paths we experienced are once again a steep ladder to heaven is something for which we must be thankful to the National Trust rangers. For years, rangers working for the Trust’s “Fix the Fells” project, a partnership with the National Park authority expertly led by John Atkinson (now NT lead ranger for South Lakes) has been repairing routes like this. The rangers have been painstakingly building bridges and diverting paths, allowing natural vegetation to regrow, re-positioning the tough volcanic rocks into a surface that can withstand the experience-seekers like us but which blends seamlessly with the mountain itself. Andy Goldsworthy would be proud.
And then, just as my 6 year old (Roddy) and 3-and-a-half year old (Flora) were flagging and the path started getting slippery with rimy ice, the most awe-inspiring view exploded on us from around a cliff. Behind us was the soft, almost springy greenness of Langdale flowing down to sparkling Windermere, and a couple of crag-bound Herdwicks. Ahead an alpine playground of glittering snow, and the black and white enormity of Pavey Ark and Harrison Stickle towering over us from across the surface of Stickle Tarn.
The kids, for a split second, stood like proud mountaineers and took in their achievements at reaching the 480m contour, and then started hurling snow balls at each other and sliding on their tummies over the hillocks - a pair of otters in waterproof trousers. My wife Nancy and I just kept on staring.
Oh to be in Cumbria, now that January’s here! Thank you James for sharing it with me, and thank you John for getting us there. Two sides of the same ranger coin.
The Many Moods of Morecambe Bay
21:21 18 August 2011
By Tom Burditt
Being a Ranger attached to the Trust’s Morecambe Bay properties is something of a misnomer if you think about it. There are a few locations where we own out as far as Mean High Water (Heysham, Jack Scout and Silverdale Cove, Plumpton) but you don’t manage Morecambe Bay (or “range” it I suppose), or own it, or do anything with it. It isn’t property in any normal sense of the word. It is another place altogether: a true wilderness ultimately beyond the management control of man, and long may that continue.
And vast, it is vast. When the tide goes out it disappears beyond the horizon exposing an extra 100 square miles of not-quite land.
Working and living in sight of Morecambe Bay you see it many different moods.
The most dramatic and extraordinary was surely at Christmas, when a sea of tortured, mangled pack ice came down from the Lake District fells and littered the sands. Our stately Victorian promenades became for a while the decks of a cruise ship looking out over Antarctic wastes.
But in its way last week was just as dramatic too. For a single Wednesday the force of the westerly gales drove the sea towards the land and was strong enough, it seemed, to prevent the tide from going out. The white horses of the waves rolled in and crashed against our rocky coasts. It felt like proper sea, the Atlantic. Usually we only get that feeling of proper sea on the spring high tides when the saltmarsh strips submerge and the sea-sick smell of mouldy salt and vinegar crisps fills your nose, and your daydreams.
The more usual view is of something hovering between land, sea and sky - a flatness of mud and creek that seems too treacherous and insubstantial to either walk on or sail on - emptiness with just the occasional small gaggle of wading birds or black-headed gulls.
But step out on to it (preferably on a Cross Bay Walk if you want to stay safe!) and like a test of faith it doesn’t collapse beneath you but is surprisingly firm and land-like. (On Morecambe Bay you are more likely to see a fisherman’s tractor than a boat). Step out on to it bare-foot and you are rewarded with a range of textures. Out there are hard flat sands (and not just at Sandside, where they bake into a golden beach when the high tides are low and the sun is hot); grey sandy rivulets that press painfully into your arches and where you can leave footprints; powdery silts and sloppy brown muds that ooze between your toes but supports you, ankle deep; soft mud-flats pock-marked with warm, calf-deep basins; rivers hundreds of metres across but only thigh-high where those with the know-how tread for flooks (flounders), pull them out by the gills and strap them to their belts like rabbit pelts. And the infamous quicksands too. Many are air-pockets trapped by collapsing creek banks, wet bubbles beneath dry crusts, ready to trap the unwary. But if you stand in one place for too long and work the mud beneath your feet you can slowly feel the ground loosening, stickily.
And if you do stay in one place for too long, beware! In many places - like Jack Scout where I was today - the sands are so flat that you can watch the tide creeping in at walking pace; turn round and by the time you have it may have already surrounded you.
I love the rushing of the incoming tides. On one of my first weeks living and working here I was lucky to drive along the Sandside road just as the Kent ‘bore’ wave was racing and smacking against the salt-marsh where the estuary turns north towards Sizergh and narrows abruptly: a river flowing the wrong way. But a normal in-tide is even more fascinating. Rivers like the Kent, Keer and Leven flow seawards with their big ripples but either side the wider streams of the muddy tide flow in; rivers of water flowing in different directions. On a windy day or a stronger tide the two opposing currents collide and swirl into great eddies, the silts suspended like dirty paint twirling in a water-jar after a paint-brush has been cleaned in it.
