Monday, 31 December 2018

Long live Askham Bog

Me and my team objecting to the proposed development, December 2018


A dead crow floating face down in a ditch. That is my first memory of visiting Askham Bog Nature Reserve on the outskirts of York, made hazy by the passing of time. It would have been the mid 1980s, and I attended a guided walk with my Mum and Dad, led presumably by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, down a muddy, woody track along a ditch. We didn't see much, apart from the rather sad crow.

Born and brought-up in Bishopthorpe, Askham Bog was a place we occasionally visited, but not often: there wasn't much in the way of access and it wasn't clear whether we were actually allowed in! Roll forward to 1989, and we upped sticks to Woodthorpe, where my folks still live. As a young teenager, reliant on lifts for indulging my birding passion, I would often be 'grounded' through lack of transport, so I would don my boots and snake across the fields, along flailed hedgerows, spooking 'chikking' Yellowhammers as I went, trying to avoid the gaze of the angry farmer (who I never did see) into the northern side of Askham Bog. Here I found tranquility, peace and BIRDS! I rarely saw a soul in there - there was no car park, no boardwalk, no information, so very few people visited. I had it to myself, mostly. And if I ever did see somebody, I would sneak away, wraith-like, along paths I felt only I knew.

Water Violets grow in profusion along the ditches

The plants and insects for which the Bog is nationally renowned were a mystery to me in those days - my focus was on birds. Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, which have virtually disappeared from the Vale of York, could be found, and I had some of my best experiences of this tiny, charismatic bird here in the Bog. One April dawn, I discovered a male, using a broken Willow to drum, advertising his territory to would-be rivals and to woo amorous females. His crimson crown shone in the early morning sunshine. Stunning. Nearby, I found a female, creeping up a Silver Birch stem, probing the bark for bugs. Cool. Come winter-time, I would check out the damper patches of ground under thick bushes to see how many Woodcocks I could discover. At dusk these birds flew out of the wood, mainly to probe the soft ground in the fields to the north, for worms.

Another memorable sighting came in 1996. I had, by then, departed York for university, but would still visit the Bog when I returned during the holidays. On 1st November, I was back in York and had a few hours spare so retraced familiar steps into the Bog. Shortly, I bumped into a trilling, purring flock of Long-tailed Tits, a frequent sight in the Bog. As I looked through them, I suddenly heard the distinctive call of a Yellow-browed Warbler. Surely not! Back in the mid-90s, Yellow-brows were not as common an autumn migrant as they are today and there were not that many inland records in Yorkshire at all. A few tense seconds later and the stripy little bird appeared on the edge of a large Hawthorn, where I drank in its features. This was the first YBW for the York area - wow!

Life then took me away from the Bog as following a stint in Norfolk, I settled firstly into Bedfordshire and then Cambridgeshire. When I next came to visit the Bog, I could not believe the change that had taken place. A circular boardwalk had been built around Middle Wood; Near Wood had been 'opened up' with a large amount of felling and scrub clearance, and the pond where I had watched dragonflies had been dug out and extended. The Bog had had a facelift  - superb! The plants, some of which I now knew the names of, had responded by flourishing. The Bog looked amazing. Well done Yorkshire Wildlife Trust!

Middle Wood

Fast-forward a few years and I managed to land a dream job, with said same Trust, heading up their fundraising and communications team. To be working for the organisation responsible for this wonderful place and other much-loved sites like Wheldrake Ings, Flamborough Cliffs and Spurn, was a huge honour and privilege, not to mention very exciting. However, this is when I became aware of the darker side of conservation, that of the developers and others, continually trying to chip away at sites like Askham Bog, trying to destroy these incredibly diverse havens for wildlife, in the name of progress. We had to remain vigilant.