Walk in august along the edges of Morecambe Bay and all you’ll see are the scruffy mauve of the sea asters (the last forgotten flowers left in the florist) but back in June for a glorious fortnight we look out on our own equivalent of a desert bloom, a surprising explosion of sea pink (or thrift), all a-buzz with the excitement of insect life and the coming of summer.
My favourite time of all though is the last few minutes of twilight, before the colours go for another day. On a still evening the mackerel skies overhead are nothing compared to the patterns out on the bay. Dark purple bands of dry sand streak with wet silver; the crests of the dark purple wavelets in the creeks capture pockets of silver and gold. The water pools trapped in the muddy riffles as the tide retreats also reflect the last of the daylight; they are light-pools trapped amongst the darkening sands as the day, too, ebbs away.
Then these eyes in the sand seem to slowly shut, their light fades away, and we are left with the last goodnight peeping of the oystercatchers and the bats swooping out of the trees taking insects off the tide-line.
East of Eden
19:24 18 July 2011
By Tom Burditt
Our patch of "South and East Cumbria and Morecambe Bay" stretches into some surprising areas, and none more so than Longcrag Farm at North Stainmore, just a couple of miles from the boundary with county Durham.
It is a place with no visitor access, so as I arrived in my car up the long steep stone track off of a dead end country lane, I felt incredibly privileged as well as (if I'm honest) a little like James Herriott on one of his visits. The farm's setting is truly breath-taking. There is a plunging beck by the side, and behind it the ground rises steadily up to the large 'allotment' - a field surrounded by rugged walls and old fences that is essentially no different to the miles of unchanging blanket bog that stretch out to the horizons on the upland commons beyond.
To the right the view is blocked by a stone wall of millstone grit, running along the crag itself that gives the farm its name. It is only the flashes of lighter grey sky between the dark rough stones that show that crag and wall aren't one and the same.
But turn round and look to the south and west and the view is vast. Can there be a bigger view in the whole of England? The wide Eden Valley with ridge after ridge of pennine hills rolling away to the south in a rising limestone sea towards the grittier peaks of Whernside and Pen-y-Ghent. The A66, the little town pockets of Kirkby Stephen and Brough, the old railways, the barns. Westwards the dramatic terraced scarp-line of the North Pennines with its conical peaks and scars, names as terrifying as their appearance. Cross Fell, Cauldron Snout, Wild Boar Scar (not to mention Hell Gill, Black Fell and Hangingstone Scar opposite).
I am here with some of the members of the National Trust's biological survey team, all the way from headquarters near Swindon, a world away. Gordon is mapping the vegetation, Peter is surveying for invertebrates with his large net, and our own John Hooson is identifying everything he sees.
Although I am feeling slightly out of my depth alongside all this expertise, even I can appreciate the bird life on display. Impressive doesn't do it justice - for such a small farm the birds are staggering. Spring comes late up here, with snows often lying into May or even June and today in mid-July it is clear that breeding season is still in full swing - chicks unfledged, adults still displaying. Lapwing - I count over 20 - continuously call and peewit overhead. 2 curlews are constantly on the wing. One repeatedly traces the outline of a square over our heads, nervously staking out the territory in which we stand and in which, somewhere, there must surely be chicks. Suddenly it swoops off in a dummy flight, drawing our attention away...Two red grouse, perhaps seeking sanctuary from the surrounding moorland where the shoots are now only a few weeks away, fly massively across our path. Grey partridge scuttle through the rushy corners and along wall bottoms and once I come across a tiny speckled partridge chick, almost perfectly camouflauged.
John tells me he has seen the daddy of them all: black grouse! but I miss them. I'm too sidetracked by the view, the wheatears flitting busily between the walls, the skylarks overhead, fragmentary snatches of the sounds of drumming snipe which are just as quickly snatched back by the wind.
Wild though this lovely place may seem, it is certainly no wilderness. Walls have been painstakingly built and loving restored. Livelihoods have been eked out of the boggy, wildflower-rich turf. The current tenant tells me philosophically of having been cut off for 6 weeks last winter, but also of her passionate love of rare-breed horses and of her success at breeding one of the rarest of them all: the Cleveland Bay. Only 11 filly foals in the world last year, but 4 born here. The ones I see are curious but aloof, with both the hardness and softness of the summer hills within them.
Back near the house is a huge hole; in fact at some 20 metres across and 20 metres deep it would easily contain the house, and its outbuildings too. It is carpetted with northern marsh orchids of a purple colour so rich that your eyes actually struggle to focus on them; they seem to float and shimmer rather than grow.
There are globeflowers, water avens, devils-bit scabious. As we say our goodbyes, we ask the tenant about the hole. "Oh that", she says. "That fell in one night 20 years ago, made a hell of a racket. It was an old mine that caved in - they're all over these hills. Lead mines, barytes mines".
Everywhere around us here the wild and the people are mingled. Voices that are snatched away by the wind call the horses home. Or was that just the curlews crying?