In my spare time, I took my tiny kids for a walk around that lovely boardwalk, where they could get close to wildlife and enjoy the calmness of the Bog. That calmness was beginning to dwindle as the Bog had been yet again challenged by the construction of the huge Park and Ride scheme on the rough field on the other side of the railway line. This was a place Kestrels hunted voles during the day, and Barn Owls quartered at night. All under tarmac now. When the City of York Council launched its draft local plan in 2015, we were all shocked to see the remaining open side of the Bog (land to the north) included as a vast housing allocation. This would be disastrous for the Bog. This had to be stopped! For the next few months, the Trust embarked on an intensive campaign to raise awareness of the potential impacts on the Bog if this allocation was included in the plan. We pounded the streets of Bishopthorpe, Copmanthorpe, Dringhouses and Woodthorpe, to let people know about what they could lose and what this could mean for them. The response was incredible, with thousands of people standing up with us in support of the Bog and in objection to the allocation. The Council, to their immense credit, realised their mistake, and removed the allocation from the draft plan and designated the land as Green Belt. Superb!

Towards the end of the campaign was the Trust's 70th birthday and our celebrations were made all the more memorable by Sir David Attenborough, who joined us for what turned out to be a magical experience. To our surprise he offered to come along for the full day, so we put together an agenda which would include a visit to Askham Bog, the birthplace of Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, ahead of the evening event at York University. I had the honour of accompanying Sir David for the day, and when the BBC were called away to cover the dreadful assassination of MP Jo Cox in West Yorkshire, I had to be stand-in interviewer. It was incredible to be in this unassuming little reserve with Sir David, one of the most famous people in the world. I could not have possibly imagined as a spotty teenager wondering around on my own that one day this would happen! Anyway, Sir David was very impressed with the site, one he was well aware of, and explained how the people of York had a clear duty to care for it and no development should ever be allowed, that could risk damaging it....

Prof Alastair Fitter, Sir David and me, Askham Bog, June 2016

The next chapter in the story was that the Local Plan was thrown out and we were back to the drawing board. We feared that without an approved plan, the developers may well 'have another go' and sure enough, in a rather cynical move, began lobbying the people of Woodthorpe to try and buy their support. This did not involve residents of Moor Lane who were strongly opposed to the scheme. Being selective of the recipients of your survey is a little underhand, to be honest, but that's developers. Barwoods then held fire until a few days before Christmas to try and sneak their application in under the radar. This showed that they are well aware of how unpopular their plans are and wanted to try and get things through without anybody noticing. In a recent statement by their head honcho (presumably in response to the huge backlash), they had the audacity to say that their development will actually enhance the Bog, which is unbelievably arrogant and misguided. Their plan is to build a big lake along the edge of the Bog and then install a 3.5m high wall as a barrier to prevent animals or people from the new estate accessing the land. How they think this will have no impact on the wildlife of the Bog is simply baffling.

Fortunately, my colleagues at the Trust were prepared for this and we hit the ground running as soon as we got wind of the application going in to the Council. The response from the public was incredible and within 24 hours we had logged over 1,000 objections. The Council, realising how underhand Barwoods had behaved, extended the consultation deadline to February, to give people and organisations plenty of time to respond. Good work. Ironically, it seemed that this was unnecessary as by Christmas, over 4,000 people had objected! This is over 2% of the entire population of York, although some of the objections will have come from people outside the area. This is unprecedented and surely there is no way the Council can approve this application in the face of such fierce public opposition. If you are reading this and haven't signed, please do. Visit the Trust's website and follow the link on the homepage, it only takes a minute.

Despite the huge opposition and the Council having already allocated this land as Green Belt, we can not relax until the planning decision is made. Until then, we will fight on. Even if we win this battle, this will not be the last time we will have to fight for this unique place, but then, the Trust has been fighting for this place for over 70 years and rest assured we will continue to do so for as long as it is under threat.The support of local people and visitors from across the UK has been breathtaking and humbling and shows what high regard Askham Bog is held. At the time of writing 4,330 people have objected through the Trust's website. Time to walk away Barwoods!

Let's all hope that the Council make the right decision and continue to repel these insensitive and greedy planning applications, giving Askham Bog the best chance of flourishing far into the future. It is a cathedral of nature conservation (to quote Rob Stoneman), home to a stunning range of wildlife including some rare species and some very rare assemblages of wildlife, as well as a haven for commoner species that are increasingly under threat too, as we lose more and more natural corners of York to development and agricultural improvement. If we can not protect places like Askham Bog, the very best of wildlife sites, then we have lost all hope.

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