June 2011: On Police Patrol at Heysham Head
21:16 09 June 2011
By Tom Burditt
Friday evening of the 3rd June finds me at our site at Heysham Head, known to most people locally as ‘The Barrows’, the most southerly location on our patch. It is a beautiful evening – still too hot even at 8.30pm for the NT-branded red ranger fleece I am wearing – with the sun slowly setting far out over the Irish Sea, and with the Lake District peaks hanging smokily over the huge and deserted brown sands of a low-tide Morecambe Bay. The backdrop gives the place a real blast of the wild and the wind-swept, perhaps surprisingly so given that The Barrows are completely ringed on the landward side by a loop of neat houses that ends with the distinctive outline of the Heysham Power station at the southern end.
I am here to participate in a joint police patrol in order to conserve the site’s population of linnets; in fact as it turns out I also joined up with a fire patrol too, so it was quite an evening. Police and Fire crews to support linnets? It might seem like overkill, so I had better explain...
“We’re lucky to have this here” says Linda, one of the Police Community Support Officers, and on the evening I am here the Heysham Barrows are certainly living up to their role as a vital green lung for the people of Morecambe and Heysham There are quite a few dog-walkers, a group of lads playing with an aerobie, a couple of families having picnic teas and another one paddling in the muddy shallows with nets and buckets, some young mothers meeting up together with their toddlers, a courting couple, a few individuals sitting quietly enjoying their own private sunsets, and a group of teenagers swigging from a couple of enormous plastic cider bottles (more of whom later).
And down at the far end, flitting joyously between the gorse bushes and twittering roughly like a flock of wild canaries on cheap cider themselves, are the linnets. They’re a small finch with an uneven mixture of chestnut brown, black and grey markings that make them look a bit like a small sparrow or a dunnock, except with much longer tail and wings. It is the males that really stand out though, with pinky-red breasts and foreheads that are almost glowing this evening where they catch the last firey rays of the sun. Of course there are other birds too, an evening chorus of songthrushes and blackbirds; a single whitethroat scratching away from the top of a bramble patch.
Linnets were once a bird common throughout British farmland, but like many species they suffered an enormous and worrying decline throughout the 1960s and 1970s that continues to this day, so that they are now described as “red-listed” in this country by conservation bodies. They have been pushed out to more marginal areas, with coastal sites such as Heysham now being their most preferred habitat, with gorse a particular favourite.
And this gorse brings me back to the police and fire patrols. Over the unusually hot and dry Easter holiday period earlier this year,the Fire Service were called out 5 times to put out gorse fires on the Barrows, half the total from the whole of last year. Although some might have been accidental given the dry conditions, we think most were deliberately started. Walking round tonight, with green shoots just visible from the large areas of charred gorse stems and with the last of the bluebells curiously unaffected underneath them, it doesn’t look like any permanent harm will have been done, but to the linnets these fires are catastrophic, and the risk of the fires spreading to the nearby houses is very high indeed.
The joint patrols are something that the National Trust, the police, members of the local community and the fire service have all identified as a way of reducing the threat of the fires; and also the teenage drinking that might be the underlying cause. The patrols, in what has now been designated a “no alcolhol zone”, are about warding off incidents before they occur, but also about simply showing that the place is cared for, and that it needs looking after. We have highlighted a special need for them when nice weather and school holidays combine, as they have done this evening...
In fact it is such a likely evening for “trouble” that although it is the police that I have agreed to meet, it is three members of the local Fire Service who turn up first, in a big shiny fire engine, on a chance visit to see who is around. The fire officers approach is relaxed and friendly and very human, first speaking to a barbecuing couple about safe disposal, and then tackling the cider-swilling teenagers in the woods. Once the kids realise it is “only the firemen” the few who scarpered behind a rock come back, and the remainder remove their bottles from under their jumpers. It is a strangely innocent and comical scene, but also rather sad. But the firemen exchange banter with them, pointing out that they should take their litter home with them as “some idiots can try and use it to light fires”. It is an approach that tries and reach out to the kids’ fundamental goodness, to try and use them as a way of passing on a message to the real trouble-makers, the actual fire-starters.
The Police Community Support Officers approach, when they arrive, is more no nonsense, although to be honest with their luminous yellow jackets, most of the kids have fled back into town at the sight of them. Those few that remain, to groans and protests, have their alcohol poured out in front of them, and are then moved on. It is curiously simple and quick, and despite the first name terms there is an undoubted respect on the part of the kids towards the police.
The drinkers gone, and the night reassuringly quieter than expected, we are just having a chat amongst the lengthening shadows of St Patrick’s Church when a larger and more intimidating group of older teenagers – 16 to 18 – walk up the narrow lane to the Barrows with some crates of beer. “Hey!” shout the police officers, and there is a brief chase as the boys run off onto the beach and follow the sea wall back towards Morecambe. Police colleagues away in that direction are radioed through to, and the Community Support Officers are off. Their night is really only just beginning, whereas mine has now finished.
On Monday, at the “Police and Communities Together” meeting at the Heysham Community Centre I learn that not only were there no fires over the half term weekends, but that the total number of recorded incidents on the Barrows fell from 22 in April to only 9 in May....